Friday, November 14, 2008

In the wonderland of HR Business Partners – Part 1

The posts in this series constitute some sort of 'random' walks in the wonderland of HR Business Partners (HRBPs). Since our objective here is to explore the terrain (and not to reach anywhere in particular), we have the liberty of adopting the amazingly liberating philosophy of "if we take any path and walk long enough on it we are bound to get somewhere".

There are a wide range of HR roles that go by the HR Business Partner (HRBP) title. For the purpose of our discussion, let us focus on ‘pure’ HRBPsHRBPs whose role is that of being a strategic business partner - to the business they are supporting. This would mean that they are supposed to have very little or no transactional/operational HR responsibilities. So these roles (HR roles that don't do usual HR work) are some sort of freaks of evolution- in the evolution of the HR function. Freaks occur in the course of biological evolution also. But they are unlikely to create much of a problem as they usually don't live long enough to reproduce. However since HRBPs can (and do) survive long enough in organizations to create (hire/develop) more HRBPs, it is worthwhile to take a closer look at them and their world.

I must say that I have handled HR Business Partner (HRBP) roles – in the not too distant past. Most of what I say in this series of posts are based on ‘hard experiences’ – mine and those of my fellow HR Business Partners – across organizations. While some of the observations in this post might seem funny, I have absolutely no intention to make fun of HRBPs. I know the challenges and complexities faced by HRBPs a bit too well to attempt something like that. Again, though I am in a specialist role now, I have a great amount of respect for HR generalists (see ‘In praise of HR generalists’), – including HRBPs.

In the wonderland of HR Business Partners – Part 1 : Seven guaranteed ways to make an HR Business Partner fail

A story...

Once upon a time, there was an HR Operations leader who was doing very well in his job - happily implementing HR processes & policies. Then the corporate HR leadership in his company came under the spell of Dave Ulrich’s ideas - or what they thought be Dave Ulrich’s ideas. They also saw other firms in their industry adopting such ideas. They did not want to be left behind. After all what is the fun of being in corporate HR - if you are not considered to be 'progressive' and 'state of the art'. So the inevitable happened - the company changed its HR operating model - worldwide.

Being ‘top talent’, our HR Ops leader was chosen to move into one of the newly created HR Business Partner roles - the roles that were supposed to take the HR function in the company to the next level of excellence and to add immense value to the business.

He understood that he should play a strategic HR role. He knew that he should partner with the business leadership. He knew that he was a high cost resource and hence he should produce good results-that too quickly. He wanted to do a good job – he was a top performer throughout his career.

So he worked very hard. In the spirit of collaboration and to ensure seamless service to the business, he did his best to proactively cooperate with other parts of HR and even with the finance & communications teams of the business he was supporting.

Many months passed. Our HR leader was feeling strangely uneasy. Initially, he could not figure out what was wrong. He was doing a lot of things - including participating in all the Leadership Team meetings of the business. He was in a role that was supposed to be the 'highest form of evolution' among HR roles. But he was not feeling happy. Sometimes he felt that he was like a 'mouse in a maze' - running here and there, feeling extremely busy, but getting nowhere. So he took a week's leave - to think things over. After he was away from the pressures of work for a few days, things started becoming clear in his mind.

He realized
…that playing a strategic role required skills he did not have & that these skills are not easy to develop - especially in a short period of time
…that what the business leaders expected from him was not really strategic
…that they wanted him to ‘manage the HR system’ – to ensure that what they want gets done
…that he was getting involved in issues that he was not supposed to – as per his role
…that he was fighting too much with other parts of HR - leading to too many escalations and that the global HR function was looking less like a 'team' and more like a 'house divided against itself'
…that Finance team was not taking him or his role seriously
…that he couldn't get reliable data to analyze business level patterns & trends on people issues
…that he wouldn't have enough results to show at the end of the year to justify his salary &
…that no one really understood what exactly his role was supposed to deliver

Being an intellectually honest person, he could not help wondering if he himself understood his role correctly & if his role really existed.

7 guaranteed ways to make an HRBP fail

1. Don’t define the scope and responsibilities of the HRBP role clearly

2. Don’t establish the performance measures for the HRBP role

3. Don’t secure the buy-in/agreement from the business leaders for the HR operating model, HRBP role, its deliverables and the choice of the role holder

4. Don’t make the other parts of HR (HR operations, specialist functions etc.) accountable to the HRBPs

5. Ensure that the HRBP does not have the data and analytical/reporting tools to derive the business-level patterns/trends on key people and business related parameters. This will create a situation where the HRBP can't work at the patterns/trends level (as they are supposed to do), prompting them to get involved in 'individual employee- level' issues (after all they have to something) - a great recipe for ensuring 'territory battles' with HR operations.

6. Move HR staff from other parts of HR into HRBP roles without verifying if they have the requisite competencies to be effective in the HRBP role. If you can't find any other role for a senior HR leader, move him/her into an HRBP role. Assume that the vacuum created by the removal of transactional/operational HR responsibilities will get automatically filled up by strategic activities (see 'Nature abhors vacuum' for more details)

7. Change the HRBPs frequently - before they have had the opportunity/time to understand the business or to build relationships and credibility with the business leaders

Now that we have heard the story of an HRBP and also derived some lessons from the story, let us explore what can be done to maximize the chances success in HRBP roles. Some of this can be derived from this post itself – by logical deduction. But some other aspects are not so obvious or easy. Anyway, we will look at some of them in the subsequent posts in this series.

Over to you for your comments/suggestions and experiences!


bombay dosti said...

after an appraisal meeting yesterday, this post, makes even more sense ;-)

getting the buy in of the business leaders on the deliverables of the HRBP is a key aspect of the role. The leadership competencies of the HRBP comes out in that aspect, actually. The "HR Leader" - would look forward to your post/comments on leadership competencies for a HRBP:)

Prasad Kurian said...

Thanks for the comment.

'Leadership competencies for an HRBP job' is a tricky subject. Usually, 'competencies' are defined in the context of a job/ of being effective (‘successful’) in a job. From a 'real life' perspective, HRBP jobs tend to be rather amorphous. They also tend get shaped to a large extent by the jobholders - by the 'successful' ones at least! Of course, the definition (if any!) of success/effectiveness in HRBP jobs often vary widely across organizations/contexts.

Hence, as we can't really fix the definitions of the job and that of effectiveness on the job, it becomes tricky to talk about competencies for the job - in the traditional sense.

It is possible to formulate 'ideal' definitions for the HRBP job and for effectiveness on the HRBP job and then try to deduce an ideal set of competencies (including leadership competencies). But any inferences drawn from this 'thought experiment' might not survive the contact with reality -especially the rather 'messy' reality that often surrounds HRBP jobs!

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Jay Menon said...

Good thoughts Prasad. My sense is that in today's world we require more "generalist" mindset to change hats as appropriate.

Prasad Kurian said...

Thanks Jayesh.

Andy Spence said...

Really enjoyed the post. Key comment is "what they thought to be Dave Ulrich’s ideas". The implementation of the so called "Ulrich Model" has been problematic, in particular the Business Partner model. The title itself is confusing and symptomatic of a function which has lost its direction. Aren't colleagues in IT and Finance 'business partners' too?

Prasad Kurian said...

Thanks Andy.