Part 1: HR business partnering - Ulrich 20 years on

Written by
Professor Nick Holley

22 Jan 2016

22 Jan 2016 • by Professor Nick Holley

How much has Ulrich's model changed?

Difficult to believe but now, in 2016 it’s 20 years since Dave Ulrich published Human Resource Champions. There is no question that this was a key contribution to taking the function forward and his three-legged model has been adopted worldwide. This series of three articles is not trying to pick it to pieces or reinvent it but to share some of the learning from our research and experience of how to implement it more effectively. Like so many apparently simple models we believe the model is sound but that understanding the complexities that lie behind it, and implementing it in a way that is relevant to each organisation specific context, are the real challenges.  

In adopting an organisational model for HR the danger is that we believe there is a one size fits all approach. We look for one model that meets all needs, or look at external best practice in admired companies to decide what model to apply. The problem is that every organisation faces a unique set of challenges in terms of scale, culture, maturity, strategy, market, sector, geography, customer needs etc. Each organisation needs to look at its own context and develop a model that meets its own different challenges.

The drive to look at how HR is organised has in many cases been positive but it has often been a defensive reaction to pressures both from within organisations and from external criticism (see the recent article in HBR ‘It’s time to blow up HR and build something new’ as an example).  Such a defensive reaction rarely produces an effective response as it tends to focus on cost and efficiency rather than looking at overall effectiveness, especially how HR needs to be organised to meet the changing needs of the specific organisation and the environment in which it operates.

The core of this responsiveness to the organisational context is the HR Business Partner who’s role is to work closely with the business to translate organisational needs into HR action. It’s the knot in the bow tie, systemically connecting the various elements of HR with the complexity of the business and is pivotal in ensuring the whole model functions effectively. Research by the Corporate Executive Board in 2009 showed that regardless of the model, the HRBP role has the greatest impact on HR effectiveness. 

In two recent articles under the common theme of ‘you can’t put in what god left out’ I highlighted the problems with the model. I’d encourage you to read these as context but in this article I want to focus on the so what – ‘so what can we do to make it work more effectively?’

What could we do better?

 Provide real clarity of expectations of what the HRBP role actually is – the key is to demystify it. Too often organisations simply rename their HR managers HR Business Partners without explaining to them or to the rest of the business what that actually means. It also means explaining what it’s not or line managers will often see them as ‘gofors’.

• This has big implications for who can do it and who can't. We need to be far more rigorous in assessing the intellectual capability and critical attitudes that they will need to succeed in the role. This means being clear when recruiting what you are looking for: 

•    do they talk about HR or the business?
•    have they dealt with tough executives?
•    can they engage the line?
•    can they connect to colleagues? 
•    can they garner resources in a matrix? 
•    do they think systemically?

With your existing people it also means not just assessing if they can do it but also do they have the personal resilience and do they really want to do it.

•    The role implies rising above the tactical to “maintain their view of the landscape”, from people to organisational.  This means they must have confidence in transactional HR and I will come back to this in the third article but it is critical to fix BAU before focusing on strategy.

•    In our research we found what differentiates great HR Business Partners are their core values and behaviours so you need to be clear what they are, hold them accountable for them, spending time with them, setting an example, giving feedback, coaching; it never ends!

•    Connected to the business, focused on the biggest commercial challenges
•    Having the courage to challenge as a true partner not a servant
•    Proactive based on data analysis and judgement
•    Taking risks, embracing contradictions and driving innovation and change
•    Keeping it simple, fit for purpose
•    Taking accountability, one HR
•    Focusing on fewer things that have 

Finally this might sound strange in an article entitled HR Business Partnering but I personally wouldn't call them HR Business Partners. Partner implies you aren't part of the business and this is the key. We shouldn't feel we are HR professionals but business people who work in and are proud of our HR background but who contribute more broadly to the success of the organisation and whose loyalty is to the organisation and it’s key stakeholders, whether they be shareholders, taxpayers, patients, customers or whoever, not to HR.