Steps to successful HR business partnering

by 10 Nov 2007

HR business partnering is on the increase, but what does partnering really mean? Is it just a change of title, a fad, or a permanent change to the way HR will operate in the future? Shirley Dalziel and Judith Strange look at the keys to successful HR business partnering

There are many interpretations of the term ‘HR business partnering’ and the job title, ‘HR business partner’. Business partnering can refer to the way that a professional services function is restructured into different roles, with the aim of providing a better and cheaper HR service to the organisation, indeed this is our preferred interpretation, However, since many organisations and individuals also use the term more informally, simply to describe HR professionals who they perceive as partnering the business to achieve its aims, this causes confusion and has started many a debate on what’s in a name?

Where a change of job title is the only difference, it is unlikely that added value benefits will be achieved. The reality of the HR role, means that highly qualified and reasonably well paid HR professionals, spend large chunks of their time on transactional, reactive work – such as writing recruitment letters, answering queries regarding maternity leave, conducting routine case work or chasing up managers for performance review documentation, leaving little time for the value-adding work.

Removing transactional work

Restructuring of the whole department or of roles, allows for the transactional work to be taken out of the equation and handled by another means. How this happens in reality, varies from organisation to organisation. Sometimes a full-blown shared service centre is set up with expensive IT systems and dedicated HR administrators, advisors or caseworkers.

At the other extreme, an HR administrator or two, a telephone helpline and/or an HR manual or intranet may be all that is required. The key is finding a different way to handle the continual grind of reactive, transactional work that has become the comfort zone for many HR professionals. Indeed, some organisations now throw transactional work over the fence for line managers to take on, while others choose to outsource. Some of these options can result in costly mistakes.

Organisations may buy expensive IT systems sold to them as being totally flexible and yet which end up being extremely inflexible and very expensive. Managers are highly paid experts whose time is invaluable and who tend not to take kindly to having to fill in forms on a computer system, with the associated chaos that can result. Similarly, outsourcing disorganised processes does not solve any long-term problems and can become very expensive if not managed well. Every organisation is different, and the key to success is finding an approach that fits within the organisation, its aims, its managers and its culture.

Be clear on the partnering route

One of the keys to successful partnering is knowing why your organisation is going down this route. Is it to save money? To allow HR to add more value to the organisation, or because everyone else is doing it? Interestingly, from our experience, it is those organisations whose main aim has been to enable their managers to better manage their people that have achieved the greatest successes.

This is not surprising, given that the link between employee engagement and organisational success has been repeatedly proven. The role of the line manager in employee engagement is self-evident; those who talk to their people, build on their strengths, give regular feedback on performance, identify learning needs and help find easier ways to deliver work, all benefit.

How HR can help

Once we know the reasoning, the next stage is simple! What needs to be different and how can HR help with this? If, for example, we decide that we are introducing HR business partnering to better enable our line managers to manage their people, then the questions we ask are: What do managers need to be able to do to better engage/manage their people? What can HR do to support them in this?

What can be interesting, is when we get to the stage of simplifying our HR processes to communicate to the line, we may discover multiple and conflicting HR policies and processes. One organisation, for example, found 152 different processes for recruitment. Simplifying processes is definitely a big advantage of going down the partnering route – even if we choose not to implement it, we will have still have increased the effectiveness and efficiency of HR in practice.

The role of line managers in change

For partnering to be truly successful, recognising the impact it will have, not just on HR, but on the organisation as a whole is important. Not only will HR have to change how it works, so will line managers. Sometimes it can be hard for HR to really engage them in this process, after all managers may view it as just another HR fad. The support of the senior management team becomes vital. This is not just an HR initiative, it’s a whole organisational change that improves organisational success. It needs to be managed as such.

Ensure the line is willing, able and allowed to change. It is common to hold development workshops to ensure manages are able, but little may be done to ensure they are willing. Some form of recognition for doing things differently is important, as is some form of accountability, such as including more people related objectives in managers’ performance reviews.

Having senior managers involved in the process will undoubtedly help. All senior managers ought to be role modelling and championing the move, not just the HR director. To ensure managers are allowed to do things differently, ask questions such as: What holds managers back from managing their people/involving HR in key decisions? What part of the culture really supports them in doing things differently? What incentive is there to change? Try and see things from the point of view of the line.

Define the HR roles and remits

Careful thought needs to be given to what an HR business partner will do. How they will partner with different areas of the business and how they will work with the rest of HR to deliver a better, more value-added service to the organisation as a whole.

What other roles will be needed as part of HR in this brave new world? With the more formal approach to HR business partnering there are usually HR business partners who align themselves closely to key managers in the business to provide strategic business-related solutions, such as the people issues that need to be considered if a new plant is opened up in another company or if a merger is planned. Depending on the likely work output, the business partners may also have assistant business partners or consultants to help them, although careful consideration needs to be given to how this is managed, or they may end up simply as the PA of the business partner, who takes on the ‘sexy’ work.

Perhaps one of the most problematic roles in the HR business partnering approach, is the role of what is referred to as the ‘centres of excellence’ or the ‘centres of expertise’, as Dave Ulrich calls them. This is the role that retains expertise in key areas of HR such as recruitment, employee relations, reward and benefits, and learning and development. The problems that can arise, is that they are specialists and as such are expected to provide ‘best practice HR’.

However it is important that what they deliver is required by the business to create success. If it is not, HR simply loses credibility, gets viewed as an ivory tower and is seen as forcing the next form of competency framework onto the business. This can be exacerbated by the individuals in these centres of excellence, perhaps having come from corporate HR and having higher grades than the business partners.

When this happens, the HR business partner simply becomes the implementer of HR policy and best practice, when what they really need to do is to identify the key people related solutions that will make the organisation more successful, such as moving from effect to cause, and establishing the causes of discipline cases, high instances of recruitment and grievances.

As mentioned, there will usually be some form of transactional unit, which can take many forms, including that of a shared service centre, whose role is often seen as that of reducing HR costs. Another role that is emerging is that of the HR caseworker, although this is often aligned closely to the transactional unit.

Be clear on how HR will work

The process of HR functions moving from a centralised HR function to one that is split into several discreet roles as described can be interesting. Common problems include the function becoming completely fragmented, with each taking on different roles, talking separately to the business, and producing multiple new policies and procedures. The key is to find ways that enable consistent contact with the business and ensure a joined up HR through the use of team working and virtual teams that are more closely aligned to different areas of the business.

To sum up, HR business partnering is more than just a change of title. It is about changing how we deliver HR to the business and how we organise our HR departments to enable this to happen in practice. Separating out and finding another way to handle the routine, transactional work is a key part of this process. Knowing why the organisation has planned to go down a partnering approach will simplify implementation, though certainly helping line managers to better manage their people has been a key to many organisations’ success. How do we make sure managers are willing to do things differently? It is a change that affects the whole organisation and needs to be managed as such, with the senior management team driving the changes. What are the roles and remit of the rest of HR and how will it all work together to ensure success is achieved?

HR business partnering is not just another HR fad; it is the future of HR. Other professional functions are following suit. We now have partners for functions such as internal communications, finance, IT, risk property – the one thing they all have in common is a belief that there is a better way to work with the business, more value they can add and that building better relationships with the line is vital to future success.

Top HR business partnering tips

1. Know what the business drivers for change are. What do managers need to be able to do to deliver what the business requires? What will HR need to do to support them in this?

2. Decide how best to structure HR to support the line. Review how well HR is currently meeting these needs and make changes to deliver what is required.

3. Involve the business and HR in implementing partnering. It is important that people are involved in any changes that take place, as imposed models have little chance of success. We need to understand how the approach will work for everyone involved.

4. Ensure senior management are seen to be driving the changes. This is not just an HR initiative or fad, it is an organisational change and a whole new way to deliver support services to add value in a cost-effective manner.

5. Recognise the impact it will have on line managers. Are managers 'willing', 'able' and 'allowed' to change. You will find resistance if any of these conditions are not met.

6. Be very clear on the roles within HR. Ensure everyone is very clear as to their responsibilities. Wherever possible, ensure that it is the HR business partners that drive what is required within HR to meet the needs of the organisation, rather than the more central parts of HR or indeed line managers themselves.

7. Know how all the roles will work together. Choose some key situations, such as implementing a new organisational strategy, developing the people plan, disciplining a very senior manager, implementing a new job evaluation program or managing a large scale recruitment, and track through with the whole of the HR team, exactly who will do what and where the 'hand-off' points will be and how they will take place. Be clear on the entry points for managers as well as those for other employees.

8. Continually review effectiveness of the model you have introduced. It is unlikely that you will get the model that suits you straight away. Making the necessary tweaks and changes as required will increase chances of long-term success. Include line managers in your reviews.

9. Make sure you have the right people in the right roles. Not everyone is suited to the more strategic role of the HR business partner and it is often down to preference and attitude as much as it is to skill. Put in place a development program for all individuals and roles to help people to meet their career aspirations.

10. Where possible, use virtual teams and align to different parts of the business. By introducing a formal HR business partnering approach, you will have broken the service up into bits. It is important for the line that these areas then work together again in teams to deliver a seamless service for different parts of the business.

Shirley Dalziel and Judith Strange are directors of develop uk, a management consultancy specialising in business partnering.