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HR business partnering 2.0: Delivering on the original promise


Simon Constance and Chris O'Brien, from Orion Partners, discuss how HR has missed the real point of Ulrich's work and look at the future for HR business partnering.


Research, anecdotal evidence and first hand experience suggests that despite the introduction of the HR business partnering (HRBP) role, HR is still seen as not making the contribution the HRBP role was hoped to provide. We believe that the very reason for this is the focus on the HRBP role.

Whilst much great work has been done under the HRBP banner, HR as a whole has been distracted by the rhetoric and hype of business partnering. As a result, in our collective haste to 'jump on the bandwagon', we have missed the real opportunity offered by the Ulrich model.

Ulrich offered a holistic view of intrinsic capability across the whole HR function not simply a definition of distinct roles within it, for example a role called the Business Partner. We believe that every part of HR – be it resourcing, learning and development or generalist – needs the capabilities Ulrich described at various levels in each functional area.


"Though the HRBP job title has its place, for the whole HR function to create a compelling and consistent proposition to the business, all parts of HR have to live that role and deliver the promise of HRBP."

Whilst most parts of HR have seized on this thinking to create Shared Services (SSC) and Centres of Excellence (CoE), we believe it has missed the real value to be gained from being a true business partner as Ulrich intended. Though the HRBP job title has its place, for the whole HR function to create a compelling and consistent proposition to the business, all parts of HR have to live that role and deliver the promise of HRBP.

A holistic service

It appears that in our haste to prove our value we are potentially compromising the very thing the HRBP model set out to offer – a strategic, holistic and effective service. So, instead we emphasise short-term cost savings and rationalisation in the SSC and CoE, and business knowledge in the HRBP, at the expense of showing what the whole of HR can do with the organisation’s key differentiator; it’s competitive advantage – in other words its people!

The result is that the HR ‘whole is less than the sum of its parts.’ This means that not only does the business perceive the different roles of HR as separate, but also we fail to inspire and challenge the business to think differently, more expansively and holistically about its people and the potential they offer. In spite of the corporate rhetoric and espoused values we all find it easier to ‘defend our patch’, to work in our silos and to make our part of the function look good.

Take learning and development as an example. Research undertaken by the Institute for Employment Studies into how best to align learning and development with business needs highlighted the potential of significantly minimising and compromising the value of this CoE if there is only an HRBP relationship.

If HR business partnering is to work we need to be bolder and deploy the aspirations and intentions of the HRBP model across HR. Can deeply understanding your internal client’s strategy, requirements and environment be a bad thing in the SSC or CoE? Should aligning your interventions with business outcomes solely be the remit of the HRBP? Now, step back and think about how the HR community could genuinely offer so much more value to the business without any significant increase in people or systems. The answer is HRBP 2.0.

Two-tier approach

Now this may sound simplistic but based on direct experience, and backed up by research, most HR functions appear to adopt a two-tier system to senior stakeholder engagement. Tier one tends to be the preserve of HRBPs in direct contact with senior managers and key consumers of its services. Tier one is where the source of HR’s power and influence resides within the business and therefore is something to be protected – and this tends to be in the form of acting as gatekeepers to Tier two HR (eg: CoE, SSC) engaging with the business. This not only leads to a diversion of effort and energy but also a dilution of the potential HR impact on the business.

So, structurally, HR on an org chart may look business aligned and integrated but the reality for most HR professionals is that the internal culture, ways of working and core deliverables are anything but and, therefore, prevent us from working as one for the common good of the business. Fundamentally, every aspect of HR is compromised if we don’t have a common strategic purpose, a consistent methodology and a transparent (as well as proportional) and direct access to the business.


"Every aspect of HR is compromised if we don’t have a common strategic purpose, a consistent methodology and a transparent and direct access to the business."

Our proposed shift to HRBP 2.0 focuses less on ‘what’ we deliver and more on ‘how’ we deliver it. Look around yours or any other any HR function and we all profess to offer the same type of services – the ‘what’ ie: recruitment, learning, performance management, comp and ben etc. Actually, this list of what we offer often isn’t significantly different from our ‘personnel’ days. It is the ‘how’ we deliver it that should be our focus because this is where we really provide the value-added service that is at the heart of the HRBP model. The ‘how’ is made up of four elements:


  • Measurements of success – understanding our purpose and how we are going to measure it
  • Structure – within the HR community and our alignment with the organisation
  • Ways of working – including strategic and local focus, core behaviours and HR relationship model
  • Technology – a key enabler to delivering on the HRBP promise

If we can align these four elements across the function of how we deliver HRBP 2.0 then we present ourselves with a great opportunity.

So, how would HRBP 2.0 work? At the heart of this expanded model is the unleashing of the collaborative powers within the HR community to establish ‘common ground’ and then forging strong, enduring and productive partnerships with the business.

So, out goes the outmoded and restrictive concept of ‘gatekeepers’ to be replaced with ‘bridge builders’. The existing and time consuming practice of HR colleagues feeding back outputs from business meetings is transformed into a dynamic approach to partnering through co-ordinated and ‘negotiated’ strategies of stakeholder engagements.

Team work comes to mean working collectively and collaboratively to identify and resolve business issues and challenges as well as looking to the future by supporting, guiding and challenging the business on its people agenda. Finally, it is about the HR community ‘walking the talk’.

So, what does this actually mean for HR in practice? We believe HRBP 2.0 means:


  • CoE functions developing more sophisticated internal customer liaison roles to work alongside the HRBP
  • Forums for HR professionals from all areas to discuss joint approaches to key business issues
  • Shared performance metrics across the HR community and the business for delivering business outcomes
  • Shared Services staff focusing on building their business knowledge and embedding it in their service and approach to customers

So, fundamentally it is recognising that HRBP is a model of interdependence not independence, where everyone within HR needs to recognise that their success (or failure) depends on the whole of HR, not just their piece of ‘turf.’ Just think about that for a moment – HR as a role model to the business on best practice team working, business alignment, strategic intent and being future focused. Now that would be something to get excited about and may just deliver the original promise of the Ulrich model.


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