Broadly put, an HR Business Partner (HRBP) works to deliver the organisation’s strategy through people actions. HR Business Partnering is best thought of as an overall approach, focused on delivering value and helping the business achieve its strategy, rather than a specific job description or a list of responsibilities. Or, in the words of one HR Director CRF spoke to as part of recent research into the future of HR Business Partnering, HRBPs work to ‘change and drive businesses forward.’
The original Business Partner model can be traced back to Dave Ulrich’s seminal book, Human Resource Champions, published in 1997. In Ulrich’s classic model, Business Partners represent one leg of a three-legged structure, the others being a shared service centre for transactions and specialised centres of excellence or expertise. Within this model, HRBPs are usually embedded within a particular business unit, providing HR advice and acting as the interface between business leaders and the wider HR function. The overall aim of this was to shift much of the traditional administration burden from HR into shared service centres, freeing up HR to contribute to more strategic thinking and ultimately increase its effectiveness.
Since then, organisations have been wrestling with how to make business partnering work for them, interpreting its role, structures and outputs in different ways according to business need. For example, HRBPs may be linked to specific business functions (as in Ulrich’s original model), or may increasingly sit in an agile pool of resources where they are deployed according to project need.
How do HRBPs actually add value?
As outlined above, HRBPs add value to the business through helping to deliver the organisational strategy through people actions. However, this is a very broad goal – what does it actually mean in practice? Read on for four ways that HRBPs can meaningfully add value to their organisation.
1. Contextualise and implement centrally set strategies
HRBPs are often described as the ‘eyes and ears’ of the HR function, collecting information about employees’ day-to-day experiences, interpreting it and then advising leaders as needed. Through their ‘ears on the ground’ and unique position as a link between HR and the rest of the business, they can help to contextualise centrally-set strategies, considering the needs of the overall organisation, employees and business leaders. This includes identifying the person or skills required to progress certain areas of the business – a particularly important role as people are a costly resource for a business yet also offer one of the greatest returns.
2. Sense-making in an ever-changing context
HRBPs help the business navigate an increasingly complex environment (both internally and externally), and consider what it means for people strategies and actions. This could involve topics as wide ranging as the war in Ukraine, technology-led transformation, or the impact of multiple generations in the workforce. HRBPs add value through ‘bringing the outside in,’ using both their people expertise and intimate knowledge of the business to look ahead to what the future requirements might be and help prepare for them.
3. Bringing in the ‘human perspective’
Through being tapped into what employees on the ground are saying and feeling, HRBPs can highlight the human impact of policies and interventions. For example, during the Covid-19 pandemic, an effective HRBP might’ve highlighted the human and psychological impact of home working, and then
worked to create solutions for this and advocate for them. Through using this kind of human-centred approach, HRBPs can help organisations be vibrant places to work that attract talent and enable people to bring their full selves and potential to work. This is particularly helpful in the current tight, mobile talent market, where people may just leave an organisation if they are not having a good employee experience.
4. Act as a ‘critical friend’
An effective HRBP adds value through being proactive and courageous, and not only doing what is asked of them. This could include adding value through highlighting what’s missing from an HR perspective in overall business strategies as well as providing ideas and challenges to management teams. For example, a business leader may request a specific leadership learning programme at the same that HR is also developing a central leadership programme. In this situation, an HRBP may need to push back against the business leader, highlighting the value of the central programme and how it will help the business to speak a common leadership language.
However, many HRBPs still struggle to add strategic value
However, our research shows that many organisations are still struggling to make business partnering work effectively and really add all the value that it has the potential to. Too often, HRBPs become stuck doing administrative work or delivering transactional HR services, rather than focusing their time on more strategic and value-generating activities. Our research, taking into the account the views of over 200 HR practitioners, found that HRBPs are not well-prepared for the future requirements of their role – implying that they may struggle to actually add value in the future. For example, being strategic is still considered to be the most important capability for HRBPs, yet 88% of senior leaders thought their HRBPs required further development in this area. In addition to being strategic, we also identified 10 capabilities HRBPs will need to continue adding value to their organisations in the future, with being change agents and data-oriented emerging as the second and third most critical capabilities.
As the business context becomes more complex and changes at a quicker pace, the need to effectively partner the business is greater than ever before. However, for many organisations, the HRBPs has still not moved beyond a generalist, administrative role to one that genuinely steers the business and adds value. Business leaders need to act now to ensure that HRBPs are supported to fulfil their role in creating significant value for the organisation.
Author: Jo Nayler, an HR and organizational development expert and Senior Research Executive at Corporate Research Forum.