Many organisations use the HR business partnering model to organise HR. HR business partners work closely with business leaders and line managers to build capabilities, plan and manage talent, and develop approaches that achieve shared organisational objectives.

This factsheet explores what HR business partnering is and how it works, both within the organisation and as part of a HR team. It explores the roots of business partnering, the role of the business partner, and looks into the drivers for - and challenges to - the HR business partnering model. Finally, it offers guidance on implementing business partnering in an organisation and how it can be used to help businesses shape positive change – for the organisation, its workers and wider society.

Key takeaways

  • HR business partnering is a concept fundamental to both strategic and operational HR.
  • One size does not fit all - HR business partnering is all about context.
  • HR needs to understand, align, and partner with the organisation to demonstrate credibility.
  • HR needs to be trusted and credible if it is to be a true business partner.
  • HR business partnering is about being adaptive, proactive and a strategic enabler.

CIPD viewpoint

Business partnering has become a popular approach to organising HR, and there are different ways we can apply it in our own organisations to help us drive organisational success.

Whatever model we use to organise HR, the road to effectiveness lies not only in deeply understanding the business strategy, but in using that understanding to help shape positive change that contributes to achieving business objectives. This means HR needs to balance the needs of many different stakeholders – not only meeting the short-term financial goals of the business, but maintaining a perspective on overall organisational health, people and performance in the long-term.

As the CIPD, we’re developing a new Professional Standards Framework to guide good decisions, helping people professionals to enable, support and challenge the business to create long-term benefits for organisations, workers and wider society. It’s part of our wider Profession for the Future programme of work, looking at what it will take for our profession to fulfil its purpose in an ever more uncertain future.

Watch our video introducing HR business partnering

In this video, Giles O’Halloran outlines how HR business partnering adds value and gives his top tips.

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Giles O'Halloran, Lead Tutor for the CIPD’s HR Business Partner Programme, in interview with CIPD

HR business partners work closely with business leaders and management teams to help build organisational and people capabilities. They work with the business to shape and implement effective HR strategies and activities, drawing on their unique knowledge as people professionals. HR business partnering was conceived in the mid-1990s by Dave Ulrich, and has become fundamental to the way many organisations structure HR; however, there have been many changes since its initial adoption.

The essence of true HR business partnering is context – understanding the business strategy, the trajectory of the organisation, appreciating employee needs – and developing people solutions that help achieve business objectives while enabling employees to flourish. This is achieved through developing meaningful relationships with key people and teams across the organisation.

HR business partnering is one way that HR can help drive the business as a trusted partner. It is about HR providing expertise that helps shape positive change, really understanding the organisation’s goals, challenges and strengths to create strategies that meet, overcome and make-the-most-of them respectively. Some of the key reasons organisations implement the model, or consider doing so, are:

  • Enabling the business – Rising expectations mean that HR professionals need to work proactively as strategic enablers. Working closely at the right levels and with the right people, the HR business partnering model can ensure strategic objectives are achieved, by understanding the business, responding to challenges and helping shape strategies that are good for the business and its people.

  • Cost-effective HR – An aligned, proactive and networked HR team has the potential to ensure cost-effectiveness by focusing expertise where it’s needed. HR is then closer to the business, able to interpret the needs of clients and can create the solutions that help deliver positive outcomes – for the business and its workers. Increasing efficiency and reducing costs are important for any business function, so adapting the way HR is organised to deliver on these areas is important for HR’s credibility.

  • Connected HR – Effective business partnering builds productive relationships that improve collaboration. If HR can help break down internal silos, it facilitates a more connected way of working. Through championing and driving this, HR can create the networked, agile, learning organisation that many thought leaders believe is the future of business.

  • Strategic HR – If HR is aligned with, embedded in and very much part of the business leadership structure, it is able to assess and create the appropriate people initiatives and solutions to help the leadership teams achieve their vision and objectives. HR then becomes both a strategic partner and strategic enabler in one.

The way HR is organised should be different for different organisations, depending on context. HR business partnering is one approach; the potential value, efficiencies and capabilities should be critically assessed in order to determine whether the HR business partner model is fit for a particular business. However, business partnering does not have to be defined by a role alone. It is a mind-set that can be used to understand, support and engage with the business as a true partner.

There's no standard way to implement business partnering because context is incredibly important – what works in one organisation may not be right in another. However, the two most common ways it has been implemented over the last two decades (dependent on the needs and budget of the organisation), have been either aligning individual HR business partners, or the ‘three-legged stool’ model.

Standalone HR business partners - attached to or aligned to a business unit. This role is the focus of the relationship between HR and the business, ensuring HR works effectively with the teams and individuals they support.

Three-legged stool model- where HR is split between three areas of expertise:

Three-legged stool model
  • Shared services – usually a centralised entity that handles the routine ‘transactional’ services across the business such as recruitment administration, payroll, absence monitoring, HR template generation and advice on simpler employee relations.
  • Centres of excellence – usually small teams of HR experts with specialist knowledge. Centres of excellence deliver business and people benefits through HR innovations in areas such as reward, learning, recruitment, employee engagement, and talent management.
  • Strategic business partners– senior HR professionals who work closely with business leaders or line managers, usually embedded in the business unit, influencing, steering and implementing the strategy.

  

Both options have their strengths and drawbacks. There are many different types of organisation, so this means that there are many ways that HR can be expressed as a functional model. However, HR becomes a true business partner through understanding the business and operating context, shaping the strategy and creating the right HR services to deliver a positive impact on the business, its workers and wider society.

According to the HR Outlook: Winter 2014-15: views of our profession survey report, the most popular model for organising HR in the UK is a single HR team with a mixture of expertise, which is used by around 40% of businesses. Just over a quarter of organisations use the Ulrich model, and this is more prominent in larger organisations. The survey also showed that the private sector favours the single HR team structure whereas the public sector is more likely to adopt the Ulrich model.

Much of HR business partnering has focused on it being a defined role within an HR team – often a strategic HRBP or operational HRBP, and sometimes a specialist partner, such as a partner for reward, learning or resourcing. It is also evident that other business functions have been copying the model, creating finance partners, marketing partners etc, to align their capabilities more effectively with the organisations they support and shape.

There are four key areas that HR professionals need to understand to deliver the business partnering model:

  • Understanding the business model at depth – getting to know and understand how the business operates, how it creates value and what its purpose is.

  • Generating insight from data and evidence – using evidence to support structured business cases or strategies.

  • Connecting with curiosity, purpose and impact – asking the right questions, crafting networks and understanding where HR can identify opportunities to create the most value.

  • Leading with integrity, consideration and challenge – having the courage and confidence to challenge the business and its leadership, using evidence, strong relationships and an understanding of the business to influence effectively.

Our report Business savvy: giving HR the edge looks at these four foundations, and offers further ideas on what HR professionals need in order to understand their business better.

Of course, understanding the business is just one area that’s needed. HR business partners also need to be able to take ‘an outside look in’. Ulrich talks about this in his book HR from the outside in: six competencies for the future of human resources (see Further reading) and it’s also evident in research by Orion Partners which has shown that there are five main criteria for success:

  • Self-belief – HR needs to believe in its own capabilities and how it can add strategic value to the organisation.

  • Independence – HR needs to be courageous enough to challenge the business and leadership, even when it might not be the most popular option.

  • Knowing the business – HR needs to understand the business, its strategy, its purpose, its culture and be able to have meaningful conversations about those things.

  • Relationships – HR needs to be able to build and facilitate relationships across the organisation that are based on trust and are productive for all stakeholders.

  • ‘One HR’ – HR needs to connect its capabilities into a joined-up approach so that the business sees a seamless service.

The points above will help HR professionals re-evaluate, rethink and refresh HR as a business discipline, but also position HR as a true partner to the organisation. 

The nature of the HR business partner model has and will continue to change. The CIPD engages with organisations to survey and understand how it is evolving. This is why we’ve created an HRBP Development Programme to build upon the current and future HR business partner models. We also run a one-day HRBP short course or a three-day masterclass.

Successful implementation and ongoing evaluation of the HR business partner model is essential to ensuring that an HR service is fit for the business – if, of course, organisations choose to use that model. Further to the research outlined above, HR needs to consider the following when looking to assess or implement the business partner model:

HR credibility – If the stakeholders in the business are not engaged with and committed to HR business partnering, HR’s credibility and ability to deliver effective partnering solutions will rarely be realised. The business leadership, management and other key stakeholders need to be engaged and consulted so that they understand the value and opportunity of the business partner model. It's essential HR can communicate and demonstrate this to the people they are working with.

HR capability – Being a business partner requires a certain set of competencies that can be recognised and developed. HR needs to be able to assess, align and develop the right people for the role to ensure it’s a success.

HR community – Effective HR business partnering is as much about creating connections amongst the HR teams as it is with the wider business functions they support. Relying on process mapping and areas of control can still lead to things slipping between the cracks where there is no clear or defined responsibility. Partnering with HR colleagues and creating a collaborative team helps bridge these issues and demonstrates the tangible value of partnering to the business.

HR context versus content – Effective HR business partnering means understanding the depth and breadth of the HR team’s capability and then applying it in the right context to deliver both immediate and strategic value – for the organisation and its people.

HR focus – Whilst HR business partnering is about context, it is also important to ensure that HR business partner roles do not get dragged down into the low level HR casework. The real value is achieved by working on strategic elements, and ensuring line managers have the skills to support appropriately.

HR ‘road mapping’ – HR must plan and map the change effectively; this means understanding the needs of the change, likely outcomes, identifying key quick wins to build credibility, as well as long-term positive impact. Developing a road map that is aligned to and has the potential to shape the overall strategy is key. Tracking the transition as it progresses through agreed milestones will help ensure success.

Books

CHARTERED INSTITUTE OF PERSONNEL AND DEVELOPMENT. (2015) Changing HR operating models: a collection of thought pieces. London: CIPD.

DALZIEL, S., STRANGE, J. and WALTERS, M. (2006) HR business partnering. Toolkit. London: Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. 

GRIFFIN, E., FINNEY, L., HENNESSY, J. and BOURY, D. (2009) Maximising the value of HR business partnering: a practical research based guide. Horsham: Roffey Park Institute.

REILLY, P. (2015) HR business partners: yes please or no thanks? A paper from HR in a disordered world: IES Perspectives on HR 2015. Brighton: Institute for Employment Studies. 

ULRICH, D., YOUNGER, J. and BROCKBANK, W. (2012) HR from the outside in: six competencies for the future of human resources. New York: McGraw Hill.

Journals

McCRACKEN, M., O’KANE, P., BROWN, T.C. and McCRORY, M. (2017) Human resource business partner lifecycle model: exploring how the relationship between HRBPs and their line manager partners evolves. Human Resource Management Journal. Vol 27, No 1, January. pp58–74.

PRITCHARD, K. (2010) Becoming an HR strategic partner: tales of transition. Human Resource Management Journal. Vol 20, No 2, April. pp175-188.   

STEPHENS, C. (2015) Are HR business partners a dying breed?People Management. February. pp36-37.

YOUNGER, J., YOUNGER, A. and THOMPSON, N. (2011) Developing the skills of HR business partnership: consulting and change management. Strategic HR Review. Vol 10, No 1. pp6-14. 

CIPD members can use our online journals to find articles from over 300 journal titles relevant to HR.

Members and People Management subscribers can see articles on the People Management website.

This factsheet was last updated by Giles O’Halloran and Stuart Haden.

Giles O’Halloran: Lead Tutor for the CIPD’s HR Business Partner Programme

Giles has over two decades of experience working in HR and Recruitment. He currently works as a freelance HR strategist, mentor, and strategic business partner. He has developed, led and consulted on a number of CIPD programmes, and is passionate about HR business partnering being fundamental to HR’s capability. Giles maintains an active interest in strategic human capital subject matters, and has led seminars on the Future of HR, the Future of Recruitment, the Future of Work, Digital HR and the Digital Workplace.


Stuart Haden: CIPD Programme Manager

Stuart builds proposals and designs courses for UK and international clients. He manages the delivery of face to face and digital programmes, continuously refreshing content and producing new products.

A learning and development professional with over 25 years’ experience as a facilitator, coach and consultant, Stuart specialises in developing optimal performance with individuals, teams and organisations. Throughout his work he values authenticity, coachability and personal energy.

In 2013 he published his first book It’s not about the coach: getting the most from coaching in business, sport and life.

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