• Louis Scenti

The Human Resources Business Partner Revolution: Mirage or Unfinished Business?

As two long-time HR practitioners, we have spent a great deal of time reflecting on HR’s role in not only supporting an organization or a business, but its role in adding significant value as measured by business metrics. This is the lens through which we are writing and sharing this series of blog posts. In exploring this topic we came to the conclusion that the phrase, “business partner” is used too often without a clear understanding of what it means. We will examine the phenomenon of how a staff function like HR can contribute in a way that transcends merely providing operational and administrative support. We start our series with a brief exploration of how the HRBP concept came into being and how it has evolved in practice. We invite readers to reflect on their own experience and to share experiences related to the subjects we address.

A familiar mantra is that HR needs to be more strategic. We have been hearing this from HR experts and scholars, practitioners, and senior level executives for years and years. Yet, it remains, like the proverbial carrot on a stick urging the donkey (with all due respect to the HR profession) ever forward, but never enjoying the sweet taste of fulfillment.

Much has been written about what being strategic means and how to achieve it. Most would agree that David Ulrich deserves the credit for giving voice to this concept more than 20 years ago in his book, “Human Resource Champions: The Next Agenda for Adding Value and Delivering Results,” when he advocated for a shift from transactional and administrative HR activities to a more strategic and business-centric approach. The basic principles for transforming HR included:

  • Creating an organization design with a unified structure that delivers value to the business, not just service;

  • Defining clear roles for HR that are competency-based and used to build and grow a sophisticated set of skills; and,

  • Measuring a company’s performance on HR dimensions with business metrics, or often oversimplified as “speaking the language of the business.”

Some have likened this shift to that made by Finance, Marketing, IT and most recently, Data Analytics functions, reinventing themselves as disciplines with sophisticated tools and methods that contribute to creating competitive advantage for the organization.

Ulrich’s ideas were seized upon enthusiastically. Scholars, trade and professional associations, and practitioners all jumped on the strategic HR bandwagon. A generation of HR professionals took up the challenge. For HR itself, this signaled a means to assess, codify, and better deploy roles in the administrative, compliance, and advice-giving domains of HR. The objective has been to achieve a degree of synergy that delivered greater value to the organization than the sum of the individual components.

Along the way, the concept of “business partnership” became oversimplified and then singularly applied to a specific role, the Human Resources Business Partner (HRBP), in many cases formerly known as HR Generalist. This new HRBP role was suddenly expected to bear the full burden of “being strategic” by getting close to the business, understanding its needs, and adapting centralized HR programs and practices to bespoke business solutions. In the August 22, 2016 of HR Magazine, Jenny Roper observes:

The biggest failure to stay vigilant in truly optimizing the Ulrich model...is that...HR managers are being expected to magically transform into truly strategic, consultative business partners overnight.”

Some believe the original intent of Ulrich’s model was oversimplified through the creation of a role-based solution. Many others (including ourselves) believe that some in the profession misunderstood that Ulrich’s model was intended to function holistically, while some organizations have cherry-picked parts of the model and overspecialized others. Roper goes on to say:

People too often see the structure part of [Ulrich’s] theories as a ‘solution’ – something which, once implemented, will automatically deliver brilliant HR. As with anything, the reality is of course much more nuanced. As with anything, it’s often not what you do, but how – or rather how intelligently – you do it.”

A third criticism cited by scholars such as John Boudreau of the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business and Center for Effective Organizations, is that HR practices, in part due to the over-specialization of the HRBP and Center of Expertise (COE) roles, have become too standardized. Rather than providing solutions specifically tailored to the needs of the business, over-specialization has bred a “vending machine” mentality where standard products and services are doled out based on superficial diagnoses of root causes.

In summary, we believe that: 1) expecting one role -that of the HRBP- to be the sole mechanism to deliver business value; 2) applying the Ulrich model selectively or ineffectively; and, 3) overspecialization leading to the need for better integration of efforts to diagnose and prescribe solutions, have played an outsized role in keeping HR from delivering upon the promise of Ulrich’s vision.

Our next post will pick up with a deeper exploration of the HRBP role. We will examine what it takes to understand the aims of a given business and apply HR expertise in a way that delivers genuine business value.

About the authors:

Louis Scenti is the Founder and President of Cognoscenti Associates, a consultancy specializing in executive and leadership coaching and organizational consulting. 

Prior to founding Cognoscenti Associates, Louis worked for more than 30 years as a practitioner of leadership development, organization development and talent management for several premier financial services firms, most recently as the Chief Talent Officer for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

He is currently an Adjunct Lecturer at Columbia University's School of Professional Studies in the Human Capital Management Masters Degree program. 

Somers HR Solutions is an independent consultancy dedicated to helping business leaders and their teams diagnose and solve people management challenges.  Managing Partner, Ken Somers, is especially adept at coaching HR Business Partners and business leaders to enhance their organizational impact.  He is passionate about delivering “answers for the real world.”

Ken’s career spans more than 40 years as both an HR practitioner and executive leader.  In addition to his domestic experiences, he has lived and worked in Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, India, and Malaysia.  Ken completed his most recent assignment as the interim country head for an insurance company’s back office operation in Poland.  Ken’s vast international experience enables him to bring a multicultural and multi-generational perspective to solving client challenges.

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