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HR business partnering: what's in it for the HR director?

Many HR directors have actively driven the implementation of HR business partnering, but has this brought them personal credibility with their executive team colleagues?

Imagine HR business partnering as a game of football. HR intranet and shared services are the pitch, line managers are the players, the HR business partner is their coach, specialist coaches sit in centres of excellence and among the spectators are academics and the media.

It's now more than 10 years since HR business partnering was first adopted by organisations. Using Roffey Park's recent research, Maximising the Value of HR Business Partnering, and its latest Management Agenda 2009 survey of over 800 managers, we can call half time and review the state of play.

There are mixed views on the overall success of HR business partnering to date, both among HR and line managers, with the harsher criticisms coming from the line.  For some organisations, both in the private and public sectors, HR business partnering has really begun to deliver and, where it is seen as more successful, the overall contribution of HR is also rated higher. Interestingly, organisations described as performing better financially and delivering better against their strategic plan were also the ones reporting more successful HR business partnering.

Managers from organisations with HR business partnering viewed HR as more likely to add value, to be proactive and as customer-focused as those without it - all the things Ulrich predicted.  However, rather surprisingly they were also more likely to describe HR as lacking in credibility. So what is going on and what are the implications for the HR director's reputation and standing at the top of the organisation?

Our research suggests that the HR director who approaches the introduction of this new game as a significant change programme to be overseen and managed accordingly is more likely to come out with sustained credibility and their personal reputation intact.

Taking the pitch first - HR intranets and shared services - the surface has been uneven and hard to play on and in some cases so uneven and waterlogged that play has been cancelled. This is where credibility can really take a hit as interviews with line managers revealed that getting the basics right has proved a challenge in this transition process.  One line manager told us: "The problems arise, not with the business partner, but the rest of system line managers are dealing with and the fact they got rid of functions in a half- cocked way."

The secret here for the successful HR director is a phased approach, where new systems are tested, staff are trained and line managers engaged. Only once this is running effectively should other parts of the model be introduced and any headcount reductions made. This may delay potential cost savings but is more likely to give a firm and reliable surface upon which more strategic benefits can be played out.

Now we turn to the players: HR business partnering requires line managers to take a much more active role in managing their people, both in terms of administrative HR as well as more demanding areas such as performance management, talent development and employee engagement. In the first half, many line managers have been uncertain of the rules of this new game and unclear about their roles. Many have been reluctant to even get on the pitch and those who have are sometimes not that good at kicking a ball.  

Yes, there is natural talent in some players but some organisations have put insufficient effort into explaining the potential business benefits of HR business partnering to line managers, gaining their buy-in, explaining their role and training and coaching them in HR skills and people management. These are the organisations least likely to report successful HR business partnering.

If you are already well into implementation, our research indicates it is not too late to rectify this situation. Many of the line managers we interviewed asked for better communication and more training. Here is an example of how this is working reasonably well in one organisation: "There's an initiative in our area for line managers to develop coaching skills to be able to work more closely with their people. From time to time there has been training on policies. It's also learning to manage the grey areas more sensitively."

The coach - the HR business partner - is often as much in the limelight as the players.  Their role is to develop the people strategy to support business objectives and to support the players to deliver this on the pitch. The issue is that business partners have often found themselves on the pitch. One HR respondent to our survey wrote: "... still undertaking transactional work due to unskilled management who are still to be convinced that managing people is their responsibility". The other issue has been the mixed readiness of HR professionals to take on this role. Our research shows that where business partners have been identified through rigorous selection procedures and have taken part in tailored development programmes organisations are more likely to report success than where they are simply moved over from other roles.

So where is the HR director in all this? Sometimes the HRD is the referee ensuring that the game is being played in the right conditions and to the optimum standards with varying opinions and advice coming from the media and academics up on the terraces. As we begin the second half of the game, we see HR directors in an overview role, taking the long-term view of this significant change as they guide their function and their organisation through iterative cycles of implementation of the HR business partnering model in order to deliver ever deepening value to the business.

Jo Hennessy, director of research, Roffey Park