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Jamie Lawrence


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The Emperor Ulrich’s new clothes: re-evaluating the role of HR Business Partners


This article was written by Roger Edwards, SVP and Principal Consultant, Pilat HR Solutions.

Amazingly, it’s now over 15 years since Dave Ulrich launched the HR model or concept that would bear his name and the development of centres of excellence and HR Business Partners (HRBPs) have been largely at the centre of HR development ever since. Without doubt, there have been great advances with the focus on maximising synergies and establishing efficient core services but there also appears to be a new, but increasingly vocal, groundswell of dissent; some serious questions and doubts about its validity in the ‘real’ world.

In addition the reality for many HRBPs is they don’t feel integrated as true, equally valued leaders. Many report feeling caught between a rock (the line) and a hard place (the centre of excellence). Looking under the surface, I believe that there are three key areas that need alignment:

Achieving role clarity (‘Service Contract’)

The real focus is away from tasks or key areas of functionality (recruitment, employee relations, development etc.) to being clear on the outputs/deliverables of the role: the Key Result Areas (KRAs). Senior business leaders are immersed in data to forecast and manage the business and yet it is a sad reflection that many HR professionals cannot tell you their own KRAs and measures of success, let alone support and challenge their line colleagues on theirs. HRBPs must demonstrate value to the line through business-focused KRAs that provide the foundation of a service level contract. 

HR’s strategy of engagement with their management colleagues (‘Changing the Business Perception’)

Establishing a true valued partnership with senior teams and line colleagues is not always easy (speaking from experience) and, undoubtedly, there will be some managers that have developed an ingrained negative opinion of HR. Even those managers who genuinely value HR frequently level similar criticisms.

  • HR’s lack of focus or connection to business need/strategy. HRBPs need to be seen to challenge the business strategy, demonstrate they understand it and develop HR strategies and plans that are clearly aligned and support the business. Then keep them front of mind for all.
  • Failure to deliver the basics. Linked partially with the first point, many managers comment that HR seemed more interested in working on new ‘fads’ (their words) such as engagement or agility rather than getting some of the core services (recruitment, manager advice and support and so on) delivered to meet requirements. New initiatives are valuable but HRBPs need to get the basic deliverables right first.
  • Lack of stakeholder engagement. Most leadership teams are incredibly focused and busy with their own crises and priorities. HR can’t just expect, even when they have what seems a good idea, to just get accepted. It is critical to build a compelling business case having a strategy to win the hearts and minds of key stakeholders and engaging with them in an individual way rather than as a leadership team.
  • Underestimation of time and resources or poor execution of HR initiatives. Even when management’s attitude is positive towards HR initiatives, this can quickly wane and add to cynicism when HR fails to deliver to expectations. The key message is: ensure realistic scope and expectations in the first place (better to under promise and over deliver), beware of underestimating the size of the project or having issues around resource requirements and time and have strong process methodology, consulting and project management skills to ensure greater success in execution.
  • Lack of integrated processes and systems. There has been a lot of good work in this area in recent years although there is a danger of HR trivialising processes in the name of simplicity, which then fail to deliver outcomes. In addition, some organisations’ HR strategies and processes have been perfectly designed to work against each other. Recent history shows that, despite admirable organisational values and competencies, reward strategies on pay for results can lead to a destructive culture. HRBPs need to become experts in ‘Behaviour Engineering’, the new watchword for ensuring alignment of strategies and processes to drive behaviours for business success.
  • Lack of clear measures and or accountability. Probing beneath the surface, line managers identified three different issues: HR itself does not hold itself and/or its people to account, a failure to effectively hold managers to account for delivery of HR processes and people management and a failure to establish any kind of measure of success which, in turn, means that focus or prioritisation was lost, ‘the eye is taken off the ball’ and, therefore, the objective never met.

HR must ensure it holds itself to account and sets the example, especially if it wants to challenge the line and also hold them to account.

Changing HR’s Skill Set for Business Partners

To compete on the same playing field as business leaders – challenging, supporting and earning their respect – HRBPs need to demonstrate three key capabilities:

  • Active Business Intelligence. HRBPs must understand the business they are in – the market, challenges, business models, principles and processes (particularly for their industry sector) – and speak in terms that other business leaders can understand, as well as having speed and robustness of thought (at least to the level of the rest of the management team).
  • Technical/Functional Competence.  While an excellent understanding of the HR processes and practices in use in their own organisation and more widely is critical, strong process and project management skills are also required.
  • Behavioural Competence. Establishing strong credible relationships with senior leaders is critical. The HRBP’s personal interaction and behaviour which supports forward thinking, drive, listening and empathy and an ability to implement and meet challenges is essential.

The CIPD’s profession map (level three and four) points the way and supports much of the findings. It is now just a matter of putting on the emperor’s new set of clothes that are visible and look the part.

5 Responses

  1. 20 years and still waiting though!!

    Roger you write:

    "HR professionals working with their operational colleagues have a phenominal opportunity to maximise the effectiveness of the organisations ‘Human Resource’ and build a socially accountable and acceptable environment."

    I would argue a name change later HR has missed the boat and is doomed to remain as a personel department at best with the delivery of HR practices being absorbed into a mixture of management and consultancy roles. I also believe the CIPD should be ashamed of itself because this happended on their shift. As Storey wrote many years ago "HR practices are too good to leave to HR people", the real shame is that HR practices are now ignored because of the messenger being from HR. Time for rethink I think..

    — Senior Employee Benefit and Reward Consultant

  2. FHRD’s an interesting concept

    Integrating HR with another function (such as Finance) is an interesting concept.

    Their are a number of organisations that already have HR aligned to the Finance function although in my experience they can still operate as a silo within a silo.  Even when the integration is complete there has been two negative outcomes.  HR is still seen as a policing operation (even more like finance) or secondly, it is seen as less relevant and in both cases looses its impact to really impact the engine room of the organisation.

    In an ideal world business/operational managers themselves should be equipped with the knowledge and skills to engage and manage people strategy so to make HR almost redundant.  Given the reality and complexity of everything from legislative requirements to the differing concepts of people management dependant on cultures, business context etc.  HR professionals working with their operational colleagues have a phenominal opportunity to maximise the effectiveness of the organisations ‘Human Resource’ and build a socially accountable and acceptable environment.




  3. Beliefs matter too

     I agree that underpinning beliefs do fundementally affect a persons attitudes and behaviours.  This is not only true of business partners however and our core model on behaviour engineering addresses this very theme.  That should not take away the reality that other peoples beliefs (those of the line) will also impact the role as well as the effectiveness of the individual demonstrated through their skills.

    Thank you for your comment

  4. Stop being a function

    Simple really, HR needs to stop seeing itself as a functional silo and needs to align itself with the powerbase in any business the finance role. I believe it is time for HR to become part of the finance function, i.e. a merger with CIMA and integrate the best of both into a powerful force that harnesses the power of people with sensible financial management. We will then end up with FHRD’s (financial and human resource directors) who understnd the power of engaging the right people practices with an understnding of financial reality! 

    — Senior Employee Benefit and Reward Consultant

  5. Its the mindset that matters

     Thank you for this article. i agree with much of what you say but my research adds another element. We researched the difference that makes a difference in the best HR Business Partners several years ago and have been updating the research ever since. We found that the most important thing is the beliefs and purpose the BP holds about their role. This was far more important than skills. Why? Because it drives the way the BP does their role and hence the skills they employ. You can read the reseach here if you would like more details.

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Jamie Lawrence

Insights Director

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