people signals


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HR Business Partner – what on earth are they here for?

For a couple of years I have been in this role of an HR Business Partner. “Keep line management from escalating and roll out stuff” were the general job descriptions. “Oh, and use your knowledge to solve problems”. I have come to like the job, but have never seen so much self-reflection and discussion on the own job profile. True, HR is prone to that. Maybe it’s the suspicion that we are overhead and overhead is bad. Or that we aren’t quantifiable and that is bad. So what on earth is the value of an HR Business Partner?

Realizing that great administrative processes are commodity, HR came to the conclusion that you need someone to sell the services to line management and solve local problems. So the HR Business Partner needs to earn the trust on local level and understand the pain points of his partners. A recent analysis of job descriptions by the Corporate Leadership Council points out words like: ambassador, implementation, align business and HR strategy. CLC says, usually HR folks are good experts, but not very good at the following crucial skills:

  • Implementation skills (results focus, project management, change management, HR technology proficiency, and vendor management)
  • Business skills (organisational understanding, business/finance/economics/statistics understanding, data analysis, and understanding of global environment impact business).

This whole strategy thing irks me somewhat. It sounds too much like a desperation cry of someone who doesn’t know what is going on. Well, maybe a become strategic. Whenever I see a good HR Business Partner it strikes me that they have a good standing with senior management (personality) and get things done for them (experience).

Dave Ulrich makes the point, that HR comes in as a big chunk of the intangible assets. People are not just a huge part of the payroll but they are what brings companies their income. HR should wear the peoplesignals hat: what is going on at the people side of things? What do we need to do to manage our people assets? The HR Business Partner is best suited to have the ear to the ground and get things done. They should bring the appropriate attention to peoplesignals and provide solutions that work. Most managers are caught up in their daily battle to get things done, so HR BPs bring a deBono-like hat to amplify the human side of things.

Thomas just kicked off a series of show-yourself-HR articles pointing out HR hate, pleading for statistics and asked for risk coverage (others have responded). There seems to be two streams in the arguments:

  • HR, learn statistics so you can prove your point
  • HR, just understand the business and get peoplethings done

While the statistics case is compelling with an air of objectivity, I have not seen enough in action to believe. So an executive sees that pay-per-employee is rising, what now? Time to fill positions too high, action please! I have the feeling this peoplesignals business doesn’t work well when aggregated on an HR-KPI dashboard. Executives like their dashboards, but most actions following a problem on HR-KPIs turn out to be silly KPI-tweaking exercises. Maybe we need smarter KPIs. That would certainly help.
It seems that HR gets more street credit by thinking business and coming up with peoplesolutions that work (not that benchmarked me-too thingy). Lisa Brummel at Microsoft seems to be such a case. Again: credibility and experience. Jack Welch weighs in on this case:

Look, HR should be every company’s “killer app”. What could possibly be more important than who gets hired, developed, promoted or moved out the door? After all, business is a game, and as with all games, the team who puts the best people on the field and gets them playing together, wins. It’s that simple.
Leaders need to put their money where their mouths are and let HR do its real job: elevating people management to the same level of professionalism and integrity as financial management.

HR departments that plan picnics, put out the plant newsletter and generally drive everyone crazy by enforcing rules and regulations that appear to have no purpose other than to increase bureaucracy. They derive the little power they have by being the “You-can’t-do-that” police. So how do leaders fix this mess? It all starts with the people they should be hiring to run HR: not kingmakers or cops but big-leaguers, people with real stature and credibility.

Trust and judgment are really the operative words here. Those traits are what being a great HR practitioner is all about. To be truly effective in any HR leadership role, people in the organization must believe you have unfailing integrity.

HR needs to be the Business Partner to amplify the peoplesignals on the company agenda. If they do, the benefits will be beyond KPIs.


Filed under: HR, HR Business Partner