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Sue Young

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The HR business partner health check


The trend in recent years has been a move towards a decentralisation of the HR role out into local business and organisation units, exemplified by the role of HR Business Partners (HRBPs).

In theory, the HRBP brings HR expertise closer to what is required and can therefore tailor service and advice to local business requirements. However, as always, translation of the theory into practice presents challenges for both HR and line management alike.

Ideally, accountability for people management issues is perceived as a shared responsibility. This is where line managers are making more HR management decisions, with appropriate input and support as needed, from HR. HR staff, both locally and centrally, are becoming more involved in organisational and business issues and decision-making processes sooner, both at central and local levels.

To be able to achieve this ideal requires a number of things from the HR function. At a senior, central, whole-organisational level HR needs to:

  • Develop strategies based on actual business needs which requires involvement of HR at a senior level and early stage in the business planning process. The risk of not doing this is that key aspects of planning the organisation’s workforce strategy are missed out with potentially serious consequences on the achievability of the overall business strategy.
  • Contribute to issues of developing workforce capabilities looking to the future to ensure adding strategic value to the business. This includes things such as workforce planning, succession planning, workforce development, training needs assessment and skills gap analysis.
  • Bringing business understanding and experience that has credibility at a senior management level. There is a need for HR to share a seat at the Board table or to have senior level championship. Strong collaborative relationships need to be established by senior HR managers with the senior management team and key line managers around the business
  • Consider ways to communicate in a more engaging way and consult more visibly with line management. If managers feel they have no influence and see little relationship between HR programmes and initiatives, and their immediate business pressures and priorities, they feel little ownership. They will only see ‘another HR initiative’, or a ‘tick the box’ compliance activity rather than a core part of the business strategy they are actively engaged in making progress.

At line manager/unit level the same principles apply, but more specifically, much depends on effective personal relationships with key members of line management and the establishment of strong, collaborative relationships. This typically requires high levels of both interpersonal and consulting and coaching capabilities.

The need to be proactive at building the respect of line management is a strategic priority as in this context HR Business Partners are acting as internal consultants and change agents. They have no direct authority so are dependent on the authority that comes from being respected by line manager colleagues they are having to influence.

To achieve the kind of collaborative relationships with line managers therefore requires high levels of particular capabilities:

  • being confident enough to assert and communicate the perspectives on people issues in a way that can be perceived to add value to overall business objectives
  • having good strategic and business awareness and capabilities
  • understanding how to work with and be proactive in an environment of continuous change
  • good consulting and coaching skills to support and facilitate the changes line management are aiming to achieve

What should HRBPs be doing in practice?

With day-to-day demands it is easy to lose touch with overall strategic purpose and priorities. Examples of good ‘health check’ questions for HRBPs to ask themselves include:

  • Do I understand our overall business mission and strategy? Can I see how our HR strategy fits with and supports that? Do we have a clear articulated HR strategy?
  • Do I understand my chief executive/unit director’s needs and top priorities? Do I know what keeps them awake at night?
  • Can I see how my current HR priorities fit with those business priorities?
  • If I review the areas I spend my time on, how does that align with overall priorities? What do I need to be doing more or less of?
  • Which key relationships in the business do I need to focus on developing? Who are potential powerful stakeholders I can influence? Where do I need to be making more of a connection?
  • What questions/gaps are emerging and what can I do to set about answering or filling them?

In summary, to be adding real value to normal good line management, HR practitioners need to be acting as real business partners and change agents, actively working to address such questions, underpinned by particular specialist knowledge, consultancy skills, and a good understanding of the core business of the organisation.

Sue Young is principal consultant with Berkshire Consultancy – management consultants: maximising individual and organisational performance. Much of their work is carried out in collaborative partnering relationships with HR.


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