Before we get stuck in, it’s important to note that different organisations and individuals see the HR business partner role slightly differently. There is no definition set in stone. However, there are some central tenets, and as the concept of HR business partnerships gain momentum and popularity we are beginning to see a more cohesive understanding. In order to address the question ‘What is an HR business partner?’ we need to look at the function and role of HR and how organisations meet their HR needs.

The Fundamentals of an HR Business Partnership

Fundamentally, HR business partnering is a model which can be used to organise the way HR functions are carried out. At its core is the belief that HR as a function needs to be very closely aligned with the top and the centre of the organisation’s structure: so with leaders and managers. In this way, the functions of HR can therefore truly enhance organisational objectives and add value. HR business partnering makes HR a part of organisational strategy rather than a strict personnel function which is reactive.

The Current Trend

HR business partnering is gaining popularity amongst organisations as their way of organising their HR function because it’s proving to add significant business value. Through business partnering, HR can be seen as the instigator of both balance and change, aligning different stakeholders to the overall organisational goals. On the ground, this means HR is there recruiting the right talent and motivating it in the here and now, without losing sight of the larger goals and performance in the long-term.

How HR Business Partnering Looks in Practice

In practice this means that whilst HR is, of course, a distinct function within the organisation it is also a true partnering with the business’s leaders and management, driving the organisational goals and then translating this into action on the ground. HR strategies are not simply created reactively, or out of legal necessity, butting antlers with those around them. Instead, HR strategy is determined within the context of the business strategy – the two go hand in hand.

The Origins of HR Business Partnering

The origins of HR Business Partnering stem back to the 1990s and Dave Ulrich’s model of organising HR. It’s a little contentious now and has taken a somewhat meandering path since its inception, but the Ulrich Model, stemming from his book ‘HR Champions’ identified four roles of the HR professional:

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

In its most basic form, you can see how this aligns the aims and goals of the organisation with the needs and development of the individual employee. Therefore, at its heart is the concept of relationship.

However, mention the Ulrich Model directly, rather than the generalised concept of HR business partnership and you can be met with disdain. Ulrich himself explains that the problem is “that people too often see the structure part of his 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.”

HR Business Partnering in Practice

Therefore, for HR business partnering to be effective in practice, it is dependent on its implementation and the people in its form. A wider approach of HR business partnering looks at several broader functions and characteristics:

  • Proactive Strategic Approach: HR practitioners should always be working within the concept of, and shaping, the overall business strategy. It’s about objective setting, responding to challenges, and consistently adding overall value.
  • Being Cost Effective: Cost-effectiveness has always been a bone of contention for the HR function. However, by taking a strategic approach it is more possible to demonstrate cost-effectiveness through excellent solutions and positive contributions. This seeks to enhance HR credibility as a by-product.
  • 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 organisation.
  • 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.

How to Apply HR Business Partnering

Therefore, and going back to Ulrich’s own comments on his model, HR business partnering looks different from one organisation to another – precisely because it should be aligned with the individual strategy of the individual organisation in which it’s partnering. It’s also worth noting that it may not, in its entirety, be the right model of HR for your particular organisation, or at this particular time.

However, if taken with a broader understanding, and more as a ‘mind-set’ of how to utilise HR most effectively, then it can be applied to any organisation. HR should always support business objectives and therefore, this tenet of HR business partnerships is worth getting on board.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) states the two most common way of implementing a business partnership are:

  • Standalone HR business partners
  • Three-legged stool model

The first sees HR business partnership as a distinct organisation role. The second defines three specific areas of HR expertise: shared services; strategic business partners; and, centres of excellence.

The Success of HR Business Partnering

For HR business partnering to truly work in practice, HR needs to shake off its personal lack of self-esteem. HR, done strategically, does add immense value to the organisation. This needs to be paired with the confidence to be the square peg in a round hole challenging business strategy to add that value through the scope of human resource. In many ways, this can only be done if the HR function is as expert in the nature of the unique business it works in, rather than the typical generalist approach.

HR business partnership, taken with a broader definition, is the future of HR. It steps away from the confined functions of recruitment, training etc, and instead makes these functions work for the business. This is so much easier when the HR function has the right tools on hand to make the day-to-day tasks fit the overall strategic aims, such as Natural HR software.

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