HR Business Partners – You’re so vain you probably think this blog is about you

The Senior HRBP arrives at their office

The Senior HRBP arrives at their office

In a high proportion of HR organisations today there is a strong case for bringing a claim under the trade descriptions act. I refer of course to those people masquerading themselves as HR Business Partners, when they definitely don’t do what it says on the tin.

I can also imagine, somewhere in a mahogany-scented office with many leather clad books sits Dave Ulrich, head in hands whaling that this was never how his evolving model was meant to be. So what’s gone wrong I hear you ask ?

Back in my formative days, climbing the HR ladder in a somewhat unloved telecoms monolith, we knew what we were – we were Personnel Account Managers and we sat at large management meetings telling some regional upstart what head office was allowing them to do as they pretended they were actually running a business. In big, complex organisations we were driving down a message from our collective superiors and dissent was somewhat discouraged. “Glasgow, it has been decided that Performance Management messages would be delivered in rap this year to ensure morale remained upbeat. Now implement and we’ll review our progress afterwards. Next agenda item”

At the top of the table was a man (as that was typically the way of the world back then) and you called him your ‘customer’ as he was always right and the only time he wanted to converse with you was to complain or chastise his Head of Sales with the typically witty “not in front of Personnel Gareth, wah wah wah” after some inappropriate sexist gag.

Then out of Michigan, Dave came down from the mount and delivered his HR Opus and things changed forever. Enormous, red army-sized, 1970s monolithic HR structures were disassembled and replaced with a new template of stealth fighting, streamlined structures containing such luminaries as Business Partners, Service Delivery and Centres of Expertise.

As Dave had hoped the HRBP would sit within a model playing their part with discipline, gorging on business insight and coupled with deep people expertise, delivering solutions for the enterprise. However too often the point was missed and the ex-personnel people utterly bastardised the progress this change offered them.

You see, we brought a bigCO mindset to proceedings with a need to maintain the control and command cultural ethos that sits in any hierarchy. Somehow HR Business Partners became the unelected leaders of the pack. Equally unwarranted, and at the bottom of this new HR ecosystem sat the poor creatures in HR shared services who were being driven to learn countless standardised scripts and reprimanded if they ever attempted to forge any type of personal contact with ‘lesser clients’ (i.e the enormous army of middle managers we created). Log off if you want to pee and when you get back you’ll find we’ve outsourced to Manilla, now get out !

Our other supporting bit part player was the expert, sitting in lofty centres of expertise, producing products and services that often were 7 business cycles out of date and of course shunned into increasing irrelevance by the new force field set up by business partners around their trusted clients. Access became the new battleground and Business Partners held the key to the success of the centres of expertise. “You want to see Roger, you got to go through me Talent boy”. As this ridiculous posturing went on, down the middle came a million and one external vendors filling the gap and offering the right service to the customer at the right time. The ‘in-house’ solution wasn’t credible and the HRBP, suffering extensively from Stockholm Syndrome’,  often went native in cheerleading the external vendor as a consequence. Sadly, for as long as this ridiculous in-house conflict exists then this cycle will continue.

So how did we get here and more importantly how do we get out of it ? I’d offer up the following :

1. Far too many organisations have mistaken change for installing. We often missed out on the strategy piece, the cultural piece, the customer piece and decided to go straight to the ‘off the shelf’ operating model piece as that would give us real savings in FTE. We’ve also missed the point that Ulrich’s work is ever evolving and was reflective of a time that has passed and requires constant updating.

2. Ulrich has rightfully decried the absence of true business understanding for some of those given the role and therefore that perpetuates a lack of credibility to truly speak their language and be seen as anything more than a token order taker at the table for a reactive agenda.

3. The natural tension this dysfunction then brings is a retreat into a comfort zone of transaction, tactical fulfilment and internal HR bickering that we seem to often excel in. ‘Where should HR sit ?’ articles are a clear symptom of this. The HRBP always has the ace card of the client to play at any time and can therefore always win the day in this phony wasteful civil war. A kind of mutual osmosis takes place and the dependency model lives on due to a lack of skills, bravery and a willingness to push for meaningful change. And anyway, would the Senior HRBPs at the top of the tree truly vote, like the proverbial turkey, for christmas ?

Now don’t get me wrong, there are some shining examples to look up to out there. In fact, I have nothing but sympathy for the lost generation of HRBPs. To really live the template as designed by Ulrich now is tantamount to the longstanding waiter now informing the client that he should follow a planned diet regime rather than taking his usual order. In short, how do you re-engineer a relationship that has been hardwired on concierge principles to a new advisory and strategic footing without radical overhaul ?

I would go as far as saying that this generation of HRBPs isn’t the prize worth pursuing. Some will make the transition but lots won’t (although it won’t stop them pretending). We should build a strong foundation for those emerging at the start of their careers, untainted by years of turning over the proverbial bed or putting chocolate mints on the clients pillow. To make them successful we should focus on the following :

1. True business acumen and understanding to be the cornerstone of our career pathing and development agenda for emerging HR Talent. Be comfortable with the numbers involved in running a business, secondments outside of HR and true consultancy skills to influence a bigger agenda. A focus on the need of the enterprise and its goal and the external client are a must.

2. Putting the orchestrating principle at the heart of what they do. That is not the same as exerting undying control of the other HR functions (the failsafe of the lost HRBP generation) but adopting skillsets tantamount to supplier management, building out an effective set of meaningful, professional connections with peers and experts inside and outside the organisation. Recognising that the management of change and culture is an important, and to date, underemphasised competence of the HR practitioner.

3. Embrace the changing agenda, developing deep technical understanding of what makes effective organisational systems. Leave the comfort of transaction to the Service Delivery function. Embrace emerging technology and data analytics as new friends, study the future agenda of work, and recognise a leadership path that allows you to get the best of this in a global, networked and increasingly complex landscape.

I know of organisations that have spent fortunes on 1990s Ulrich-influenced, big 4 consultancy house driven HR transformation initiatives. They’ve dived straight into Target Operating Model mode because ultimately their chief HR order taker at the top wishes to sell a pure cost play only to the board. Like night following day, HR optimisation will follow this so-called transformation agenda. Frighteningly some of these HRDs employ HRBPs at the very senior level who concierge all day long for a generation of men (for depressingly that is the way of the world still) still locked into the mindset that HR sits on its shoulder providing a counter balance to their typical testosterone mindset within business, and wades into comforting minutiae 24/7 to be on hand to deliver a PA’s need to be paid a six figure sum or providing the white glove service that presses that keyboard thingy they don’t get.

“If you have a reputation as a big stiff bureaucracy, you’re stuck” – Jack Welsh

This needs changed. As a call to action to emerging HR graduates, Generation Y and Z, millennials and those in pursuit of something more than a soulless, senior transactional HR role to aspire to – “let’s get these bums out !”

Your future deserves better.

Until next time I’ll leave you with the modern day HR BP anthem. SOS band, hit it :

Life is a game of chances
So I’ll take my chance with you
And you, I won’t try to change
We talk about it and I’d
Rather have a piece of you
Than to have all of nothing (Oooh..ooh…ooh…)

But just be good to me
In the morning
Just be good to me
In the afternoon or evenin’, oh yeah
Just be good to me (Oooh….Oooh…Ooo…)


4 thoughts on “HR Business Partners – You’re so vain you probably think this blog is about you

  1. Hmm…..yes, the model didn’t/doesn’t work. The worst aspect is making so much of HR transactional (shared service, often off-shored and possibly outsourced). If you do that then you have demeaned the role of HR immediately (in particular recruitment which is always the butt of cost cutting).

    However, there is a role for the consigliere (which is the whisper in the testosterone-laden ear) and Jack Welch was the person who said that his most important CxO was the CPO.

    Is the problem, as you suggest, more lack of skills and poor behaviour, or is it structural? I think you advocate the same structure, but with better performance, but I’m not convinced by the structure. We know where economies of scale have got us with recruitment. And if you don’t have a rounded HR perspective, which you get from the non-Ulrich models (HR aligned to the business units with all HR functions under one head) how are you growing your HRBPs for the future?

    PS At a very simple level I would like to insist that all HR professionals have to have spent time in a real role before they move into a senior HR role. Could we get the CIPD to mandate that?

    • Agree wholeheartedly with your ps as one element of a major reform package for the profession. And yes the CIPD will likely resort to happily clapping.

      Keeping the structure ? Nope. I’m up for full systems refresh for us. So was big Dave. And one component in the mix is a leader who drives value propositions rather than seek out the cost of everything….that’s why today’s cohort should be ferried off to a small island somewhere to gaze longingly at spreadsheets forever and a day….

    • I too agree that H.R. Professionals should have spent time in other roles before moving into a Senior H.R. Role. It would certainly make communication between H.R., line managers and other senior managers a great deal more effective.

      If my experience tells me one thing it is this, to truly understand the impact of H.R. decisions on the effectiveness of line managers, you have had to have been a line manager effected by those decisions.

      Unfortunately these days most people at the beginning of their H.R. careers don’t have this experience and never will. They leave university with their H.R. Degrees, get a junior role in H.R. while they study for their CIPD Qualifications and move onward and upward through the H.R. Hierarchy.

      As for the CIPD mandating that, you have more chance of raising the dead.

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