Saturday, March 24, 2018

The OD Quest: Part 6 – In the wonderland of HR Business Partners!

"I don’t have an opening in my OD team now. But, you can join our recruitment team and do recruitment in the OD way”, I heard the Senior HR Leader telling a candidate who was hell-bent on joining the OD team. This was my fifth ‘encounter’ with this gentleman (See 'Passion for work and anasakti ‘, 'Appropriate metaphors for organizational commitment ‘ ,‘To name or not to name, that is the question’ and ‘A Mathematical approach to HR’ for the outcomes of my previous interactions with him).

I was a bit taken aback by what I just heard. I knew that often these kind of ‘solutions’ will end in tears or worse. However, similar to what had happened during my previous encounters with him, this interaction forced me to think a bit more deeply about the underlying issue - the application of OD(Organization Development) to the various functional areas in HR (Human Resource Management). That, in turn, has prompted me to write this series of posts on 'The OD Quest' where we will look at the possibilities  that arise when OD ventures into other parts of the people management terrain.

In the first post in this series (see
The OD Quest: Part 1- Mapping the terrain) we did a cartography of the Human Resources (HR) and Organization Development (OD) domains to map out the current world (the terrain) inhabited by HR and OD and also the evolving worldviews in HR and OD (ways of looking at the terrain). In the second post (see The OD Quest Part 2 : Doing Recruitment in the OD way) we made a visit to the land of Recruitment and explored the value OD can add to Recruitment. In the third post (see The OD Quest: Part 3 – Rendezvous with L&D) we covered the Rendezvous with L&D. In the fourth post we saw how OD can sweeten Rewards and make it ‘Total Rewards’ (see The OD Quest: Part 4 – Totally Rewarding). In the fifth post, we explored a domain (Industrial Relations) that has often been considered as the antithesis of OD (see The OD Quest: Part 5 - Face to face with the antithesis?). In this post let’s take our quest to the wonderland of HR Business Partners(HRBPs) and see what are the possibilities for mutual value addition. 

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 mainly on ‘pure’ HRBPs – HRBPs 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. As they don't have too many operational responsibilities, the pure strategic HRBPs tend to gravitate towards the business transformation, strategic workforce planning, employee engagement and culture building kind of work. This brings them closer to OD. 

The other kind of HRBPs, who have more operational roles (who focus on employee life cycle management) would  have another kind of overlap with OD. These HRBPs (HR Operations Managers) are closer to action (they are often embedded in the business they are supporting) and hence they are in a great position to know the pulse of the organization which is very essential for the diagnosis, solution design and implementation of OD initiatives.

The traditional distinction between HRBPs and OD has been that the specialists (including OD specialists) are supposed to do the design part and the generalists (HRBPs) are supposed to do the implementation part. In reality, these boundaries are fuzzy. Design can't happen in a vacuum (e.g. only based on underlying theory/principles and external best practices). Design has to be based on an accurate diagnosis of the organization context. HRBPs are closer to the context as compared to OD managers. Business relationship management is a key part of the HRBP role and this also gives them an opportunity to build close working relationships with the business leaders. So the diagnosis for OD initiatives is best done in partnership with the HRBPs. Also the partnership with HRBPs would make the OD designs more implementable. Similarly implementation can’t be done effectively without a deep understanding of the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of what is being implemented. This means that the HRBPs should work closely with the OD managers for carrying out their job effectively.  

I have seen 3 common modes of partnership that HRBPs have with OD Managers: 

1. I will do all interfacing with MY businesses leaders!! I will call you if I need OD help!
2. Do your work directly with the business leaders. Just don't create any trouble or additional work for me or my team!!
3. Let's work jointly on this!

Based on the discussion above, it is clear that the mode 3 is the most effective one. This brings us to the important question of why (if this is such an obvious choice for both the parties involved) mode 3 is not always adopted. To me, the most important issues here are related to trust, perceived value addition and sharing of credit.

For any partnership (including HRBP - OD partnership) to work both the parties should derive net value from the partnership (the benefits should be more than the costs/investment). If the HRBPs perceive that the OD Manager brings in a certain deep expertise that would be beneficial in meeting the HRBP deliverables and that the OD Managers won’t create  unwanted issues for the HRBPs, HRBPs would be keen to partner with OD Managers. A track record of consistent value addition creates trust and credibility. Similarly if the OD Managers perceive that the HRBPs can help in contracting with the business leaders, in  diagnosis, solution design & implementation and in sustaining the results, they would be keen to partner with the HRBPs. Yes, this would also mean that OD Managers should invest time in building/enhancing the OD skills of HRBPs by giving conceptual inputs, training on tools and by working together. Once the net value addition,  trust and credibility is established then it is easier to tackle the issue of sharing of credit. Of course, if HRBPs and OD Managers have different reporting lines both of them can claim ‘full credit’!

Where does this leave us?

In OD, scalability and the organization-wide impact and sustaining the new patterns of working post the OD initiative  are the most difficult challenges. Since OD would always be a small team, building OD skills in the HRBPs (in both the strategic and operational HRBPs, may be at different levels of proficiency depending on the nature of their job/involvement in OD initiatives) can help in scalability and organization-wide impact (beyond doing isolated ‘hit and run’ Interventions). Again, working jointly with the HRBPs would help in better diagnosis, solution design, implementation and sustaining the results of OD initiatives. Similarly, effective partnership with OD Managers can help the HRBPs to  build skills, climb the value chain, created differentiated value for the business they are supporting and develop the credibility to be true strategic business partners (See nature abhors vacuum for what could happen when the transactional responsibilities are removed from HR Managers). Of course, this also means that OD Managers should develop a very deep technical expertise in OD coupled with business understanding so that the HRBPs would have a logical reason to get them involved. Again, OD Managers, being relative outsiders, are in a better position to surface certain difficult issues with the business leaders and to have courageous conversations’’ with  business leaders that the HRBPs, being embedded in the business, might find more difficult to pull off (See OD Managers as Court Jesters for a related discussion)!

In a way, the separation between the OD and  HRBP roles are arbitrary with the strategic/pure HRBP roles gravitating towards the business transformation, strategic workforce planning, employee engagement and culture building kind of work that very much overlaps with the traditional OD domains. In one of my previous companies, people like me who were on OD roles were moved to HRBP roles worldwide as it was felt that the HRBP roles require an OD kind of skill set. Also, I  have seen many senior HR generalists do the kind of great process facilitation/ process consulting work with business leadership teams that would make any OD specialist proud. But usually these HR leaders don't call it OD and they don't talk too much about it - may be because they see it as a very natural part of their job and may be also because they don't want to annoy the 'designated OD specialists' in the organization!

Thus, the HRBP-OD partnership can be highly beneficial for both the parties involved. The key requirement is to address the key issues of perceived value addition, trust and sharing of credit as we have seen earlier! 

Any comments/thoughts before we take our OD quest to the next domain in the HR land?!

*Note: 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 - especially in terms of the intersection with the world of Organization Development.

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