Overcoming HR Business Partner Blind Spots

May 14, 2019

Overcoming HR Business Partner Blind Spots

A few years ago, I observed a Fortune 100 company design and implement their new HR business partner program (I’ll call the organization Company X). After promoting generalists and hiring some external candidates to fill the HRBP positions, Company X’s training department scheduled quarterly workshops and events to develop HRBP capabilities and to clarify expectations. After the program’s first year, the results were mixed. Some excelled while most struggled to build the strategic partnerships.

Company X’s disappointing results aren’t unique. According to a Gartner survey, CHROs expressed that:

•    82 percent of HRBPs are ineffective at strategic activities.
•    61 percent of HRBPs are unable to prioritize strategic partner activities.

Organizations can begin reversing this trend by addressing two HRBP blind spots that hurt strategic effectiveness.

Blind Spot 1: Focusing Too Much on the CoE Process
When Company X planned their HRBP program, a well-known HR consulting firm designed their centers of excellence (CoE) process and facilitated some HRBP workshops. Through the workshop experience, Company X wanted HRBPs to:

  1. Collaborate with the business executives to create business goals and align tactical solutions to strategy,
  2. Become the point-of-contact for CoEs, and
  3. Manage the CoE projects.

Unfortunately, only one unexpected behavior resulted from the training. HRBPs spent most of their time managing CoE projects with little time focusing on strategic analysis and strategy-tactic alignment. 

Essentially, many HRBPs became proficient at tactical order-taking and gatekeepers to the CoEs. While they felt comfortable and prepared to manage CoE projects, they were uncomfortable with contributing strategically, conducting analysis, and ensuring strategy-tactic alignment. The HRBPs were poorly prepared and had no practice in handling business-executive conversations about strategy and tactical alignment as well as conducting gap analyses.

What to do: When building a HRBP program, most of the emphasis and training should focus on the intake and analysis phases of the CoE process. It’s easy to train professionals on managing CoE projects as opposed to building difficult conversation dialogues and influencing techniques with executives. In addition, HRBPs need well-defined techniques for and practice in analyzing business and performance gaps as well as finding root causes. 

Specific to difficult conversations, HRBPs need to competently respond to business requests such as training. They need to help executives shift their focus from wanting HRBPs to implement specific solutions to clarifying what performance goals are needed to achieve business results. Using a powerful question technique, HRBPs should clarify what the performance gaps are before jumping to solutions. 
HRBPs need to a solution-neutral mindset and specific analytical steps to discover what solutions would mitigate performance gaps. Having a HRBP business-driven methodology would be a way to build a foundation for enabling HRBPs. With a sound methodology with a well-defined intake and analysis phase of a CoE process, HRBPs would more likely build capabilities to influence business executives from making the mistake of having CoEs work on wasteful and unimpactful projects and focus on projects that would substantially improve performance and reach business goals.

Blind Spot 2: Failing to Continuously Build Business Intelligence
One of the least appreciated HRBP capability is business intelligence. Most work to understand the businesses that they support and use that knowledge to become more effective strategic partners. Experts describe this capability as business acumen. Once they have that basic understanding, continuing to develop their business acumen becomes a low priority. As a result, they fail to reach their potential as strategic partners for the business.

What to do: To make real business strategic contributions, HRBPs need to continually develop their business intelligence. Business intelligence requires a high capacity to think systemically. HRBPs need to discover how their organization works as a system of departments that contribute to an overall process (from the supply chain to customers) and function within the marketplace. They need to determine how changes within the businesses that they support affect the other parts of the organization and within the marketplace. To build their business intelligence, HRBPs should concentrate on developing three areas:

1. Internal Business Acumen. This covers not only how the organization produces goods and services, it covers trends within the various parts of the business. HRBPs need to be aware of subtle changes within the organizations that business executives may lack awareness. 

Part of this is qualitative in which HRBPs network with their colleagues and other business executives whom they don’t support. They need to know what’s changing in departments that they don’t support and how those changes might affect their supported departments’ business goals and performance goals. This includes what changes the CHRO and HR department heads are planning. 

The other part is quantitative in which HRBPs monitor:

  • Their business partners’ metrics,
  • HR-related metrics, and
  • Other metrics (both financial and nonfinancial) that their business partners may be unaware of.

By doing so, they can discover critical changes that can have untoward consequences for HRBP’s business partners and even the HR department before they happen. This gives HRBPs time to influence those changes before real harm occurs.

2. External Business Acumen. HRBPs need awareness of what’s changing in the marketplace. This includes the organization’s industry (such as retail, financial services, telecommunication, and automotive) or their business partners’ industries (such as technology, merchandising, training, and internal audit). 

As with internal business acumen, this includes qualitative and quantitative trends that are used for the same purpose of providing insight to their business partners and enabling the business to take adaptive steps to decrease risk.

3. Genotypical Organizational Patterns. While HRBPs may have a strong HR background, they tend to have limited performance consulting capabilities. Part of performance consulting is the diagnostic capability of business and performance problems. Diagnostic involves recognizing behavioral patterns that occur across organizations regardless of industry. What HRBPs need to learn are the common organizational patterns and recognize when these patterns occur. 

Lifelong Learning Helps HRBPs Become Exceptional
HRBPs need to continuously develop their business intelligence because environmental trends change and there are countless number of organizational patterns to learn. Continuous learning applies also to HRBP’s capabilities in influencing business partners, analytics, and diagnostics. Without continual learning, HRBPs become less relevant. CHROs would gladly replace HRBPs with professionals who dedicate part of their work to developing their capabilities and keeping current on internal and external trends.

The Authors: 

Gary A. DePaul, Ph.D., is a speaker, author, leadership futurist, and owner of HR Leadership Curators.