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Grahame Russell

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Saving the endangered business partner


Grahame Russell considers how far the Ulrich model has come and where it fits in with today’s human resources department.

Three years ago I rather mischievously suggested that we were entering the ‘post Ulrich era’, a period of reflection for global HR given that our beloved guru and HR proponent had been quiet for three whole years having embarked on a self-imposed sabbatical to explore his spiritual being. In the meantime, many firms which had implemented the so-called business partner model were starting to doubt its ability to deliver a satisfied internal customer.

The value of the HR business partner is in the eye of the beholder
I wasn’t meaning to be unkind to the University of Michegan professor, merely suggesting it was time for an evaluation of the contribution of such a sought after model – implemented by so many firms searching for the HR Nirvana.

Well and truly back on the HR and leadership circuit, Dave Ulrich is telling us firstly, that the value of HR has to be defined by the receiver of the service and secondly, that now more than ever, it has to focus on the business context and on outcomes rather than initiatives and inputs.

It’s the execution that’s been  flawed  – not the model
In reality, I don’t believe Ulrich is telling us anything that’s any different now from what he told us twelve or thirteen years ago. That’s good news from his perspective. He said then that transactional HR work needed to be carried out more efficiently and we needed to employ subject matter experts, both supported by an effective interface with the business at a strategic level – most often called the HR Business Partner, which incidentally, is not a term ever coined by Ulrich himself.

Numerous shared services centres, version x of HR system y; or outsourced approaches were tried with varying levels of success in order to take care of these more transactional services. ‘Subject Matter Experts’ in the form of compensation and benefits specialists, learning and development managers and resourcing heads enjoyed greater or lesser levels of success in linking with the business through the business partner. In theory at least, the creation of this ‘space’ led to the opportunity for the business partners to help build organisational capability and lead important change programmes

Filling the capability and credibility gap is a challenge

Freeing up time so that HR can be more strategic is one thing but time is not enough – reputation, capability and motivation are even more important in effective business partners as they are in many senior management roles. So finding top quality business partners is a tall order. How does their career path lead them to this role? Where do they get a robust understanding of business and commerce? It has been said before that a capability profile for an HRD can look remarkably like that of a CEO. Equally the profile of a good business partner is a big ask too.
As a result, one of the most common errors in implementation of a new HR model lies in failing to understand to the implications of the term ‘strategic partner’, Ulrich’s chosen label. The strategic bit often gets lost or isn’t supported by the required quality of individual in role.

Appointees are often too inexperienced to be ‘strategic’

There are too many examples where the label ‘business partner’ has been used as a label for the ‘HR Advisor’ usually lacking the relevant experience or understanding of the business. That is not to say that these individuals don’t fulfil a critical role – one critique of the Ulrich model was that many operational aspects of the HR service, supporting line managers day-to-day were being done badly. HR had gone strategic and in addition had organised their transactional services differently, whilst line managers were supposed to be picking up many day-to-day operational HR issues previously provided for them by HR. This has not been popular with managers. What a lot of so called business partners are doing in response is closing this gap and reintroducing an element of hand holding. In others they have moved up into a strategic role without filling the gap behind them and in reality lacking the skills to contribute towards building organisational strength and capability. In both cases the business partner model has been compromised with less than satisfactory results.

So, where does the business partner role fit in?
For me, it remains firmly where Ulrich intended it to be – at the strategic level. There should be a very small number of them and divisional heads should welcome them to their top table, whilst at the same time the rest of HR that needs to be delivered must be in the most effective and efficient way possible.

I see the roles divided into five categories:

Strategic – a contributor to the strategic development of the organisation and building organisational capability through themes such as performance, accountability, identifying and developing talent, workforce planning, governance, structure, leadership, social responsibility, strategic alignment.

Developmental/expert – providing subject matter expertise and talent management services.

Advisory – this is about staying legal and doing things that do not compromise the organisation and individuals. Expensive lawyers are not always necessary and new providers such as Adviser Plus and Peninsula have found a niche in providing outsourced services to cover employment law issues.

Operational – this is the bit that was perhaps missing from the original Ulrich model. Low level support when required. Contextualised support based around situations not requiring strategic input. Often where BPs currently sit. This can be provided remotely but needs to be more personalised that the transactional service. In addition this service can help contextualise the advisory service.

Transactional – normally delivered remotely through systems, service centres or outsourced.

Business Partner territory should be in the first category only. If the organisation has people, talent and organisational effectiveness high up on its agenda it needs this level of input and influence. The other four parts have to be performed equally well but in a cost efficient and effective way. Whether the strategic role is called business partner, strategic partner or we reinvent ‘Organisational Development’, it doesn’t matter – but lets face it, they should not be an endangered species and organisations need top quality business partners more than ever before.

Grahame Russell is head of leadership and performance consulting at Penna