Introduction

Many organisations use HR business partnering as their key HR operating model. HR business partners are aligned to and work closely with business leaders to enhance workforce performance, foster and nurture strategic people enablers such as talent, leadership and culture, as well as develop people solutions, to achieve the organisation’s objectives.

This factsheet explores what HR business partnering is and how it works, both as a model and a mindset. It covers the roots of business partnering, the role of the business partner, and the HR business partnering model. It also offers guidance on implementing business partnering and how it can help businesses shape positive change to people, performance and business practices.

CIPD viewpoint

Business partnering is a popular model, widely adopted by HR teams, and there are different ways to apply it to help 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 shape positive change that contributes to achieving business objectives. This means HR needs to assess the needs of many different stakeholders – not only meeting short-term goals, but maintaining a perspective on overall organisational health, people and performance in the long-term. This is a critical value add element of the HRBP model.

Our new Profession Map aligns closely with HR business partnering as a practice. HR business partners can use it as a guide and development tool as it sets the international benchmark for the people profession. Use it to make better decisions, act with confidence, perform at your peak, drive change in your organisation and progress in your career.

Video: Introducing HR business partnering

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

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

Please scroll to the bottom of the factsheet to view the transcript of this video.

HR business partnering is not the what, but how HR delivers its capability in an organisational context. HR business partners work closely with leaders and management teams to help build organisational and people capabilities. They work with the organisation to shape and implement effective HR strategies and programmes, 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, although the original model has evolved since its initial adoption.

The essence of true HR business partnering is context – understanding the strategy and trajectory of the organisation, appreciating people demographics and the organisational culture, 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, using data to be more evidence-based in practice, and delivering a portfolio of business relevant solutions that meet the evolving needs of the organisation.

HR business partnering (HRBP) is one way that HR can move away from being a traditional back-office function, to become a business enabler or driver. It’s about HR providing expertise that helps shape positive change, translating the organisation’s goals into people-based solutions, as well as challenging and focusing on adaptive people practices that ensure alignment to future objectives.

Some of the key reasons organisations implement the HRBP 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 HRBP model can ensure strategic objectives are achieved, by understanding the business, responding to challenges and helping shape strategies that merge people practices with high performance.

  • 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 then works closer with the business, able to interpret the needs of others and can create the solutions that help deliver positive outcomes. Increasing efficiency and reducing costs are important for any organisation, so adapting the way HR is organised to deliver on these areas is important for HR’s credibility as a true business partner.

  • 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 work. The HRBP can be a true change catalyst to facilitate transformational change.

  • Strategic HR – If HR is aligned with, and in effective partnership with, the leadership structure, it’s in a prime position to critically evaluate, influence and develop the appropriate people solutions to help the leadership team achieve their vision and objectives. HR then becomes both a strategic partner and strategic enabler in one.

The HR operating model should be different for different organisations, depending on their context, size, complexity and evolution. HR business partnering is just one approach: it’s potential value, efficiencies and capabilities should be critically assessed to decide if the HRBP model is suitable for a particular organisation. However, business partnering should not be simply defined as a role. It’s both a capability and a mindset that encourages HR to design and align the right HR capability for the organisation as it evolves.

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's been implemented (depending 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. HRBPs are facilitators and business consultants, ensuring that the HR value proposition is both relevant and effective.

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

Three-legged stool model
  • Shared services – usually a centralised service group that handles routine ‘transactional’ services across the organisation, for example recruitment administration, payroll, absence monitoring, HR template generation and advice on simpler employee relations. HR shared services are a first line HR support and administration hub.

  • Centres of excellence – usually small teams of HR experts with specialist knowledge. Centres of excellence deliver business and people benefits through HR innovations, interventions and initiatives, in areas such as reward, learning, recruitment, employee engagement, organisation development 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 both the business and people strategy by aligning HR capabilities across the whole organisation.

Both options have their strengths and weaknesses. 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 people strategy and creating the right HR services to deliver a positive impact on the organisation, its people and wider communities.

The most effective way to create an HRBP model is to consult with the business to nurture the right HR proposition and operating model that’s understood and supported by the business. Too often, HR business partnering is delivered as a solution without any consultation to ensure it’s aligned or even understood. HR needs to put partnering into practice from the very moment it wants to be seen as a true business partner. 

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 (recruitment, reward, talent, etc). It’s also evident that other business functions have picked up on the benefits of business partnering, creating finance partners, marketing partners etc, to align their capabilities more effectively with the organisations they support.

If HR wants to be an effective business partner, there are four key areas:

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

  • Generating insight from data and evidence – using evidence to support structured business cases or strategies, as well providing insight, inspiration and the opportunity to indicate HR’s impact.

  • Connecting with curiosity, purpose and impact – asking the right questions, crafting networks and understanding where HR can identify opportunities to create the most value. It’s a continuous learning process to ensure HR is defined and aligned effectively.

  • 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 essential for a business partner role. However, HRBPs 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.

These points 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 HRBP 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 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 HRBP model is essential to ensuring that the HR service is fit for the business. Further to the research outlined above, HR needs to consider the following when assessing or implementing the 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, the right blend of knowledge, values, capability and experience, 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. Not everyone is suited to the role.

  • HR community – Effective HR business partnering is as much about creating connections amongst the HR teams as it is with the wider business. 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.

  • 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. HR needs to focus on business imperatives, not simply HR initiatives if it is to be deemed a credible business operator.

  • HR focus – Whilst HR business partnering is about context, it’s also important to ensure that HRBP roles do not get distracted by low level HR casework. Whilst it’s important to do occasional case work to maintain currency and help build trust with new stakeholders, the real value is achieved by working on strategic elements.

  • HR ‘road mapping’ – HR must plan and map change effectively. This means understanding the needs of change, likely outcomes, identifying quick wins to build credibility, celebrating milestones achieved, as well as measuring the potential and eventual impact of people solutions. Developing a road map that’s aligned to and has the potential to shape the overall strategy is key. Tracking transition as it progresses through agreed milestones will help ensure success.

Books and reports

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.

Journal articles

FRIEDRICH, T. and RAJSHEKHAR, T. (2018) The evolving role of HR business partners. Workforce Solutions Review. Vol 9, No 1. January/February. pp24-25.

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 (online). 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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Hello, my name is Giles O’Halloran and I’m a trainer with the CIPD. I deliver the HR business partner course in both the UK and Dubai. I’ve been a trainer and trained people for almost 20 years.

HR business partnering means different things to different organisations and no one size fits all as it does with some HR. I think it adds value as a role in four ways.

  • Firstly, it’s a trusted adviser to the business. It looks at how things can be done and done better.
  • It becomes a change catalyst by developing new ideas through using technology and new ways of doing things to create good change.
  • It’s also a relationship enhancer, bringing the different parts of the organisation together to understand what they do and how they can add value, and create value for the organisation in the longer term. That creates sustainable business.
  • And then finally, I think the real value is that, because it’s based on relationships, it's about connecting the organisation capabilities, and the people, through effective networks to get things done.

I’ve had a number of years as an HR business partner. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the role. But after thinking about HR business partnering, I’ve probably done it in most of my roles, but at different levels because, as I said, it’s a set of capabilities and no one set gets HR done.

If I look back at the years that I’ve done HR business partnering, I think my top tip would be about developing, sustaining and maintaining relationships - that’s key to the HR business partner role. Because it is about partnering. It’s about developing that trust, that confidence in using an individual to be a credible professional, representing HR but working with HR, and so there are two sides to that coin. It’s not just about a relationship with the business, it’s about a relationship with HR colleagues so we can really meld the two together and add value to what we do. We, I think, have the great opportunity if we focus on relationships to really put the ‘human’ into HR.

So let me tell you a bit about the HR business partner course. I think there are a number of elements to it which would be of interest to you.

  • Firstly, we talk about HR business partnering, about where it’s come from, so we talk about the history of it, how it’s developed over the past almost 20 years.
  • We also look at how we develop commercial acumen in HR. So we look at being ‘business-savvy’.
  • We also look at analytics – an area which sometime HR is a bit scared of, and the reason being we don’t like numbers. But numbers are the language of business and we need to therefore be mindful and understand, and be ‘savvy’ about analytics.
  • And finally, it’s not just about the numbers and the evidence. If we’re going to influence the business and make a difference, we need to be able to influence people, coach and mentor them through that. And so we cover that on the course.

The real benefits of the course, I think, are that firstly, it really develops your commercial acumen. You’ll be able to speak the business’s language. We also look at influencing so I think this is a key part of that because influencing can establish the basis and foundations for real change in business. And then finally, what we are doing is adding value to the business by creating a real-time and real HR value proposition.

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