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Applying business knowledge, making a strategic difference

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Using business knowledge to progressUnderstanding how you can use what you know about the business to add strategic value is key to success, says Jan Hills, who shares some tips and skills that have been proven to work for HRBPs looking to improve the strategic application of their knowledge.


“HR is a never ending series of goals and challenges, so if you thought that having that understanding means you’ve got it all sussed, you’ll need to think again!”

For years HR has been talking about the need for HR people and particularly HR business partners (HRBPs) to understand the business. In the main, this idea has been adopted and most HR people have vastly improved their business knowledge. But there is a big difference between quoting the latest revenue figures or share price and really understanding what impacts them, and conversely what impacts they will have on the business.

In order to improve the strategic application of your knowledge, it’s first important to establish your level of knowledge about the business. Generally you should be able to place yourself in one of these three categories:

  • You know the basic information about your business such as share price and revenue figures but don’t really know what drives them

  • You know how the business makes its money and the levers that influence how well or badly it does against its strategic goals

  • You understand both the business and the influences on it (both internal and external) and you also understand the HR processes and initiatives that relate to them. You can identify which HR initiatives are likely to have an impact when it comes to solving the business problems and understand what the potential impact of any new initiative is likely to be.

Operating with the level of knowledge identified in the third point, combining business and HR knowledge, becomes the point of difference for successful HR people. Simply having one or the other, is a starting point, but you need both to make a genuine impact in your role.

If your knowledge is at the first stage, then it’s important that you take steps to improve your understanding of the business:

  • Work with your team to identify what you do know, and where there are gaps in your knowledge (HR with Guts produce a set of ‘Know Your Business’ cards specifically designed to identify these gaps)

  • List the information you need to discover in order of relevance to the business unit that you support

  • Begin to work through the gaps in your knowledge. Start with the easier pieces of information to discover such as the ones that are in the public domain, before moving on to information that you need to work harder to find out.

If your knowledge is at the second stage, then one useful tactic is to set aside time to meet with some of the people that work in the front line and quiz them about the things that impact their part of the business. This will increase your network of people that can keep you up to date with how the business is performing against its strategic goals.

If your knowledge is already at the third point, then well done for truly fulfilling your role as an HR professional but don’t rest on your laurels! It is often useful to conduct an audit of your HR skills in order to identify which ones are the most useful to your business strategy or the current situation of your business unit. If, for example, the strategy is for massive growth, then the most useful HR skills might be recruitment, retention and integration skills as well as change and cultural management initiatives. Whereas, if your company is in a downturn then managing cost, identification/retention of really key personnel, and down-sizing skills are all very important, alongside of course, managing morale and communications.

“Knowing the culture of your business as well as the key personalities and how to influence them will help to get your ideas adopted.”

So, we can clearly see why understanding the business goals and having the skills to apply the most relevant HR initiatives to them is crucial for the most successful HR people. Unfortunately, as we all know, HR is a never ending series of goals and challenges, so if you thought that having that understanding means you’ve got it all sussed, then I’m afraid you’ll need to think again! There’s no point having all that knowledge if you can’t use it to introduce change, so the next step is to gain an in-depth understanding of how, in your organisation, you can get buy-in for the implementation of those ideas. Knowing the culture of your business as well as the key personalities and how to influence them will help to get your ideas adopted.

There are eight core skills that will help you to achieve this level of strategic influence:

  1. Make the connection between HR initiatives and the business goals simple and obvious to everyone you need to influence

  2. Understand what to say no to, have the courage to push back on HR practices that won’t help with the business needs

  3. Be proactive: come up with ideas, don’t wait to be asked

  4. Have strategic conversations. Ask questions that encourage people to think differently about issues, rather than being seen to be making suggestions and selling them all the time

  5. Be persuasive: courage in your convictions will help to get buy-in for your initiatives

  6. Network so you know what is happening outside of your organisation, in order to be able to demonstrate the wider picture

  7. Have an execution plan; having good ideas and knowing what will help the business strategy is one step, but management and execution skills to implement your ideas in a simple and cost effective way will set you apart

  8. Lastly, give yourself the mental space to take on the right projects rather than every project

Think about how you might be able to help yourself develop these skills. Are there training courses that would be useful to you? In your daily work, look out for programmes that give you ‘how to’ type skills. It’s also incredibly useful to make sure that you have people around you who will critically tell you how you’re doing.

The closer you are to operating at the third level, the better you will operate as an HR professional. Using that understanding to have real impact and influence on the business, will bring you closer to becoming a true example of ‘the difference that makes a difference’.


Jan Hills is director of HR with Guts and partner in Orion Partners.

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