The future of HR Business Partners

“Human Resources Business Partner” (aka HRBP) is a common job title among Human Resources professionals.

This type of HR job was first introduced in 1997 by Dave Ulrich who included the HRBPs as one of the pillars of a new organisational model for the HR function he described in his book Human Resource Champions.

According to Ulrich, the existence of the Human Resources function makes sense as long as it contributes to the organisation’s competitiveness through a set of management practices that need to be aligned with the business strategy and other particular circumstances of the company.

To ensure this value contribution, Ulrich argued, companies needed to rethink the way most HR departments were organised combining functional specialists (payroll, industrial relations, training, recruiting, etc.) and generalist roles (typically HR Managers).

Ulrich proposed an alternative structure where most administrative and transactional activities would be performed by shared service centers (internal or outsourced) while a small team of “HR business partners” would play a more strategic, business-oriented role. There would also be a small group of specialists in topics such as development, compensation and benefits, and so on. Besides, managers would be more actively involved in certain people management processes that would be “returned” to their domain.

At that time, it was a revolutionary idea: a group of senior «advisors», experts in both HR and business, working side by side with line managers. Those business partners would make sure the “human factor” was taken into account in business decisions, and that business priorities were considered in the design of HR policies and practices. A bridge between two worlds, away from the noise of daily operations…

20 years later the job title of HR Business Partner is used by many organisations from very different industries and geographies. But still, not all companies are on the same page.

Some companies are still debating whether or not to introduce this role in their HR organisations, while others are already wondering what comes next, and how to evolve from the initial concept of HRBPs to a new generation of HR roles that will help the function formerly known as Human Resources better contribute to the deployment of the business strategy, bring more value to the organisation, and take advantage of the possibilities offered by technological innovation.

And, of course, there are also companies where HRBPs have not worked well. A study on this topic made by Roffey Park in 2008 revealed that only 47% of managers considered that the introduction of HRBPs in their HR organisations had been a success, while 26% (one in four!) thought it had been a totally ineffective initiative…

The Human Resources department of a company can perfectly play such role without having in its structure any HRBP job, as well as labeling some HR jobs with the HRBP title does not convert that Human Resources department into a true «business partner».

Today the competitiveness of companies largely depends on their adaptability, and hence on their people. Consequently, most HR departments need to act as “business partners”. Yet, the Human Resources department of a company can perfectly play such role without having in its structure any HRBP job, as well as labeling some HR jobs with the HRBP title does not convert that Human Resources department into a true «business partner».

In my opinion, one of the main problems with HR Business Partners is something frequently happens with many management practices: companies tend to adopt new managerial practices by imitation, not because they have come to the conclusion, after having evaluated all the alternatives, that that specific solution is the best recipe for the particular circumstances of the organisation. As a consequence, some companies take the decision of creating the role of HRBP without a full understanding of what this position is about and the capacities its incumbents need to posses.

In fact, it is usual to find HR professionals that bear the title of HRBP but whose job content has little to do with Ulrich’s original idea. The name may be the same but, rather than being focused on ensuring the organisation’s people management practices bring value to the business, they are generalists that end up being absorbed by day-to-day nuisances. This is particularly frequent when the company does not put in place the two other fundamental pillars of Ulrich’s model: the shared service center for transactional activities, and the group of specialists.

In other occasions the pitfalls are related to how the HRBP job is introduced into the organisation. Sometimes, line managers are not sufficiently involved in the process, so they regard the HRBP as a kind of aide-de-camp for HR matters rather than as a true strategic partner, while in other companies the problem is a lack of internal coordination between HRBPs, shared service centers, and the specialists who deal with processes such recruitment, training, etc.

However, the first thing companies should ask themselves prior to creating any HRBP role is whether the professionals who will play that role have the necessary capacities to perform it effectively.

Logically, HRBPs need to know about «Human Resources«, «Business» and possess the interpersonal skills, influence, and credibility to be recognised as «Partners» by line managers. HRBPs need to guide line managers in the field of ​​people management, proposing them tailored solutions in line with the business situation of the company, and the particularities of the business unit in which the HRBP is embedded, and this requires from the HRBP seasoned judgment and a business acumen not so common among professionals who have developed their entire career within the same function.

Besides, as Ulrich recently argued, HRBPs also need to be credible activists capable of influencing decisions through relationships of trust, and navigating the paradoxes of today’s complex organisational contexts, and be oriented to the outside so they understand, for example, that nowadays the culture of a company should be defined less as an internal exercise and more in terms of how the identity the company wants to project in the market is instilled in the behavior of employees and in its management practices.

In addition, to collaborate with HR shared service centers and functional specialists, HRBP need to be able to speak their language, and have sufficient «technical» credibility to avoid being regarded as mere intermediaries of the «orders» placed by line managers.

Notwithstanding, as I already mentioned at the beginning of this article, not all organisations are on the same page, and some authors and companies are already exploring a new generation of HR roles that better contribute to the deployment of the business strategy, bring more value to the organisation, and take advantage of the possibilities offered by technological innovations.

Among these voices, Frank Bafaro, Diana Ellsworth and Neel Gandhi argue the convenience of replacing the role of traditional HR Business Partners with a new figure, baptised as Talent Value Leaders (TVL), that “would not only help business leaders connect talent decisions to value-creating outcomes but would also be held fully accountable for the performance of the talent.”

In contrast to the HRBPs we find in many organisations today, those TVLs will be accountable for metrics such as skills development, engagement or employee attrition, and much of their value contribution will depend on their ability to leverage technology to provide line managers with insights and perspectives to facilitate decision-making. Among further changes in HR organisations, Bafaro Ellsworth and Gandhi also envision the emergence of pools of multiskilled HR professionals that will work in projects along with other internal or external resources to support the new talent value leaders and respond to the changing needs of the organisation.

In any case, in a context where the work of managers has a greater component of people management, and where they can be more autonomous thanks to technological advances, I can not help but wonder if the future of HRBPs, and the measure of their success, may be to become unnecessary.

Versión en español

Image Julie Rieg under a Creative Commons license

Un artículo de
Santi Garcia