More than 20 years ago, management guru David Ulrich introduced a tripartite HR delivery model, consisting of business partners, HR operations and centers of expertise, which has since become standard practice in the organization design of HR functions. Countless HR functions over the years have undertaken organization transformations to align, optimize and refocus HR delivery. While all parts of the HR design – HR business partners, HR operations, and COEs are supposed to be complementary and balanced, the reality is that business partners are on the front lines.
HR business partners are strategically important as the main point of contact with the organization’s customers. For this reason, HR functions fill this role with highly experienced and competent HR professionals eager to be of service and to contribute strategic advice to clients. Exceptional business partners excel at assessing the businesses’ unique needs and finding great solutions for problems and business challenges.
When HR functions undertake a functional transformation, a key question emerges “How can the talent and experience of seasoned HR business partners best be leveraged during an organization transformation?” From an organization transformation perspective, the challenge is to maintain a healthy balance between the business partner and the rest of the HR department (i.e., centers of expertise and HR operations). If care is not taken to free business partners up to perform the duties most HR models envision for them (namely, brokering services and building strategic relationships), they can end up taking on an inordinate share of the work of the function while the remainder of the HR team figures out how to transition to new structures and ways of doing things. For instance, they often take on the role of HR expeditor-in-chief, running themselves ragged helping HR execute projects and allocate resources to work.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, we have observed that HR leaders who effectively guide their functions through successful transformation are the ones who start not with the HR business partners but with the COEs or HR Operations. When this happens, transformation results are expedited and experience reduced or minimal confusion, frustration, and delays. One of the most helpful things HR leaders can do during an organization transformation is to help free up business partners to do their most productive work. To do this, it is necessary to consider the scope of non-strategic work business partners often take upon themselves during the transformation, and devise ways to divert it to other people or teams.
Starting the transformation in the wrong place can hinder the success of the transformation; however, there are a number of other factors that can hinder HR transformation attempts. Some of these include talent gaps, governance, prioritization issues, system limitations, and inadequate processes and delivery systems. Issues with any of these can cause HR problems such as cost overruns, loss of credibility, time delays, and failure to deliver on objectives.
HR leaders can use the following tactics to lighten the load for HR business partners and ensure the success of their HR transformation:
- Create a deployment plan that sequentially outlines how key capabilities and activities will be delivered when handling business challenges such as prioritization, talent gaps, process and system development, service delivery risks, and implementation of technology.
- Set expectations for service level specifically for the period of transition, to assist team members in focusing on maintaining acceptable delivery standards.
- Let COEs and/or operations spearhead new HR models rather than letting it fall on the shoulders of business partners—or at the very least, plan the enablement of HR delivery in advance.
- Align HR operations and COE resources by business partner until systems and processes have been optimized. That way, business partners have a line of sight to the HR team members that support delivery for their clients.
- Hire extra interim business partners and/or support until your COEs and HR operations reach full functionality.
- Manage demand for HR services and program development through governance processes and prioritization. This approach can be adapted both for the short term while the new model is being developed and for the long term to ensure HR delivery capacity is never overtaxed.
- Develop interim processes to redistribute work to others across the organization give business partners a break.
No matter how seasoned and competent they are, or how hard they try, HR business partners can’t ensure delivery all by themselves, nor should they be expected to. By finding ways to lighten the load for business partners, HR leaders can safeguard the reputation and credibility of HR and ensure delivery during the transitional period of organization transformation. Used singly or combined, the tactics listed above can be effective ways to do this—and may even result in kudos both from business partners and clients.