The following is adapted from the forthcoming book, HRBP 3.0.
“No thanks. We don’t need your help with building our strategy. Instead, how about revising our job descriptions? Let us know how that turns out.”
Gartner Survey Reports HRBP Ineffectiveness
Since David Uplink’s 1996 publication, Human Resource Champions, many CHROs believe that business units would create stronger and more strategical goals and execute them when collaborating with Human Resources than alone. To accomplish this, CHROs introduced and assigned Human Resource Business Partners (HRBPs) to business units such as marketing, sales, operations, and IT.
While well-intended, most HRBP implementations have failed to achieve this lofty endeavor. According to a Gartner survey, heads of HR departments expressed that:
- 82% of HRBPs are ineffective at strategic activities
- 61% of HRBPs are unable to prioritize strategic partner activities
On the upside, Gartner reports some positive metrics. When HRBPs collaborate strategically with the business, the business generates notable gains:
- Up to 22%: Employee performance
- Up to 24%: Employee retention
- Up to 7%: Revenue
- Up to 9%: Profit
Why would so many HRBPs be ineffective strategic collaborators? Knowing how the role has evolved can provide some insight. Knowing how the role has evolved can provide some insight.
Demystifying the HRBP Challenge
I’ve identified three maturity levels for how HR departments leverage their HRBP staff. These are:
2.0 Strategically Positioned
Due to budget constraints, several organizations, especially smaller ones, cannot afford to hire high-paid HR employees that primarily collaborate on business strategy and tactical execution. As a financial compromise, HR departments have created a hybrid role that blends the generalist and HRBP roles. The role is responsible for transactional work as well as collaborating with business executives.
Unfortunately, these HRBPs have difficulty prioritizing transactional, tactical, and strategic work. The business seems to prefer HRBPs who meet their transactional and tactical needs. Some HRBPs might share this preference because they lack the capacity to collaborate strategically and are more comfortable performing transactional and tactical work.
HR departments spend little to no effort training HRBPs to collaborate strategically and to build business relationships. As a result, business executives may find little difference between the HRBP and generalist roles.
2.0 Strategically Positioned
HR departments try to overcome the problems of the Hybrid HRBP in two ways. First, they revise the job descriptions so that other HR employees and vendors are responsible for most of the transactional work (some transactional work might be removed through automation). When this happens, the HRBP role is positioned to work strategically with the business.
Second, HR departments implement a CoE model and assign HRBPs to manage and monitor the tactical work. Another role enhancement occurs when HR implements a CoE model. In this model, HRBPs become the single point of contact for the business so that the business won’t need to work with multiple departments (such as talent management, organizational effectiveness, talent acquisition, and learning & development). These departments are CoEs, which can either mean the Centers of Excellence or Centers of Expertise. HRBPs assign work to the CoEs, manage the projects, and report results to the business.
HR departments can effectively train level 2.0 HRBPs to manage and monitor CoE tactical work. At a Fortune 100 company, I’ve witnessed a high-profile HR consulting firm implement the CoE model and train the HRBPs. The firm did a great job.
However, there’s a serious fault with Level 2.0: HRBPs tend to focus on tactical work rather than strategic partnerships. The firm that I mentioned that effectively trained HRBPs on executing the CoE model failed to develop HRBP strategic capability. Specifically, the firm concentrated its training on mastering the mechanics of the CoE model and missed developing HRBP strategic and collaborative capabilities.
The result is HRBP order-taking: when the business has a tactical need, HRBPs leverage CoEs to meet the need. This makes the HRBP solution-focused. Being solution-focused isn’t necessarily bad if HRBPs explore requests using a solution-neutral approach. To do so, HRBPs need strong analytical and analysis capabilities to identify business and performance gaps, clarify gap symptoms, expose gap root causes.
When HRBPs are solution-focused, they are no better than the learning & development departments that merely take orders from the business.
To avoid a solution-focused mindset, HRBPs need a solid business-driven methodology and process. The methodology guides how HRBPs work within a traditional CoE model, and a business-driven process ensures that HRBPs help the business shift from being solution-focused to being results-focused. This can decrease the amount of wasted tactical efforts that have little to no positive impact on mitigating business and performance gaps.
Here’s a real example that illustrates how being solution-focused and being results-focused differ:
A VP asked his HRBP to provide project management training for his fifty employees. If the HRBP had been solution-focused, she would have asked questions like these:
- Do employees clearly understand their project-management expectations?
- What project-management skills are employees weakest in?
- When should employees complete the training?
- After completing the training, what do you want employees to do differently?
However, the HRBP asked the VP results-focused questions:
- How do you describe quality project management?
- Are there any employees who exemplify or come close to exemplifying quality project management?
- What are some ways that employees currently fall short of quality project management?
- Besides knowledge and skills, what are some other barriers preventing employees from effectively managing their projects?
- What business goals is your department is working towards?
- If all employees effectively manage their projects, how would that help your department achieve business goals?
- How is your department currently tracking towards achieving your business goals?
The first set of questions assumes that project-management training is the best solution. The second set helps business partners think about their desired results rather than the proposed solution.
Having the right methodology and leveraging the right process can enable HRBPs to become more effective in strategic collaboration.
HRBP Maturity Model
The following summarizes the HRBP Maturity Model and the three HRBP levels.
The HRBP Maturity Levels Infographic
The HRBP Maturity Levels Infographic also summarizes how these levels differ.
The 2022 HRBP Report
The following are resources that help explain the current state of the HRBP role. I last accessed them on March 12, 2019.
Dave Ulrich and Wayne Brockbank (2008), The business partner model: 10 years on — Lessons learned, http://www.hrmagazine.co.uk/article-details/the-business-partner-model-10-years-on-lessons-learned.
Dave Ulrich through Personnel Today (2012), What’s next for HR? The six competencies HR needs for today’s challenges, https://www.personneltoday.com/hr/whats-next-for-hr-the-six-competencies-hr-needs-for-todays-challenges/.
Gartner: The HRBP’s Evolving Strategic Role: How to become a more effective partner to your line leaders https://www.gartner.com/en/human-resources/hr-business-partners.
HRZone, What is an HR Business Partner?, https://www.hrzone.com/hr-glossary/what-is-an-hr-business-partner.
Jamie Lawrence through HRZone (2013), The Emperor Ulrich’s new clothes: re-evaluating the role of HR Business Partners, https://www.hrzone.com/lead/strategy/the-emperor-ulrichs-new-clothes-re-evaluating-the-role-of-hr-business-partners.
Lexy Martin’s blog (2019), The HRBP as People Analytics Evangelists — Are They Ready — No! Can They Be — Yes! https://www.analyticsinhr.com/blog/hr-business-partner-as-people-analytics-evangelists/.
Oliver C. Requilman’s Slideshare (2013), HR Business Partnership: Do our business partners really hear us? https://www.slideshare.net/OliverRequilman/pmap-hrcon-presentation121213.
“A survey of 500 HR directors across Europe, the Middle East and Asia, found out that only 15% of the activities carried out by HR departments are related to ‘pure strategic interventions.’”
ScottMadden, Inc. (whitepaper and PDF, 2018), The Evolution of the HR Business Partner Role, http://www.scottmadden.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/ScottMadden_Evolution_of_the_HR_Business_Partner_2018.pdf.
About the author
Gary is a speaker, workshop facilitator, leadership author, researcher, consultant, and podcaster.
Based on the Dana Robinson methodology, he and his colleagues work with HR departments to strengthen how their HRBPs build and maintain partnerships with the business. They offer workshops tailored to the needs of clients.
His latest book, What the Heck Is Leadership and Why Should I Care?, is available in paperback, Kindle, and audiobook. He hosts the Unlabeled Leadership podcast. You can learn more about Gary and his other books at https://www.garyadepaul.com.
In 2022, Gary expects to release his forthcoming book, HRBP 3.0.