Give Human Resource Business Partners a Break

by Reed Deshler

As we work with major organizations undergoing HR transformation (and many are still underway), we find variants of the three-pronged HR delivery model (business partners, HR operations and centers of expertise) popularized by David Ulrich over 20 years ago. One recurring challenge is freeing up Business Partners to fulfill the strategic relationship building and brokering role envisioned in many, if not most HR models.

As the primary customer-facing role in most HR organizations, the business partner is often the first position filled in a new HR organization. New business partners energetically attempt to establish themselves as the human capital advisor for their assigned client group. Because of the strategic role business partners play, seasoned HR professionals often fill these key positions. They have much to bring to their clients in terms of HR experience and business perspective. However, the tricky part of HR transformation isn’t managing the HR business partner role. Rather, it is managing the rest of HR so that the business partner isn’t left being the head, heart, hands (and legs) of HR, while the rest of the team is trying to sort out how to execute in the new model.

Ideally, HR business partners are stripped of the transactional, necessary work, and even much of the strategic development, program-building job of HR, so that they can play a more advisory and brokering role with their clients. Great business partners are able to understand and assess the unique needs of the business and find the right HR solutions. What happens (in practice) is that they become the shop-floor expeditor for HR – they run around trying to help HR execute. They find the right people to address the needs, and they free up HR resources from other activities or projects and redirect them on the strategic work needed. At the same time, they project manage delivery of HR programs and services.

A myriad of factors can slow or derail HR transformation efforts such as talent gaps, difficulty in shifting resources, system limitations, inadequate prioritization, governance, and underdeveloped processes and delivery mechanisms. Because of these factors, HR can fail to deliver on targeted objectives, increase costs, lose credibility, and delay the realization of benefits.

Among other things, we observe that HR leaders who aggressively enable or resource HR operations or COEs are able to gain needed traction, and avoid floundering for months or years, working through a long and frustrating transformation process.

Some tactics we’ve seen HR leaders use to help over-extended business partners and enable effective delivery during the transformation are:

• Develop an overall deployment roadmap that carefully sequences the delivery of key activities and capabilities to address “messy” business realities (e.g., strategic business priorities, unfilled leadership roles, maturity of processes/systems, technology implementations, and service delivery risks);

• Set “interim” service level expectations (even qualitative ones) for the transition period – this will help keep people focused on delivery;

• Start the implementation of new HR models first with operations and/or COEs, not business partners (at least think about how HR delivery will be enabled during the transition);

• Align HR operations and COEs by business partner until systems and processes have been optimized. That way, business partners have a line of sight to the team members that support delivery for their clients;

• Overstaff business partner roles or provide extra support resources reporting to business partners until HR operations and COEs are up and running;

• Set-up prioritization and governance processes so that the demand for HR services and program development is managed and expectations are contained (particularly until the new model is functional and longer term to match the delivery capacity of HR); and

• Implement short-term processes for distributing the workload across the organization, such as assigning project management responsibilities of more complex, cross-COE/Operations efforts to someone other than business partners.

While any of these tactics can be effective by themselves, some of these tactics work well in tandem. HR leaders that find ways to give their business partners a break are the ones that maintain HR’s credibility and ensure delivery.

Because HR business partners can’t ensure delivery alone, consider some of these deployment strategies as a way to rethink the roll-out and transition of HR during transformation.

Business clients and your business partners may both thank you.

Published by The Conference Board