The Strategic Partner

  • Ali Al-Aradi

    HRD Lecturer & Writer

HR business partnering (or the strategic partners) is a process whereby HR professionals work closely with business leaders and/or line managers to achieve shared organisational objectives, in particular designing and implementing HR systems and processes that support strategic business aims. This process may involve the formal designation of ‘HR business partners’, that is HR professionals who are embedded within the business, sometimes as part of a wider process of restructuring of the HR function.

However, it is important to note that many varying definitions of HR business partnering existand, where HR business partners operate, there are wide variations in their role.

The concept of HR business partnering, or strategic partnering, emerged during the mid-late 1990s, around the time that US business academic Dave Ulrich set out his initial theories for the optimum delivery of HR. Subsequently, certain aspects of the Ulrich model have come to be depicted as a ‘three-legged stool’ model for HR, although there is an ongoing debate over how his theories should be interpreted and put into practice. Ulrich has also reviewed and further developed his own theories on this issue in subsequent work.

The ‘three-legged model’ of HR as perceived by many commentators is based on three key elements – HR business partners, shared HR services and HR centres of excellence – which may be depicted as follows:

    • HR business partners (or strategic partners) – senior or key HR professionals closely with business leaders or line managers, usually embedded in the business unit, influencing and steering strategy and strategy implementation.
    • Centres of excellence – usually small teams of HR experts with specialistof leading-edge HR solutions. The role of centres of excellence is to deliver competitive business advantages through HR innovations in areas such as reward, learning, engagement and talent management.
    • Shared services – a single, often relatively large, unit that handles all the ‘transactional’ services across the business such as recruitment administration, payroll, absence monitoring and advice on simpler employee relations issues. The remit of shared services is to provide low-cost, effective HR administration. For further information see our factsheet on HR shared service centres.

There are various challenges to the HR business partnering model. Some are issues raised as organisations seek to implement the model. Others question how helpful this model is when considering how best to design an HR function.

Business partnering is a popular and widespread approach to organising the HR function. The segmentation of the HR function into distinct streams may work for some organisations but may create silos. It’s important for HR to remain united as a function, sharing their knowledge and insight from different parts of the organisation, ensuring overall alignment with the business strategy and goals. It’s also essential that if a business partnering model is adopted, the skills and capabilities required of the roles are built into HR development plans as a matter of course.

Overall, the road to HR effectiveness lies in being integrated with the organisation. The whole HR function from top to bottom needs to be business-focused like never before, but it also needs to maintain its focus on people, performance and purpose as outlined in our research.

Our continuing research aims to bring to life what these key HR skills and behaviours mean and look like in practice.


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