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The role of the HR business partner: Making it work

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HR business partnerAlthough many organisations employ HR business partners, there are different interpretations of the role and varying levels of success. Laura Albregts and Cindy Meervis examine the important part they play in inspiring your organisation and assess what is needed to make the role work effectively.


Many organisations have implemented HR business partner roles, whose aim is to be strategic partners and change agents alongside senior leaders helping them execute the people dimensions of business strategies. Yet, translating this concept into the real world, where operational issues and ad hoc queries seem to rule the daily agenda, is not an easy task.

Consequently, organisations tend to struggle with the positioning of their HR business partners as truly effective operators. Here we share our views on the elements that influence success and effectiveness of an HR business partner, based on our client work with multinational organisations.

These are tough but exciting times for HR

While HR’s focus has shifted towards cost-effectiveness and downsizing, talent management remains a key concern for businesses, with continued demand for team building, succession planning and leadership development.

“The extreme business conditions of 2009 could prove to be the year when HR business partners prove their worth.”

The extreme business conditions of 2009 could prove to be the year when HR business partners prove their worth – or fail. In theory, the role has never been more necessary, but the lack of a clear definition or common understanding of what an HR business partner is for might be exposed in this climate, making it difficult for people to be successful in the role.

What are the elements that determine the contribution and success of an HR business partner? Although there’s no straightforward or obvious answer, it is recognised to be about exerting behaviours that both influence the strategic agenda and gain business buy-in while also applying a skill set that improves the effectiveness and delivery of quality HR services. It is well acknowledged that the HR business partner role cannot be successful in isolation; its effectiveness heavily depends on its position within the entire HR function, and particularity its relationships with HR service centres and centres of expertise.

What drives the success of an effective HR business partner?

In our view, the effectiveness of the HR business partner is determined by their ability to act along three key themes, depicted in the diagram below:

Figure 1: An HR business partner’s roles and capabilities

Be a strategic HR advisor to senior management

Understanding the business and its external environment is essential for any HR business partner wanting to develop into a strategic advisor to senior management. We say ‘senior’ because for advice to be strategic, the person receiving it needs to have a planning horizon that exceeds immediate tactical concerns – five years, not 12 months.

Knowing the business’s landscape creates an initial entry into the management team, but continuing to operate with impact is established by showing the appropriate behaviours and acting from the right beliefs and values, so that business leaders see their HR people as peers in whom they can confide.

How to behave and influence?

  • Learn what drives the business and what the numbers look like

  • Derive a coherent HR and people strategy – prioritise processes that will deliver the most benefits

  • Influence the strategic agenda by building relationships at key levels in the organisation; gain their commitment and belief that HR can contribute to business results

  • Develop personal and professional HR credibility through courage, integrity and initiative and with this, challenge business leaders

  • Proactively promote HR interventions that will add to the bottom line today and in the future, instead of merely responding to requests for service

Act as a catalyst for continued business performance

HR needs to share in the responsibility for sustaining and improving business results by ensuring that HR strategies and plans are translated into concrete actions and tangible results. HR business partners should define, prioritise and measure HR’s contribution to business performance as well as monitor and maximise staff effectiveness to business operations.

What to do?

  • Shape the organisation structure by aligning activities with people and capabilities in support of business operations

  • Implement position and competency frameworks and design motivational career paths

  • Match resource capability to changing business requirements and conditions, maintaining a workforce plan (quantity and quality) and making resource projections

  • Monitor and foster talent by facilitating talent reviews. Plan for succession and identify the values, behaviours and skills for future leaders to develop against

  • Enable a working environment where sharing knowledge and expertise is not prohibited by organisational silos

  • Identify key metrics for HR to measure business performance and HR performance (ie. length of service, illness rate, attrition rate, etc.)

“As a service manager, the HR business partner needs to monitor and provide excellent HR service delivery.”

Ensure that operational excellence in HR is delivered

As a service manager, the HR business partner needs to monitor and provide excellent HR service delivery. Not only should the person in this role fulfil the local demand function of the shared service centre and the centres of expertise, they should also provide specialised HR service delivery when required (ie. local recruitment).

How to make sure these excellent services are delivered?

  • Drive for uniform and best practice processes, it enables for a quality and consistent service delivery. But don’t lose sight of the end-service delivery by overly focusing on how it is provided

  • Actively manage the service provider by agreeing a service catalogue (what is and what isn’t delivered) and the levels for delivery. And help them say no to things that aren’t in scope

  • Monitor the quality of services delivered (ie. timeliness, accuracy, efficiency and responsiveness) and take prompt, corrective action in any cases of dissatisfaction or issues with delivery

  • Continuously steer for further efficiencies and improvements in how HR services are provided to managers and employees (ie. ease of accessing self-service, linking processes to avoid handovers)

  • Make sure the right governance model is established and that the whole of HR works together (i.e. through organisation structures, RACI matrices, planning and control cycles). This to avoid HR services having multiple owners, or worse, no owner at all


Laura Albregts and Cindy Meervis are principal consultants at PA Consulting Group.

2 Responses

  1. “Partners”
    One question, and one comment. Does anyone know what percentage of “business partners” were simply the HR advisors that were there before the name change, (and were probably given little help to change,even if they were able to)??
    In response to the comment from our colleague in Malaysia, it can be done in Corporates in Malasia, but it is difficult. One of the big KL based corporates that I used to work with made future MDs work in HR for a couple of years. That helped with the “Challenge the boss” role. However, some of the cultural difficulties are more pronounced in Asia than elsewhere, especially in the family firms. (I found Hofstede’s work helpful in cultural diagnosis)

  2. Navigating Corporate Entropy
    Sometimes, I wished I had sticked to where I found my best career moments and challenges. That would be the Military, where one does not have to struggle with strategic plans and commitment to bottom-lines.

    The question that begs answering is, “How does HR champion the strategic business partnership model if, in the first place, you encounter a culture where the top do not preach teamwork and in executing business strategy beyond what lies in their heads?”.

    Will HR professionals be allowed to step up to the role in challenging business leaders without reprisals?. Take public listed companies where performance and results are meant to be transparent and held accountable. How much of strategic HR measures get attention let alone reported. How about Succession Plans?. How come its not on the agenda of business leaders?. Why would responsible people sitting on top (whether inherited or appointed) stubbornly ignore the importance and need to communicate the business direction to their people. How come they are not held accountable for this part of the performance. Is this what they call “selective listening” and that part of good corporate governance that goes unnoticed by Auditors, BOD and other Stakeholders!.

    Its high time business leaders gave more credit than what HR people deserve and could do. If they are not prepared to invite HR into the strategic meetings, then accept HR, at best, to be a follow-me-compliance and paper-pushing entity void of interconnectedness with purposeful business results. There is no need to downplay or undermine HR if the top guns are not serious in their mission and committment to walking the talk on people development. And stop using money and number of hours spent on training to justify your investment in people!

    There is too much rhetoric and lip service calls in most corporate HR functions. If there are exceptions, I dare say its because the MD and/or CEO genuinely believes that people are the only competitive edge to exponential growth. And these are the inspiring leaders who really “walk the talk” in driving the focus and emphasis on talent management and people development. I cite leaders like Idris Jala of MAS and Tony Fernandez of Air Asia.

    The biggest barrier, in my opinion, to corporate HR performing their strategic and operational role, be it in good times or otherwise, is the lack of consistent and cohesive support from top management. Without it, it would be impossible, if not nightmarish, to work with line management who use politics and behave above the law in pushing their own operational agenda, at the expense of short term employee engagement and long term people growth.

    The major challenge to HR people is not that they are unable to play a more dynamic and bigger role, but rather business and line leaders are either short-sighted or uncomfortable to allow HR, as authors put it, “challenge business leaders” on strategic HR decisions.

    Yuvarajah
    Malaysia

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