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Claire Kavanagh

Executive Director

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Are HR business partners a dying breed?


Learning and development programmes continue to grow in importance as businesses gear up to take advantage of the economic upturn. But one area appears to be lagging behind. Is there now a shortage of high-quality HR Business Partners?

Almost every client I’ve been involved with in the last 12 months has a similar problem – there seems to be a real shortage of really smart, commercially-aware HR business partners out there today.

Large companies need able people with charisma to be able to work closely with the business and be their strategic partner – but that’s not what today’s businesses are developing and I think it’s a real problem. The middle tier of talent within the HR function is becoming increasingly hard to find.

The introduction of the business partnering model several years ago saw a rapid growth in shared services centres and central support models. In many respects they have been successful but it seems that they have also played a role in preventing the top talent from coming through.

"Reactions to the recession."

The situation has been exacerbated, in my view, by the way many businesses reacted to the difficult recession years.

Understandably, many reined back on the number of graduates they were taking on, so to some extent we’re now paying the price for that. Those are the very people that would now be four or five years qualified in a commercial environment and would be well on the way to possessing the skills required of a good HR business partner.

Lots of firms refer to business partners, but in reality these people are still left with the kinds of work that a standard personnel manager would be expected to do. They don’t really sit in the business and understand the bigger picture and as such can’t really be described as effective HR partners.

Early in my career I used to see good business partners emerging from retail environments because in those days companies like M&S didn’t invest a great deal in continuing professional development and there was a glut of people who were classically trained in all the skills of being a business partner but who wanted to expand their professional portfolio.

They had great commercial training so they understood about the bottom line and they knew about managing teams. They hadn’t necessarily had huge investment in becoming a HR person, but they were very keen to get it.

This type of talent has really dried up in recent years and the question businesses are increasingly asking is ‘where do I get these people from within our own orgaisation?’

Siloed roles across the HR department

Of course, the very large corporations might still be able to identify enough skilled generalists with the right temperament but most firms today will have a model that contains HR administrators, perhaps a consultant on the employee relations advisory side and probably some specialist resourcing people. All of these roles tend to be much more siloed than in the past and therefore the ability to grow and become a business partner with strong commercial and generalist skills is much harder.

I think the market is going to have to get a lot more creative if it’s going to fill the gap – whether that’s looking at the types of learning and development opportunities available to potential business partners or thinking about areas such as people who are returning to work. Creating the right conditions and opportunities in the workplace to attract good talent back is always difficult but I do think that we are missing out on some great people who just want that bit of flexibility.

Overall, it’s hard to say whether the right approach is going to be to identify the best HR talent and find creative ways to embed them in a business to the point where they gain the right commercial skills or whether it’s a smarter approach to take good generalists and equip them with knowledge around talent cycles, employee value propositions and other key areas for an HR business partner.

Often I think it’s about going out and looking for the right temperament in a person and then saying ‘OK if you’re interested, we will position you with either some learning input or something a bit more specific which would enable you to drop straight into a business partner role’.

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Executive Director

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