During his HR Vlerick Day 2016 breakout session, Prof. Dr. Dirk Buyens, Academic Dean of Vlerick Business School, presented a critical assessment of the HR Business Partner model which is used by uncountable companies worldwide.
The HR Business Partner model was first introduced nearly twenty years ago by David Ulrich, Professor of Business at the University of Michigan, in his best-selling book Human Resource Champions (1997, Harvard Business Press). It provides a framework that identifies four distinct roles in which effective HR professionals should operate simultaneously: strategic partner, administrative partner, employee champion and change agent. It extends this framework with a set of four key competence area’s: HR mastery, business mastery, change mastery and personal credibility, emphasizing that a generic set of competences is inadequate. In addition, it carefully describes how HR professionals can partner with line managers to make organisations more competitive. In the years following this publication, many organisations changed the structure of their HR department based on Ulrich’s recommendations.
Buyens starts his critical exposition about Ulrich’s Model showing the limited impact the HR Business partner-role has on business strategy by illustrating the correlation between the results of two extensive HR surveys (1995 and 2013, Boudreau & Lawler). He continues by criticising Ulrich’s 3-layers structure (i.e. Corporate HR Competence Center, HR Shared Services Center and HR Business Partner), exhibiting the numerous major risks that outweigh the benefits for HR to meet its value proposition. Buyens suggests that Ulrich’s Model misses the opportunity for HR to reflect the dynamics of the business organisation, requiring HR to combine efficiency with the differentiated needs of the business units. Connecting the assumptions that HR should serve strategy, that structure should follow strategy, and that organisational structures do not improve linearly but rather behave like a pendulum, Nuyens explains that HR should ideally look three years ahead and change more frequently in order to be prepared for the characteristical pendular movement of structural organisation change.
Responding to prevailing business models, Buyens describes an ‘improved’ model in which HR work can be divided into five roles and responsibilities (i.e. Service Centers, Corporate HR, Embedded HR, Centers of Expertise and Operational Executors), thereby altering the role of the HR Business Partner into Embedded HR: engaging and supporting business strategy discussions, respresenting employee interests and implications of change, and defining requirements to reach business goals. However, Nuyens is sceptical about this model presuming it is likely to be more of the same.
Ulrich’s Model was supposed to be a game-changer for HR but that did not exactly become a reality. Buyens suggests three conditions for success: achieving clarity through a more explicit service contract with the line management, engaging in “behavioural engineering” (i.e. ensuring alignment of strategies and processes to drive behaviour for business success), and moving away from the 3-layer model into a solution center model.
Nuyens explains that the HR Solution Center model entails the creation of horizontal solution centers focussed on providing solutions for specific issues and challenges, where the HR Business Partner becomes a Customer Relation-ship Manager.
As a special treat, Buyens briefly explored a disruptive HR model of the future, referring to the article “It’s Time to Split HR” (R. Charan. 2014. Harvard Business Review, July-August).
Inexplicitly confirming that the HR Business Partner is not (yet) a dying breed, Buyens ends his breakout session by providing a list of capabilities for success:
A focus on delivering business outcomes through making best use of the whole HR function and acting as a strong role-model for the rest of the team.
In addition, he provides 6 crucial questions to be answered by the HR Business Partner:
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