Barriers and open doors with “HR Business Partners”

An HR concept is translated into practice

HR managers who like to think they’re something special sometimes call themselves the “HR Business Partner”. It may sound like a snazzy buzzword, but is there more to this new-fangled American term than meets the eye? Is it just one of those abstract management terms designed to line the pockets of consultants? Edmund Haupenthal and Dr. Viktor Lau discuss their standpoint.  

No topic has been more hotly debated by HR managers and caused so much controversy in recent years than the term “HR Business Partner”. The debate has been documented by countless conferences, speeches, studies, articles and books. And now we’re beginning to go in circles. But the postmodern shine of this concept begins to fade when people finally start translating it into practice.

Dave Ulrich, the originator of the concept, owns his fair share of the blame for this. His basic model takes what is actually a complex reality and reduces it to a small number of simple components. By doing so, Ulrich made an important contribution to focusing on the key issues. But lots of other issues are left open, especially whether an HR Business Partner constitutes an “assembly of required skills”, the “role definition of individual employees in the HR department” or an “HR organization” as a whole.

Visit the personnel departments of leading companies listed on the German stock exchange (and even “larger” medium-size companies), and you’ll find people busily working away at the concept, but almost everyone sees the term differently. Individual HR managers will describe themselves with every confidence as an HR Business Partner, yet the department’s role as an HR Business Partner tends to be more abstract within the hierarchy. Companies place recruitment ads in national newspapers for HR Business Partners while at the same time talking about their group-wide service portfolio – an organizational unit called the HR Business Partner. Things are confused. And we need clarity and transparency.  

Between the two extremes – service offering and the role as a “sovereign function” – modern HR management should, first and foremost,

  • steer the HR processes that are “taken for granted” – accounts, payments, HR recruitment, administration, labor law-related procedures, etc – and take into account process and cost efficiency norms
  • empower staff and managers to perform adequately within the business, in keeping with their role, by making available suitable processes, instruments and systems
  • act as a professional advisor to senior managers on all issues relating to the planning and answering of business demands, making full use of common instruments, financial accounting methods and reporting processes
  • make available the infrastructures and services required to steer activities (cost effectively) to change processes with a bearing on personnel management
  • exchange information in a systematic manner with all interested parties, internal and external (the employment market, workers’ representatives, etc) on all personnel related demands and requirements as well as ways to solve problems.

This portfolio of processes and services falls within the remit of the entire HR organiza-tion.  It  reflects  functional  issues,  not  per-sonal  competences.  Only  this  way  can  the model  of  an  HR  Business  Partner  be  used as a (theoretical) orientation framework for the  actual  organization  of  processes  and structures within the HR department.

In doing so, the individual roles of the HR Business Partner must not be valued differently in terms of “important” or “notso- important” tasks. This keeps happening in business, always to the detriment of the “administrative expert”. Businesses should take heed of warnings not to play down the value of certain tasks: without professional routine tasks, HR Business Partners would not exist. If personnel departments cannot administer pay slips and seminars regularly in a defined quantity and quality, then they shouldn’t be taking on ambitious tasks such as demography programs or diversity plans.

This brings us to some of the organizational principles central to the effective implementation of the HR Business Partner model. Based upon these, the process of injecting organizational professionalism into the HR function can move forward. The following organizational concept can thus be considered directly derived from the HR Business Partner concept. It encompasses key “components” consisting of: Customer Management, Principles, Concept Development, and the (internal) Shared Service Center. This framework allows you to map the Ulrich model at an operational level:

Customer Management – called, somewhat confusingly in many organizations, the “Business Partner”. This establishes and develops relationships with internal customers, logs requirements and ensures sufficient resources are made available.An area called Principles and Concept Development, pulling together all activities connected to the establishment of HR frameworks (management instruments, salary systems, HR development) as well as the development and introduction of strategic HR initiatives. These cover HR marketing, management remuneration or development of the most senior managers.The Shared Service Center which is responsible for the effective and efficient management of all routine processes, from contract management to pay slips and even seminar administration. There are a number of ways to organize this function and the technological infrastructure, including shifting services currently provided internally (outsourcing). This depends on the extent to which processes are formalized and the role played by these services in adding value. What is important is that the processes are carried out professionally and provide a quality service. The same applies to the procurement and steering of external resources (IT and HR consulting, coaches and course providers, etc).

Overall, this provides us with an organization model that translates Ulrich’s initial idea into actionable reality. During the transition from a personnel administration function to a management-oriented HR Business Partner, Steinbeis can provide the necessary expertise in the form of market data, examples of best practice, organizational research and preliminary studies. It also acts as a sparring partner in defining, implementing and steering projects. Steinbeis consultants will focus clearly on processes and organizational models that make sense as well as the methods and instruments of HR management needed to support employees and managers efficiently in performing their task within the company.

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