The business partnering model and its impact on both the HR function and HR practice Since the concept of the business partnering model was introduced by Ulrich in 1997, the composition of the HR function has dramatically changed. As Goodge (2005) identified, “partnering is fundamentally changing almost every HR function, every HR job, and every HR career” (Pg. 32). Ulrich argued that HR needed to deliver on both a strategic and administrative level and identified four key roles through which organisations could achieve this (Torrington et al.
The model has become a fixation for much of the HR community and its introduction has initiated a fundamental change to the HR function’s anatomy over the last decade (Francis & Keegan, 2008). The key themes which will be discussed within this literature review are the impact of the model on the competencies required of successful business partners, the debate of HR’s strategic focus as a result of the model and the loss of the employee champion role.
However, attention must first be brought to the partnering model itself.
The Model Ulrich’s business partnering model focuses on four key roles that HR need to address in order to deliver organisational excellence (Ulrich 1998). Becoming a ‘strategic partner’ in the execution of organisational strategy, increasing functional efficiency by being an ‘administrative expert’, fully engaging employees by becoming an ‘employee champion’ and finally, through facilitating and encouraging a culture of flexibility and acceptance to the evolving business environment as a ‘change agent’ (Ulrich 1998).
Precursors to Ulrich’s partnering model are Tyson and Fell’s 1985 model, based upon three fundamental positions using a construction site metaphor (architect, clerk of works and contract negotiator) and Storey’s 1992 model based on the four roles required in the shift from personnel management to Human Resource Management (regulator, handmaiden, adviser and changemaker) (Torrington et al. , 2007). In 2005, Ulrich and Brockbank mused over the partnering model once more and proposed a refreshed framework.
This was not a revolutionary diversion from the original model, however a reflection of the changing roles that they had been observing in organisations since the introduction of the original model (Ulrich & Brockbank, 2005a). The model was upgraded with the omission of the roles ‘employee champion’, ‘change agent’ and ‘administrative expert’, with these being replaced by ‘employee advocate’ (focusing on current employee needs), ‘human capital developer’ (preparing employees to be successful for the future) and ‘functional expert’ (administrative efficiency and the development of policies) (Ulrich & Brockbank, 2005a).
The ‘strategic partner’ role remained within the refreshed model and they also added a fifth dimension which was that of the ‘HR Leader’, the genuine leadership role which ties all four key roles together (Ulrich & Brockbank, 2005a). What is interesting from the literature, is that although this more modern model has been considered, it is the original model to which most commentators refer.
Before considering the impact of this model on HR functions and practice, it is important to first consider why such a large number of organisations have found it appropriate to restructure their HR departments in this way. In 1998, Ulrich himself questioned the effectiveness of the role that HR played in organisations and recognised that his model needed to move away from HR’s traditional activities, which focused on processes, to a focus on deliverables (Ulrich, 1998).
The new model was a way of ensuring that HR as a function was adding value and increasing organisational competitiveness (Ulrich, 1997) and his approach of using HR professionals as strategic business partners was being seen as a mechanism for allowing changes to be made in order for HR to make these significant competitive and strategic contributions (Goodge, 2005). Lawler & Mohrman (2003) argued that in organisations where competitive advantage was created through human and intellectual capital, the demand for HR to be a strategic partner was greater.
What makes a competent business partner? Defining what the single role of a business partner involves is rather ambiguous and much of the recent literature identifies that there is no single model for HR business partnering, therefore leaving each organisation to have their own interpretation of what a business partner is (Caldwell, 2008 & 2010; Torrington et al. , 2007; Beckett, 2005).
In some organisations the impact of the model has only gone as far as an upgraded ob title (Beckett, 2005; Pitcher, 2008) and it is this weak implementation in some companies that has led to various criticisms of the model (Peacock, 2008; Pitcher, 2008). This leads to the first key discussion identified within the literature, which questions the use of competency models in the selection, development and success of business partners in achieving the outcome of ‘organisational excellence’. With the business partner role seeking a more strategic mind-set, it has been seen as increasingly more difficult to find people who fit the role (Beckett, 2005).
Caldwell (2010) has most recently discussed the use of competency models for the better selection and development of HR business partners, as a new way of aligning HR strategy with organisational performance. The competencies that have been argued as most essential for a successful business partner are being a strong operational executor, a cultural steward, a strategic architect, a business ally and credible activist, an experienced talent manager and organisational designer (Ulrich, 2008 cited in Caldwell, 2010).
The competencies, in theory, would lead the business partner to performing a balance of the four key roles originally proposed by Ulrich, however what is clearly apparent from the literature, is that the business partner role is wide open for interpretation (Torrington et al. , 2007; Beckett, 2005). Therefore what can be argued as a benefit of using a competency framework, is that it can potentially offer a more consistent approach to selection, development and success of partnering (Caldwell, 2010).
Caldwell’s (2010) study considered the HR and business strategy linkage, with selection and development of business partners through the use of competency models as antecedents to this link. What was indicated in his study was that using these competency frameworks was largely effective in the selection of HR business partners, however much less effective in the development and linking between HR strategy and organisational performance (Caldwell, 2010).
The relationship between HR roles and competency models is an area of significant controversy and it was not long before questions were raised as to how each key role played out within the business partner position; whether there were a holistic set of competencies for the business partner role or separate competencies for the four key roles (Caldwell, 2010). Other queries were raised in the literature regarding the weighting of importance of each of the competencies and also whether or not these competencies were generally applicable to all HR practitioners or just to those playing a business partner role (Caldwell, 2010).
Ulrich and Brockbank (2005a) appreciated that not all of the key roles could be played to the same degree and depending on which HR category you specialised in, different roles may take a priority. This therefore brings the reader back to Torrington et al. (2007) and Becketts’ (2005) notion that there is no single model and that although the discussions are advancing within the literature about the role of business partners, it appears there has been no agreement of the best method of implementation.
This was reflected in Caldwell’s study, where he appreciated that the creation of the competency models was beneficial, but that the problem highlighted in HR practice was the difficulty of managing the transition from possessing the competencies, to delivering the capability (Caldwell, 2010). One of the most talked about competencies within the literature is that of possessing business understanding.
Lawler and Mohrman (2003) discussed in their research that for someone fulfilling the role of business partner, strong understanding of the business was essential. Beckett (2005) also advocates the need for a commercially aware candidate, however in practice, this is very difficult to recruit for within the pool of HR professionals. As a result of this limited pool of resources, there has been a rise in members within the HR function who have been parachuted in from other areas of the business, such as marketing or sales (Francis & Keegan, 2006).
Lawler and Mohrman’s (2003) study noted that one quarter or senior HR professionals had side stepped into the HR function from these other business areas, with the objective of greater strategic alignment with the business. Therefore potentially increasing the impact the HR function has on organisational performance (Francis & Keegan, 2006). There are, however, various implications to HR practice by focusing business partner competencies in such a way.
Although HR professionals may see this odern commercial and strategic focus as enhancing the value of their role, it is being observed that line managers and employees can often become sceptical and mistrustful that HR are focused too much on business objectives rather than on those of the people (Caldwell, 2010). Beckett (2005) also outlines concerns of appointing a HR business partner who only has commercial experience by arguing that you are open to the risk of unsafe management of the business, however on the flipside, by getting the balance wrong and isolating your business partners from the rest of the HR function, it can result in losing the HR focus.
Therefore a ‘perfect’ business partner would have a balanced background of commercial and business acumen, coupled with the experience of the multiple facets of HR in order to really add strategic value and deliver ‘organisational excellence’ (Lawler & Mohrman, 2003). The shift towards a strategic focus One of the fundamental factors of the business partnering model is ensuring that the HR and business strategies are aligned, therefore enabling the HR function to deliver organisational excellence.
This leads to the next key theme identified within the literature regarding the shift to a strategic HR focus which has resulted in a repositioning of the identity of the HR profession (Wright, 2008). Wright (2008) observes that moving towards strategic HRM has contributed to the occupation losing its wider social objectives and transforming into a simple agent of capital (p. 1068). These discussions are contradictory to the balanced purpose of Ulrich’s four key roles, however the literature has suggested that out of the four roles, the strategic partner has been represented with unbalanced proportion.
Lawler and Mohrman (2003) argue that if HR does not play a strategic partnering role, how can the function be fully aligned with what the business needs are and then deliver the most effective activities? It is clear from the discussions within the literature that as organisations become more cost effective and streamlined, they will increasingly require fewer HR practitioners to undertake the transactional workloads as this will be transferred to shared service models or outsourcing.
Therefore the argument for a partnership to be truly effective, requires the HR function to put more emphasis on the strategic activities such as organisational design and planning (Lawler & Mohrman, 2003). In practice this seems to have been the case and the impact on organisations who have adopted the partnering model have witnessed a transformation in their HR activities, shifting away from the traditional administrative functions to devoting more attention to organisational level activities such as those strategic activities discussed above (Lawler & Mohrman, 2003).
Focusing competencies on this link between HR and business strategy however, could lead to the business partner role becoming unsustainable (Caldwell, 2010) and Hope Hailey et al. (2005) question the strategic-heavy focus. Their study demonstrated that while the HR function is becoming more notable strategically, the human side of the functionality is deteriorating (Hope Hailey et al. 2005), thus suggesting that the strategic role on its own does not necessarily enhance the organisational performance of the human capital. Ulrich’s (1997) proposal required HR professionals to be both operational and strategic in their focus through all of the four key roles, however Caldwell (2003) noted the inherent ‘role conflict’ which would naturally emerge from this performance of more than one role, due to the competing demands made upon them by employees and senior management (Hope Hailey et al. 2005).
As discussed earlier, the partnering model is most effective and successful in organisations which rely on human and intellectual capital as a source of competitive advantage (Lawler & Mohrman, 2003), therefore if business partners don’t balance the needs of the people focusing roles, they will not achieve the organisational excellence Ulrich’s (1997) model was designed for. Hope Hailey et al. 2005) agree with Caldwell (2003) that ‘role conflict’ is inevitable with the performance of multiple roles and therefore question whether it will ever be possible in practice for the HR function to balance both employee and management needs through fulfilling Ulrich’s four key roles. The ‘perfect’ partner can balance these conflicting roles by having a strategic influence at a corporate level and strong expertise in operational delivery, however as noted in the literature around competencies, these qualities are not easy to find, nor to develop.
What has happened to the role of ‘employee champion’? The final key discussion which has been noted from the recent literature, progresses from the fixation of the strategic focus of the partnering model and questions the shift of attention away from the employee. Wright (2008) observed that for nearly all respondents of his study, the strategic adviser role was seen as a much more attractive identity than that of the traditional image of the bureaucratic HR manager.
Therefore, one can see how the profession is seen to be losing its focus on the people facing ‘employee champion’ role. Lawler and Mohrman (2003) argue that for partnership to work HR must increase their faith in line managers and transfer various transactional HR responsibilities to them (Lawler & Mohrman, 2003), therefore the answer to this lost role therefore seems to be addressed by this devolvement.
The benefits which have been argued for doing this are that it creates more time for HR to become more strategically proactive (Lawler & Mohrman, 2003) and line managers can become responsible and answerable to their employees which strengthens their relationships by almost becoming an HR champion (Ulrich, 1998). In practice however, Hope Hailey et al. (2005) believe that the failure to recognise the importance of the employee champion role is a big mistake and that the devolvement of such a responsibility to line management may be flawed.
They noted that empirical research had suggested that devolving various HR responsibilities to the line was being met with certain inefficiencies to deliver such responsibilities, such as lack of training and lack of time, few incentives to fulfil the additional work and the need to focus on delivering their own short term business results (McGovern, 1999 cited in Hope Hailey et al. , 2005). The devolvement is also problematic in the sense that line managers are not always capable or motivated to take on the role of employee champion (Hope Hailey et al. , 2005).
Francis and Keegan (2005) were also sceptical over the benefits of devolving HR responsibilities to line management and identified three major problems associated with the delegation of such duties. Firstly, they observed a loss of employee confidence as HR focus shifted to strategic business issues; a cost to employee well-being as a result of potential inconsistent application of policies and processes; and finally a disenchantment amongst HR practitioners who were unable to perform the role that was at the fundamental heart of HR – the employee champion, advocate and counsellor.
Francis and Keegan (2005) concluded that not only did this affect the relationship between HR and the workforce, but between the HR professionals themselves. They also noted the strangeness of this shift away from the employee champion role amid the HR community’s grand plans to increase employee engagement (Francis & Keegan, 2005). In essence, it therefore appears that considerable caution must be used in initiating such transfers of accountability. Conclusion
It can plainly be observed that over a decade after the introduction of Ulrich’s business partnering model, the HR community are still avidly debating its practical usefulness. What can be gathered from the key discussions is that the theoretical model makes a stellar case for increasing organisational performance and raising the profile of the HR function, however it seems that the impact of the model in practice is that it is the implementation of the model that is failing its success in most organisations.
The academic writers are keen to dissect the benefits and limitations of the model, however what really needs to be reported is exactly how to implement the model in practice and to identify this across a range of different organisations. Further research also needs to be undertaken in the area of business partner development, as it appears the essential competencies have been numerously defined, but the focus on training HR practitioners to think and behave in Ulrich’s business partner mind-set requires further investigation.
As businesses change, HR functions are being increasingly required to demonstrate their strategic value and this model seems to have provided a platform for really adding value, however as discussed in the final section, it is imperative that the HR function retain a balanced approach to their roles and not to lose sight of the fundamental people side of the people versus processes equation.