Critical evaluation of the business partner concept
It can be argued that too much has been made of the business partner model. Perhaps it is preferable to emphasize that the role of HR professionals is to be part of the business rather than merely being partners. There is the danger of overemphasizing the seemingly glamorous role of business or strategic partner at the expense of the service delivery aspect of the HR practitioner’s role. Syrett (2006) noted that whatever strategic aspirations senior HR practitioners have, they will amount to nothing if the function they represent cannot deliver the essential transactional services their internal line clients require. As an HR specialist commented to Caldwell (2004): ‘My credibility depends on running an extremely efficient and cost-effective administrative machine… If I don’t get that right, and consistently, then you can forget about any big ideas.’ Another person interviewed during Caldwell’s research referred to personnel people as ‘reactive pragmatists’, a realistic situation in many organizations.
The problem of the overemphasis on the business partner role has been influenced by the erroneous belief that Ulrich was simply focusing on HR executives as business partners. This has had the unfortunate effect of implying that it was their only worthwhile function. But Ulrich cannot be blamed for this. In 1998 he gave equal emphasis to the need for HR people to be administrative experts, employee champions and change agents, and this was confirmed in the revised model (Ulrich and Brockbank, 2005).
Example – business partnering at the Automobile Association (AA)
The key competencies required by the AA for its business partners are concerned with commercial decision-making, commerciality, influencing people and facilitating change. They have to:
- understand the key factors affecting overall costs and profits;
- understand and interpret financial data;
- understand the connectivity between functional areas of the business;
- understand the impact of actions on cash flow and profitability.
The innovation role
A strategic and therefore proactive approach to HRM will mean that HR specialists will need to innovate – to introduce new processes and procedures they believe will increase organizational effectiveness.
The case for innovation should be established by processes of analysis and diagnosis using an evidence-based management approach to identify the business need and the issues to be addressed. ‘Benchmarking’ can be used to identify ‘best practice’ in other organizations. But ‘best fit’ is more important than ‘best practice’ – in other words, the innovation should meet the particular needs of the business, which are likely to differ from those of other ‘best practice’ organizations. It has to be demonstrable that the innovation is appropriate, beneficial, practical in the circumstances and can be implemented without too much difficulty in the shape of opposition from those affected by it or the unjustifiable use of resources – financial and the time of those involved.
The danger, according to Marchington (1995), is that HR people may go in for ‘impression management’ – aiming to make an impact on senior managers and colleagues through publicizing high-profile innovations. HR specialists who try to draw attention to themselves simply by promoting the latest flavour of the month, irrespective of its relevance or practicality, are falling into the trap that Drucker (1955: 243), anticipating Marchington by 40 years, described as follows: ‘The constant worry of all personnel administrators is their inability to prove that they are making a contribution to the enterprise. Their preoccupation is with the search for a “gimmick” which will impress their management colleagues.’
As Marchington points out, the risk is that people believe ‘all can be improved by a wave of the magic wand and the slaying of a few evil characters along the way’. This facile assumption means that people can too readily devise elegant solutions that do not solve the problem because of the hazards encountered during implementation – for example, the indifference or even open hostility of line managers. These have to be anticipated and catered for.
Guidelines for HR innovations are set out below.
Guidelines for HR innovations
As change agents HR specialists have to be experts in innovation. The following are guidelines on what needs to be done:
- Be clear on what has to be achieved and why.
- Ensure that what you do fits the strategy, culture and circumstances of the organization.
- Don’t follow fashion – do your own thing as long as it is relevant and fits the organization’s needs.
- Keep it simple – overcomplexity is a common reason for failure.
- Don’t rush – it will take longer than you think.
- Don’t try to do too much at once – an incremental approach is generally best.
- Assess resource requirements and costs.
- Pay close attention to project planning and management.
- Remember that the success of the innovation rests as much on the effectiveness of the process of implementation (line manager buy-in and skills are crucial) as it does on the quality of the concept, if not more so.
- Focus on change management approaches – communicate, involve and train.