University of Wisconsin–Madison

HR as a Business Partner, Part 1

Dave Ulrich, professor of business at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, coined the term “HR Business Partner” around the time that he wrote his 1997 book, The Human Resources Champions. His intention was to realign HR with business needs instead of having HR continue to focus on task-based, silo-ed functions such as payroll, recruiting, and compliance.

Ulrich’s original model of HR Business Partnership suggested that HR professionals should understand the business in which we work. This was a ‘specialty’ model of HR couched in needing to understand the business in order to execute one’s specialty effectively, versus focusing solely on the function one might be hired to perform.

One of the goals of this model was to reduce the transactional requirements so that HR professionals could devote more of their time as higher-level advisors to the business in key areas (such as talent management). The results of this approach were reportedly mixed, perhaps because the transactional components of HR still need to be handled, even as HR evolves into more of a partnership role.

Today, the HR Business Partner term persists in the spirit of shifting HR to more of a ‘business results’ orientation. This requires HR to be “mindful of regulations but not paralyzed by them,” as Doug Blizzard states in this video. The shift requires HR professionals to partner with the organization’s operational leadership to take ownership of business results instead of simply executing transactions or performing specialty functions separate from overall needs of the business. To do this, the HR Business Partner must understand the business model of the organization one serves, and proactively use one’s expertise to influence leadership decisions for the health of the organization.

Why do we care?

Bottom line, the profession of HR must add value to the organizations it serves to sustain a future for itself. If we want to be employed in Human Resources in the future, we need to be able to function in a partnership role, ensuring the success of our organizations versus solely our units.

Deloitte’s 2016 Global Human Capital Trends Report, The new organization: Different by design, echoes these changes that are afoot for the profession of human resources:

“[H] igh-impact HR organizations are moving away from a ‘service provider’ mentality to becoming valued talent, design, and employee-experience consultants. They are now deeply embedded in the business through senior business-partner leadership roles. In this new model, HR professionals must be more business-oriented specialists, possessing critical new skills…” (p.79 – download the PDF at the above link to read more).

This is an exciting and turbulent time to be in human resources as our profession is rapidly evolving. Next month, we’ll continue our exploration of what it means to be an HR Business Partner. We’ll discuss the potential pitfalls of the partnership model and what you can do to avoid those.