November 26, 2015

What is a HR Business Partner?

There is still some confusion about what it means to be an HR business partner, even though the term has been around for a number of years now. What is an HR business partner? The truth is that there are many different definitions of what it is to be an HR business partner and many different working models, even within one organisation.

The CIPD has just held a two-day conference on this very subject in a drive to improve the profession’s understanding of what the HR business partner model means and how to achieve it. The conference included a series of seminars on topics such as ‘Defining the HR Business Partner’, ‘Outlining the Expectations of an HR Business Partner from the Business Perspective’ and ‘Using Data and Analytics to Make Informed Business Decisions’.

It was back in the mid-late 1990s that the US business academic Dave Ulrich started talking about the need for HR to become strategic business partners. He published a book called ‘Human Resource Champions’ that talked about the role of the modern HR professional within a business.

However one defines or views the HR business partner model, there is one central tenet to the concept – that the HR business partner needs to be aligned to the business. This is key to the model. It is also key to the direction HR is travelling in generally, whether in relation to the business partner model or not. Everyone knows that HR has to come out of its silo and work closely with the rest of the business towards common business goals. Many HR professionals and teams are already doing this and reaping the benefits.

But, as was clear at the CIPD event from the talks themselves, the discussions had and the tweets that emerged as the conference enfolded, there is still plenty of scope for improvement.

In order to be an effective, strategic business partner, then HR professionals need to have the right mindset – a business mindset. They need to have a thorough, deep understanding and appreciation of what the key business drivers are and what HR’s role is in achieving them. Business and commercial nous are really important. HR is a profession that is all about people and the needs of the workforce, but that is no longer enough. HR also has to be about the business and business needs – the business has to fulfill the needs of the workforce but more importantly, the workforce needs to fulfill the needs of the business. HR needs to ensure the two are aligned.

In order to achieve it, HR has to understand the drivers, operations and language of the different business functions. An HR business partner needs to be as comfortable reading a balance sheet as they are reading a training report. Only then can an HR business partner claim to be the credible, strategic, trusted business advisor it needs to be.

This requires good influencing and communication skills. In order to be trusted and accepted, an HR business partner may need to do some good internal PR so that the business understands what they offer. Business leaders need to understand the model, what it means for them and how to work strategically with HR business partners. It’s a two way process, but HR needs to be the one that gets the conversation going.