Why Strategic Partnering

Business partnering has received quite a bit of criticism over recent years and since this concept is at the centre of the Strategic HR Academy‘s internally focused programmes (ie looking at what we do within HR), I thought I should explain why.

Firstly, I’m not writing about the job / job title of the HR business partner. I’ve previously suggested that this will increasingly morph into something focused on network brokering but that’s a different conversation. (As is what we call HR.) However, I would suggest those arguing there’s no such thing as a Finance, Marketing or IT business partner (or business relationship manager) look these up in the Linkedin search bar above, and select Jobs, as there are plenty of partner jobs in these other areas too (although I don’t think the term makes quite as much sense in all of these domains).

I also don’t get too fussed about the business partnering approach, ie the way that different parts of HR work together to meet business needs (the whole territory provided by Dave Ulrich’s original 2×2 business partnering model, if you remember that). I think this is an obvious requirement, although still often needs more focus to make happen well.

So it’s the strategic partnering role (the one in the top left of the Ulrich 2×2 model) that I still think is key. This is about the way we work with our colleagues in the rest of the business (or “in the business”) on a strategic people and organisation agenda.

I represent the way we do this through a series of value chains. This doesn’t mean that there are only simple or mechanistic, one-way relationships between the steps in the value chains, but there are clearly particularly strong causal links from our activities to their outcomes, and from the organisation (ie the way we organise people and work) to the rest of the business.

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The outcomes in the organisation value chain are often called organisation or people capabilities. I split these into human, organisation and social capital but there are also other ways of grouping them such as Dave Ulrich’s talent, leadership and organisation. I also like McKinsey’s concept of organisation health, which is also pretty much the same thing. I especially like this as they suggest that organisation health is now the main basis for competitive success.

As I explain in the Academy’s Competitive Advantage course, this last point means that people management and organisation design are core processes driving competitive advantage, and that HR is therefore the main driver of business success (so let’s not call ourselves a support function).

However, this strategic impact only occurs when we focus on the organisation value chain and the way we work in this to create organisation outcomes (obviously these outcomes still need to link with the rest of the business). And if we PARTNER with the rest of the business through our strategic focus on people and their organisation within the organisation value chain. And if we create value through these outcomes, ie we offer new potential and possibility to a business based on what people and the organisation can do (or we create an organisation where people can do this for themselves).

This is in direct contrast to the belief or at least statements of many HR commentators and practitioners that to be strategic or even just credible and effective that we need to focus mainly on the business and therefore on the business value chain. That we need to be a business player, or business leader rather than a business partner. (I would add that this tends to be the same people who note they’re “a business person who happens to work in HR rather than the reverse” But I don’t want to upset anyone, and it’s a different although linked issue, so let’s move on.) Because actually, it’s when we do this that we do become a support function. As what we end up doing then is recruiting and training the people which the business needs to deliver strategic success from within the rest of the business. Ie supporting the rest of the business to be strategic. But our own role is then by definition about support not strategy. HR only becomes truly strategic by focusing on the organisation value chain and creating value through organisation outcomes.

The same applies to accountability. Being a business player is supposed to provide co-accountability for business results. But there is no co-accountbility. You’re accountable or you’re not. Co-accountability is no accountability. You only get accountability from focusing on the organisation value chain, and taking accountability for the delivery of organisation outcomes across the organisation.

This is all especially true now we’re operating in the people age. Now that people are so clearly the main foundation of a business, and the whole business needs to Put People First, why would HR not want to focus mostly on people, and their management, development and organisation (obviously still in the context of the needs of the rest of the business)? Businesses have already got too many people focused on their operating procedures and financials without us doing this too.

So all those suggestions arguing that HR needs to concentrate most on being a business player – to play mainly in the business value chain – is, to me, completely the wrong advice, and I believe that following it will doom us to renewed support function irrelevance.

So, there you go, that’s why I focus on business-, and particularly, strategic- partnering.

And please note,

  • This isn’t about a return to the dark, distant days of personnel administration, ie an internal focus on HR activities. It’s about focusing on people and organisation and growing their capabilities so that our businesses can be competitively successful. Not just aligning with the existing needs of the rest of the business.
  • And it’s not not about the business. HR is still part of the business. And we still need to support the rest of the business to be strategic. But our most important role is partnering with the rest of the business from our perspective focusing on the most important part of the business. Growing the people capabilities that will enable our businesses to succeed. And recognising that this success is an oblique, emergent outcome of focusing on our people.
  • I don’t think this is just about semantics. Partnering with the rest of the business and creating value through a focus on people and the organisation implies a small but important build on the way business partnering is normally defined (eg I think Dave Ulrich sees business partnering and playing as largely the same thing). But it’s a qualitative jump from seeing ourselves as a business player rather than a partner, ie as just another part of the business.

(This is also why I build the Strategic HR Academy’s programmes looking at HR effectiveness around this concept. You can find out more in these two courses:

  • Strategic Partnering – looking at how any HR practitioner can build their effectiveness in the strategic partnering role, including the theory and practical tools to do this.
  • HR Transformation – designing the HR organisation to make it easier for practitioners to act as better strategic partners. This includes, but isn’t just about the HR structure, so this course is relevant to any practitioner wanting to be more strategic, not just those leading a transformation.

Jon Ingham

HR Strategist, Trainer, Learning Facilitator at the Jon Ingham Strategic HR Academy


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