Have you got what it takes to become a valued business partner?
Phil Porter, chairman, the Strategic HR Forum
During the course of his career, Phil Porter has been responsible for business partnership initiatives at companies ranging from Digital to Orange. We put 10 questions to him about business partnering to find out what the chairman of the Strategic HR Forum had learnt about this increasingly high-profile HR issue.
Q. Why do you think HR should look at business partnering in the first place? For example, what drove the decision in the companies where you were HR director?
PP: It gets HR closer to the business, makes HR more cost effective because it focuses spend on direct resources that add value to the business. i.e. it identifies areas where costs can be saved and simultaneously, where best to invest in direct resources. Often, it started out as a cost-saving initiative responding to a business directive, but as the model was developed, the other positives were realised.
Back in the early Nineties, the driving force for Digital’s business partnering programme was cost saving. But we became aware of the other value-adding potential – once they saw the cost reduction model, they saw the advantages of IT-driven HR service, self-service for forms, processes and files and so on. What started as a cost-reduction programme ended up as a revitalisation of the whole HR activity.
Q. What do you understand by business partnering?
PP: To me it means assigning specialist resources to each business to consult/ account manage with the top executive and the management team.
Q. Why is there so much confusion about business partnering?
PP: Confusion arises when the job title is used in a different sense i.e. in a more generic sense because all HR practioners see this as the only value added role and seek out the title. A business partner is the key role which interacts with the business to identify needs and takes responsibility for a particular business sector. I see it as one part of a larger repositioning of HR in the business.
Q. What do you think it takes to become an effective business partner?
PP: It takes business knowledge in both a general and specific sense, stature, experience of both HR and business management. Key skills are consulting and account management.
Q. Do you think that HR needs to draft in different kinds of people? Or can existing HR personnel make the grade?
PP: One always hopes that current personnel can step up to the challenge as it is key for their development and quicker and cheaper to implement. However, often consulting and project management skills (key to service delivery) are lacking in HR staff, so they may need supplementing.
Q How does business partnering fit in with the trend to outsourcing, shared services and other types of service delivery, including self-service?
PP: It is the required front end which makes any service centre (insourced or outsourced) model work. The work/output of business partnering is the contract (Service Level Agreement) which the business places on the service delivery resources. An integrated functional resource, for all businesses, is necessary to ensure common professional standards are adhered to and feature in all products and services
Q. Does accountability follow the line of responsibility as well?
PP: By this I guess you mean, Is the business partner responsible for the delivered services as well as the delivery arm? Well, yes in the sense that the business partner will need to monitor and evaluate the services as they are delivered. However, the business partner does not “own” the delivery resources, but delegates to them in an indirect relationship.
Q. Given that you get it right, what are the upsides of business partnering?
PP: The focus on costs and responsibilities is assured. It gets HR into the heart of the business and the business, in turn, feels a greater sense of ownership in the HR agenda. Service delivery is better focussed and more professional.
Q. What do you think are the dangers and weaknesses of the business partnering model?
PP: Often HR lacks the skills necessary to operate this model. The business feels it has one-stop-shopping for all its needs but fails to accept or appreciate that its business partner is subcontracting to others. This is especially true if the business partner is funded directly by the business. HR people can feel that their role has been diluted if they are not business partner themselves and potentially can lose contact / interaction with the business directly. Business partners, frustrated with inefficient delivery, can want to own their own resources, failing to manage “indirectly”. The worst case is when the resources are duplicated in both the business and the service centre and, disastrously, in the functional specialisms.
Q. Finally, what would you say are the three most important points for HR directors to remember if they go down this route?
PP: First, make sure the business has ownership in the change/ implementation.
Second, communicate, communicate, communicate.
Third, get ALL of the HR staff on board and comfortable with the change and the model. BP’s can become too self- important, prima donnas and project themselves as the only necessary part of the model. One model can be just this- business partnering only, with all delivery and functional activity outsourced, but in my experience, an integrated approach with an appropriate level of outsourcing is the optimum solution.
To find out how to join the Strategic HR Forum’s Effective Business Partnering research project, email David Harvey, SHRF Programme Director, email@example.com.