Is It Time to Reset HR Business Partnering?

Some things remain the same but so much has changed. We have always said that being an HRBP is more about the B and the P, and less about HR. With organisations struggling to survive, this is even truer today than it has ever been. If the end goal is making an impact on the organisation, it’s where you start that makes a difference.

  • Do you start with HR and how you can sell HR products that you developed in a different time (who would have thought how different!), or do you start with the business and how you can help it survive today but also prepare it to thrive in the future? Is this the time for your new whizzy performance management system that you only got through beta testing in March? Is this the time to stick all your existing training online and try and ‘sell it’ when the skill needs are very different (how to use MS teams or Zoom not NLP)?
  • Do you start with how you’d like the world to be, or with how it is at the moment – messy, stressful and dysfunctional? You don’t have the time to produce the perfect solution, even if there is one – good enough is good enough. This has always been the case but it is even more so today.
  • Do you work with the people who share your passion, are easy, who like you, or do you start with the people who really matter, who may not be the nicest or the easiest to work with? If survival is the key, who will be critical for business survival and how do you get close to them, understand their world and the struggles they are facing? HRBPs need to become more like a coach and confidante than ever, but you need to prioritise who you do this with; not the people you like, but the people who will help your business survive and thrive.

In our manifesto we argued that the role of HR is not to do HR ‘stuff’ but to build the capability of an organisation to deliver its strategy. This has to be the starting point for all HR business partners. They have to start with an understanding of the business strategy. Today we face the reality that our strategies were relevant for a very different world, so we need to reset our strategic thinking – which for HR will mean building very different capabilities.  Whilst we are engaged with helping our people deal with the current reality we need to be preparing for a new reality.

The problem is we don’t know what that new reality will be, but we can get a sense that it will be more remote, more virtual and cost control will need to be tighter. We have learnt that lean supply chains can’t cope with massive disruption. We can probably expect greater government interventions in the economy and in protecting gig workers’ rights. As in any shock we can expect creative destruction as old business models fail but new ones rise out of the ashes. It has always been critical that HR brings the outside in to businesses which are often operationally focused, and this is even truer now, so we need to give our HRBPs and ourselves time and space to think deep thoughts about thriving in the future not just shallow thoughts about surviving today.

We also need to help them understand that this world is ambiguous and there are no obvious answers – but you can’t wait for certainty because no one knows when we will get it, let alone what it will be. This could be a recipe for inertia, but we need to be willing to experiment and when you experiment you will sometimes be wrong. That is fine so long as you admit it, learn from it and move on.

HR ‘stuff’ like employee engagement, performance management, leadership development or competencies may be relevant but just because they can be improved doesn’t mean we should focus on them. Are they a priority in today’s world? Is it about big HR initiatives or about day-to-day pragmatism? We have always said that HRBPs need to focus on actually understanding what the problem is, what is getting in the way of our business surviving and then thriving and then deliver pragmatic, flexible solutions. We need to trust them to do what is right.

The implications for developing HR business partners are obvious. The philosophy remains the same, but the implementation needs to be different. We still need to focus on their commercial and strategic skills. We need to develop their passion and intuitive understanding of what makes their business successful now and in the future, basing this on numbers and data (not just intuition and experience). But we also need to support their ability to connect with and coach managers and leaders who are under enormous pressure (but we do need to keep an eye on those who step up and those who don’t – they are the leaders of the future) and build their resilience. They are the front-line carers of our people and we need to care for the carers.

Along with Catherine Taylor from British Sugar I’ll be discussing HR Business Partnering In A Crisis this Thursday.

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