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Tim Richard

Towers Watson

HR Service Delivery Practice Leader EMEA

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Are we witnessing the re-emergence of the HR Business Partner?


The HR Business Partner badge is nothing new; it has been around for well over a decade. It was David Ulrich, who in his 1997 book “Human Resource Champions,” first identified this model of functional support. However, what is interesting is how many organisations are now giving much more attention to the design and impact of the role. This is a trend we identified in the 2014 Towers Watson HR Service Delivery and Technology Survey, in which over 90% of UK organisations employ HR Business Partners and over half (54%) of those said the role is evolving – with a third proactively refocusing the HR Business Partner role in the past year.

‘Moving HR forwards’

The HR Business Partner job title was born out of a desire to move HR out of a generalist holding pattern. In the past (and still in the present tense for some companies) HR was regarded as a catch-all department for any people-related query from all corners of the business – be it anything from payroll, annual leave bookings, recruitment, dispute resolution to  training and internal communications. In the role of Business Partner, a HR professional is closely aligned to a particular geographic area or business unit and freed from routine HR transactions. The belief being that this empowers them to deliver more informed support and advice based on an in-depth understanding of the unique requirements, challenges and opportunities of their internal client.

Within the gradual yet overarching repositioning of HR to more centre-stage that we have witnessed in recent years, the HR Business Partner role is starting to take flight. Companies have perhaps been guilty until now of neglecting this part of their HR operating model, creating HR Business Partners in their organisation simply because it is recognised as best practice to do so. Then, the focus on this part of the Operating Model seemed to fall away. Beyond the job title, many HR Business Partners have largely been fulfilling the same responsibilities that they would have as HR generalists.

Do people know what HR Business Partners do?

The barrier to HR Business Partners becoming more useful appears to be one of definition; with less than a fifth of organisations surveyed saying the purpose of the role is well understood in their organisation.

There is also little uniformity in the way the model is implemented according to our research. Most organisations assign a Business Partner to every manager, but large proportions also either align them with only senior managers or executives. In itself this is not problematic as organisations tend to adapt ways of working to suit their distinct circumstances. However, this lack of consistency serves as an indication of a larger issue.

The importance of fit

Like any function, we find that HR needs to hang together well to deliver true value. If there is lack of clarity in one part of the service delivery model, then the model is unbalanced and can’t operate at optimal effectiveness. It takes good governance to ensure that all parts of the HR model are working well together:  where this doesn’t exist, misfiring HR Business Partner roles can often be undetected or tolerated in the organisation.

The largest block of all to greater efficiency for HR Business Partners might actually be a lack of active talent management. Less than half of the organisations we surveyed had a clear selection process to identify individuals for this role. Furthermore, Business Partners are formally reviewed in comparison to their role in only one in three companies. While just a quarter of organisations ensure each of its Business Partners has an individual role-specific development plan, including internal and external training.

With the apparent renewed focus upon HR Business Partner roles, it seems that these problems should get fixed in the near future. And it is important that they do. Essentially the Business Partner acts as a shop window for a company’s HR function. They are the primary client-facing element of the HR team to business leaders, and if they are perceived as under-performing then HR’s reputation as a whole suffers. Having fought hard to more regularly earn a seat at the board table, there is a risk that poor service from HR Business Partners could once again mean HR is asked to take a step back.

It is vital that companies do more than just window dressing in their reconsideration of the HR Business Partner role. An organisation must think hard about the competencies required to fulfil this role and then allocate talent accordingly. Then, that talent must been adequately supported and developed. Leaders also need to ensure the joining up of HR Business Partners with regular meetings to avoid the full benefits of them being embedded into the company’s operations ultimately are not lost by Business Partners losing sight of the bigger picture.

We are now at least seeing companies on the starting line towards driving the performance of their HR Business Partners on an upward curve. But it must be recognised that future success is, without a doubt, dependent on a structured approach and good governance mechanisms.

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Tim Richard

HR Service Delivery Practice Leader EMEA

Read more from Tim Richard