The Evolution of the Modern HR Business Partner

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Vaso Perimenis
08/27/2020

HR BP evolution

In 2003, I experienced an early version of HR business partnership. I worked for a major healthcare organization in South Florida which was quickly expanding its footprint and business.

The traditional Human Resources structure that was one degree away from personnel administration could no longer support the organization. We created a new capability called “HR Site Management” as a way to bridge the divide between local leadership and corporate HR. The new department was responsible for employee relations and acted as a conduit between corporate and local business units.

In the past 15 years, I have experienced a continual evolution of the HR business partner (HR BP) role. Different organizations and individuals see the HR business partner role slightly differently. There is no definitive structure, but there are some central tenets that contribute to a successful function and role.

The origins of HR business partnering come from the 1990s and Dave Ulrich’s model of organizing which stems from his book ‘HR Champions.’ In it, he identified four roles of the HR professional:

  • Strategic partner
  • Change agent
  • Employee champion
  • Administrative expert

This definition alone cannot operationalize an HR BP model. Rather, it sets the stage for an evolved HR based on consultant-like qualities that includes less order-taking and more focus on solutions.  

Take Two

My second encounter with the business partner role was in another healthcare organization in 2009. In this iteration, the role was created and funded with talent from overstaffed recruitment and employee relations departments. The roles’ responsibilities included some employee relations, shared with the employee relations team, recruitment of manager-level jobs and general liaison with manager and director level positions.

READ: HR and the Gig Talent Economy

With lower recruiting volumes, the model worked. However, when the recruitment volumes started to increase, the model was not sustainable. In addition, although there were many alignment meetings with the employee relations center of expertise, the misalignment continued. The gap in consistency and interpretation between the centers of expertise and the HR BP function persisted.

Once the environmental conditions changed, Human Resources had to re-examine the role. In this second iteration in 2012, HR created a sourcing function that assumed responsibility for manager recruitment. The employee relations function remained with the HR BP role. The historical misalignment issues were improved by a weekly case review huddle between the HR BP and employee relations teams. Also, each HR BP partnered with an assigned employee relations expert to ensure appropriate consultation. The HR team also learned about performance consulting as the methodology for operating as consulting partners to the business to solve business problems with people tactics and strategies. Performance consulting tools included:

  • Formal project contracts with defined goals, objectives and metrics.
  • Quarterly outcome reports to HR colleagues and key business stakeholders.
  • Continuous education.
  • Regular monthly reports shared with business leaders.
  • Data analysis, interpretation and evidence-based work.

Third Time’s the Charm

The third iteration came in 2015 with a downsizing that required the Human Resources team to reduce its HR BP team by half. This required a review of all expectations and job responsibilities that yielded decisions to keep, change or delete.

The employee relations function was fully centralized in the employee relations center of expertise. The HR BP no longer attended employee appeal hearings and responded to compliance hotline complaints.  The biggest change was a shift from supporting manager-level leaders to vice presidents and higher. By moving support up the chain of command, the HR BP could more easily influence decisions and projects. This change required the HR BPs to evolve and adopt the following qualities:

  • Relationship-Based: The most successful HR business partnering is reliant on the positive and productive relationships formed and the collaboration which then becomes possible. HR becomes the driver of an intensely well-networked organization.
  • Initiative and Solution Focused: Rather than simply performing the daily functions of the old-school HR department, HR business partnerships work more holistically to translate strategy into action.
  • Talent Expert: As talent management becomes recognized as a critical organizational capability, HR BPs must learn how to help identify, develop and act as stalwarts of all-things talent. Business leaders must look to HR BPs as drivers of value via pulling talent levers.
  • Sharp Business Acumen: Business acumen means having enough knowledge of a business situation that will lead to a great outcome. HR practitioners must be able to read, understand and analyze financial statements such as profit and loss reports, cash flow statements and balance sheets. They must learn about the business’ key customers and market challenges.
  • Coach: Being a trusted business advisor means taking on the role of a coach. The HR BP must understand the business, gain and maintain credibility, and be a thought partner to help find creative solutions to business needs.

During my second encounter, the HR BP role evolved three formal times. There were informal edits too with the goal of aligning the role to the business. This is a great example of why one definition of HR BP is often insufficient to meet the demand for the capability. Human resources organizations must continuously evaluate the role’s efficacy in context of fast-moving environmental and business changes by:

  • Monitoring performance against a standard methodology and discrete business outcomes.
  • Annually reviewing the HR BP job structure to ensure alignment with business changes.
  • Obtaining feedback from key stakeholders regarding HR BP talent and their ability to move the performance needle.

HR is moving from a largely tactical, administrative function to a more strategic role focused on creating value. Before you embark on your next HR BP transformation, you need to:

  1. Understand what “success” means.
  2. Define the capabilities and competencies required to support the business.
  3. Develop individuals to close any skill and competency gaps.

Ensuring that your HR business partner community has the desired competencies, an aligned HR vision with all parts of HR, and the ability to align HR strategies with business desired outcomes will result in a successful next level HR BP capability.

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