HR business partner models are failing. So what next?


Sensible words from Ann Parkinson but as usual much of the HR profession is spending too much time theorising and navel gazing. If you want better Business Partners then actively involve them in ...

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HR magazine asked academics at Henley Business School for their thoughts

HR business partner models are failing to add strategic value to businesses, according to a Henley Business School report featured in March’s issue of HR magazine. But what could replace them?

We spoke to academics at Henley Business School to find out where they see the HR profession heading.

Why do you think the HR business partner model isn't adding sufficient value to businesses?

Elizabeth Houldsworth, course director of the MSc international human resource management programme: In pursuing the business partner model HR has moved further away from some of the things it used to do well, for example the process and admin. When core processes such as payroll administration are not given sufficient emphasis the business loses reputation both internally and externally, and no amount of strategic business partnering is going to redress this.

Does this mean we need to consider an entirely new model? What could that look like?

Mark Swain, director of partnerships: There isn’t one best way, and we don’t have a replacement in mind for Ulrich or similar. That said, in our report we talk about two ways that might work: 'evolve and transform'.

Evolve continues the general evolution of the HR function in applying its capabilities to a strategically significant role, combined with greater efficiency in delivery and expertise in matters relating to people. This essentially takes a set of capabilities and applies them to the organisation.

Transform is about HR responding to the future needs and context of business in the context of a defined purpose and outputs. This essentially identifies a critical strategic organisational need and creates new entities to meet that need, building on the capabilities that the HR function has developed.

Charmi Patel, associate professor of international human resource management: We don’t necessarily need to consider a new business model. HR needs to stop being a cheerleader for initiatives it can neither enforce nor measure. Often I see HR leaders pleading with line or operational and financial managers to take on yet another set of ‘people management’ practices, burning up more social capital in the process. This is the very reason why talent development and people are not a clear priority for executive leadership. Evidence needs to be matched up and more than ever the HR profession now needs specialists in charge of bringing strategic thinking as a core HR in-house competence.

What might the future bring to HR, and how will it need to adapt to add value to the business?

Swain: The challenge is having a robust approach in firstly delivery. It needs processes to acquire, develop and retain strategic capabilities and secondly expertise, advice and programmes on specified capabilities and their development. It also requires a wider business field of view, HR should bring the agility to adapt to macro and business changes, organisational development expertise, technological awareness, and (often missed) project management capabilities.

What impact will technology have on the future of HR models?

Nick Holley, visiting professor: HR might not be about human resources alone, since AI and robotics imply a workforce that isn’t only human. As such we need to adapt to being the capability-building function where we focus far more on a broader definition of organisational capability, not just people. We need to redefine our purpose, not to do HR stuff or 'right people, right place, right time' but to build the capability of an organisation to deliver it's strategy. This implies a far more business-centric approach and a more systemic approach to HR closer in its thinking to OD than HR. This will have big implications for the quality of thinking we need in HR.

How can HR leaders develop their teams to be fit for the future?

Ann Parkinson, subject area leader for managing people on the MBA programme: Make sure that more junior HR staff have opportunities to take on operational roles and are involved as part of operational management teams at every level of an organisation. In this way business partnership is meaningful.

Do you agree? Let us know in the comments below.


Sensible words from Ann Parkinson but as usual much of the HR profession is spending too much time theorising and navel gazing. If you want better Business Partners then actively involve them in the business; it's hardly rocket science. In fact the best (but sadly rarest) BP's are those who have worked outside their function for a period rather than being stuck in an HR back office for their entire career. And if you can't find one with the relevant experience then develop them yourself. How often do you send your BP on a sales course or on low level finance training? Mine went off to do a beginners guide to financial forecasting for half a day last week! There are no down sides to this lateral development only positive organisational outcomes.


In most cases, HR is a relic of past 'cheerleading' mentalities and company Christmas parties. Until you really believe the 'capital' concept of human capital, your 'business partner' is just another trophy.


Having spent 20 years in HR trying to make a difference, I have to agree with both comments above, and disagree on one point with Mr. Cormack. Firstly, most Hr people don't have a clue about the business they serve. It seems that most believe once they know the revenues of their unit, they are good. HRBPs must have intimate knowledge of all aspects of the business. Business training should be compulsory for all HRBPs. When I did 2 financial courses and an audit course, people looked at me as if I am crazy. I thought spending time with sales managers and project managers on the job is part of what the job, but I seemed to be a pariah at times. Where I do disagree, from personal experience, is that HRBPs should come from other areas of the business. I have seen few successes here, as these employees lose touch with people and are notoriously poor at building any kind of relationship. Relationships are key to the 3 pillar model of HR. HR seriously needs to get its eyes on the business and start aligning themselves with business. Just sticking an HRBP in a business unit is indeed like putting a trophy on a mantle piece.

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