HR Business Partnering - How do you do it...?

I am currently running a bit of a commentary on HR Business Partnering as we are approaching the CIPD 's HRBP conference later this month. However, I am fascinated by how HR continues to evolve, and the concept of the HR Business Partner is just one facet of a much bigger HR transformation piece. These are indeed exciting times!

So what happened to the HRBP model?

Firstly, it went viral. The original Ulrich model was picked up as a viable alternative to the traditional HR or Personnel department and has been implemented as a best practice HR operating model across the globe. I saw this during the early 2000s, but I was concerned when I asked people why they were using it, as the most common response was simply - "everyone is doing it."

That is the biggest issue - it is not right for every organisation, and trying to implement the model if HR is not delivering the basics effectively (or the business does not get the model) means your best efforts are destined for failure. In reality, HR business partnering is a set of capabilities and a mindset, and the Ulrich model simply suggested one way of how this could be put into practice.

There is no doubt the model could and can work if:

  • The HR elements are mapped and connected effectively - so they partner with one another as much as the business;
  • The Strategic HRBP element does not go native - they need to act as a facilitator and catalyst for the wider HR team - aligning HR capability and capacity to deliver what the business needs, and not simply be a bottleneck or myopic business advocate;
  • The organisation has the HR numbers - the "3 Legged Stool" model needs people to staff it - although you can create an adaptive model using an agile/outsource blended approach (I can teach you about that!)
  • HR people have a partner approach - it is not a "them or us" mindset, but how "we" can work together either with the business or across the HR teams;
  • HR consults with the business as colleagues and partners - the organisation/business will get it, embrace it and be willing to work with HR if HR consults and "partners" (big clue there!) with the business to develop the HR solution.

There have been various reviews of the model, and the most common themes are that organisations have adopted the classic 3LS (3 Legged Stool - Shared Service, Centres of Expertise and Strategic HRBPs), some have simply changed job titles (HR Manager today - HRBP tomorrow), whereas others have adopted HR Business Partnering as a mindset without changing job titles, roles etc.

There are many ways to do it and no one size fits all. If you want to be a true business partner in more than name, your business has to get and value what you do. The real value of HR Business Partnering is being able to build an HR model or proposition that reflects your business and the environment you operate in - the long value chain that links your customers, to your business, and to your HR proposition.

The original model is over 20 years old and some organisations are only now just implementing it. Again, this is neither right or wrong and is dependent on the organisation, where it is in its evolution and what model might work for them. However, things are changing ...

Keeping your finger on the pulse ...

I was intrigued to come across the following share by Ohio State University from a Town Hall Meeting in October 2018. It shows what they called the "Future HRSD" (HR Service Delivery):

Source: https://enterprise-project.osu.edu/news/2018/10/24/hr-professionals-learn-about-future-hr-model

So why are you sharing this? What major changes are there? The only key changes from the original Ulrich model seem to be wording (Shared Services to HR Service Team) and the addition of another leg to the original three legged stool. What is interesting from this model is the trend I have already seen over the last decade where HR is dividing HRBP focus between operational and strategic HR. Here we see the HR Strategic Partners (previously Strategic HRBP in the 3LS) still in place but with the addition of the HR Service Partner - the operational HRBP. I first saw this development back in 2007 but I was fascinated to see it coming out of discussions in 2018 as a future model. This doesn't mean it is wrong and different organisations are evolving at difference paces, but I was interested to see this being illustrated in a recent post.

The HRSD model may indeed be fit for purpose for some organisations that are on the HRBP journey but I also think the following trends are becoming more prevalent:

  • Specialist Business Partners - the rise of HR specialists moving from the Centre of Excellence/Expertise space to business partners - OD Partners, Talent Partners, Recruitment Partners, Reward Partners etc. - working more closely aligned to the business to deliver responsive HR expertise;
  • Business Partner Ranks - not only do we see the division highlighted above between operational and strategic roles, but the creation of Junior HRBPs, Assistant HRBPs and Associate HRBPs. This might provide the chance for HR development but you have to be careful when using this in organisations that are very rank conscious;
  • Partnering in Practice - HRBPs are being re-badged and using business partnering as a way of doing HR, not simply a job title. I am seeing more of it happening now with HR teams - it is what they do and how they do HR that matters, not what they call themselves.

I have also read and continue to review content on the future of HRBPs. There are lots of models and suggestions out there. What I love is the fact it is evolving as a practice or mindset, and there is no single pathway - that makes HR more exciting, adaptive and creative .... more human!

So what then? How do you do it?

We need to revisit and revitalise some of the original principles but look to new and evolving ways of doing it for inspiration and innovation. I cannot give you all the answers (as it does depend on context etc.) but here are some key thoughts to take away ....

  • No one size all - to be a true partner you need to work with your business or organisation to craft the right HR that supports the strategy, the needs and the performance of the business now, and going forward. Consult with them prior to implementing any HR model, bring them with you on the journey, and put the business context at the heart of what you do.
  • Ask them what is HR? - most businesses managers or leaders can't define HR but know they need it. Often it is misinterpreted and undervalued because it does not align what it does to business outcomes. More often than not, they think it is about doing the managers job for them. We therefore need to challenge them and educate them - for one thing, why is someone a manager if they cannot manage people? What value do they bring to the equation? Partnering goes both ways. We have an opportunity to build the right HR model and mindset once we acknowledge and act upon the gap.
  • Keep curious - find out what other organisations are doing, what is going on in business and the HR world etc. so that you can evolve HR in alignment with the organisation, and put HR into real context by understanding the bigger, strategic picture. Being pro-active, curious and looking at the future are essential to the HRBP equation.
  • Its Strategic, Operational and Tactical - you can't be all one thing, you need to blend your work and approach to effectively partner with the business. This means you should be involved with the strategy, deliver operationally, and sometimes work tactically to build a connection, trust and to gain context. Never get stuck in one box, but balance your approach based on the business need and with a value based mindset.
  • Highlight being human to build productive relationships - when managers or business leaders speak to you, don't say the policy or process is ... don't try to blindside them with legalese ... and don't go into HR speak. Ask them what they want to happen and coach them. Ask them what keeps them up at night about their business, so you then add value by demonstrating people solutions to their problems. And take time to build relationships. Too many HR people think that one meeting will seal the deal. Some business professionals may not like HR, understand HR or feel they have been let down by HR before. Invest time and effort into building a relationship that will lead to being valued as a trusted partner.
  • Data helps you decide - Data is the lifeblood of every business. A good HRBP understands what data matters and how to interpret it. They apply an evidence based approach to gain support and to influence. They are able to create a narrative and apply a risk management mindset to model potential outcomes. Make data part of your every day HR practices, measure what you do, but make sure you measure that matters to the business.
  • Why would you buy you? - Always ask yourself this question. You need to deliver value and value is defined by the receiver. You need to be commercially minded to structure and provide the right business value that your organisation would be prepared to pay for. Otherwise, outsource and other options maybe on the table. Perhaps develop Sinek's Golden Circles as a concept - why does HR really matter to your business (in the language of your business, not HR terms), how can you partner with the business to help them deliver their objectives, and what tools, teachings or frameworks can you adapt to deliver and sustain performance. Create an outcomes led approach that can measure the value you add.

I could write more and more etc .... but I want to leave something to the imagination, get you thinking about some of the comments I have made, and then continue the narrative in later posts .... Hope you enjoyed !! :)

3 ways HR can gain micro-competitive advantages in a VUCA World

HR plays a critical role in gaining and sustaining competitive advantage through people, and Wayne Brockbank explains that there are three practices HR must adopt in order to optimise the likelihood of realising sustainable competitive advantage in a VUCA world

As has been clearly and powerfully argued, we live a VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) world. It is a world where product and capital markets, demographics, geopolitics, technology, and the competitive landscape are becoming increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.

In such a context, it will be increasingly difficult for companies to create and sustain fundamental sources of competitive advantage. The obsolescence or exchange of technological insights, operational best practices, and here-to-fore proprietary knowledge across organisational boundaries is becoming the norm.

Within such a world, the likelihood of sustainable competitive advantage drops like rock in a VUCA world. It is unlikely that a company will ever again have 20 years of competitive advantage through the traditional means of patent and other legal constraints. On the other hand, it will be possible to create a 20-year fundamental competitive advantage through alternative means, some of which are directly related to a business-focused HR strategy.

A company can create and sustain a 20-year monopoly but it will have to be earned through a continual series of short-term competitive advantages. For example, if a company can innovate a new product or service, it will enjoy a monopoly position for, say, 6 months. It will take its competitors six months to catch up. During those six months the company will earn monopolistic profits. By the time the competition catches up, it will then innovate again, thereby creating another 6 months of competitive advantage.

“Within such a world, the likelihood of sustainable competitive advantage drops like rock”

If a company continues this cycle, then it can create a 20-year monopoly with its accompanying profitability but in a VUCA world the 20-year monopoly has to be earned in 6-month increments. Kathleen Eisenhardt at Stanford University refers to this phenomenon as a “continuous flow of competitive advantages”. This is exactly what companies such as Apple, 3M, Alphabet, Amazon, and Intel have accomplished.

3 steps for HR
HR plays a major role in making this aspiration a reality in a VUCA world. Within this context, I suggest three actions that HR must undertake.

First and foremost, HR must work with senior management to conceptualise, frame and champion the culture that is required. The culture that creates and sustains micro-competitive advantages will need to be fast-moving, agile, and highly opportunistic. Organisational silos will need to give way to cross-unit synergy to optimise opportunities that are provided by ever morphing markets. Such cultures will encourage improvising and experimenting with new products, services and business models. Improvising will not be entirely random; rather, it will be based on the best judgement of future market opportunities.

Second, HR will need to adjust its collective talent and organisational tools to be consistent with the inconsistencies of change. Workforce configuration will need to be fluid and flexible. People will shift across market opportunities. Individual talent will not be owned by individual businesses; rather, talent will be owned by organisation-wide considerations. Individual talent will reflect the need for deep specialists with the simultaneous need for broad generalists.

Measurements, reward and accountability will need to be continuously reevaluated and redesigned to reflect evolving pockets of short-lived competitive advantage. Finally, as indicated in earlier article in Inside HR, HR will play a strong role in encouraging the total flow of information from the outside in, from the future to the present and from within silos to across silos.

“The culture that creates and sustains micro-competitive advantages will need to be fast-moving, agile, and highly opportunistic”

Third and, perhaps, most challenging, HR itself will need to embody the culture and practices that will be required in a world of micro-competitive advantages in a VUCA world. In some companies, HR claims to be the facilitator of change but concurrently is seen as the source of resistance to change. An honest self-examination of individual HR talent and department capabilities may need to be undertaken to position HR as a role model with the credibility and ability to support and sustain the requisite culture.

Without these HR tools and practices in place, firms will simply be unable to succeed in the VUCA world. With these HR tools and practices, however, firms may optimise their likelihood of sustainable competitive advantages.

Action items for HR to gaining competitive advantage in a VUCA world

  1. HR professionals must understand the reality of the VUCA environment and the role of sustainable micro competitive advantages as a key to success in such a world.
  2. They must forge an agreement with senior management about the culture that is required to flourish in a VUCA world.
  3. HR tools and practices must be reformulated to reflect the business mandates of flexibility, adaptability cross-boundary collaboration and speed.
  4. HR departments must themselves be evaluated and held to the same cultural standard that is expected of the entire firm.