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Josh Bersin: Tracing the evolution of HRBPs

Health benefits for employees are the focus of 2023 HBLC
Josh Bersin
Josh Bersin writes HRE’s HR in the Flow of Work column. Bersin is an analyst, author, educator and thought leader focusing on the global talent market and the challenges and trends impacting business workforces around the world.

HR business partners are at the frontline of today’s talent strategy. They represent the fastest-growing role in the profession and, in many organizations, the most pivotal. A great HR business partner must balance strategy and execution, have an intimate understanding of business challenges and be able to re-frame those challenges through the lens of the employee experience and talent strategies. If that’s not enough, a modern HRBP must know how to ask probing questions and design creative solutions.

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In last month’s column, I recapped conversations I had with HR leaders during a Meeting of the Minds focused on the role of today’s HRBPs. In this month’s column, I’d like to explain how I’ve seen the role evolve as HR itself has evolved, and what I see ahead for the future.

Phase 1: Distributed throughout the business

In this early phase, HR staff is distributed throughout the enterprise. For instance, individuals may be assigned to different business units or regional offices and responsible for most of the HR-related processes and transactions that occur within the entity. There may be some corporate oversight, but systems and policies may or may not be standardized. While this model creates localized support, it usually comes with significant inefficiencies. In this model, the role of HR business partner typically doesn’t exist since HR staff members are embedded in each business entity.

Phase 2: Focus on streamlined service delivery

HR is realigned toward implementing global processes with centers of excellence, service centers and business partners. In this model, HR is redesigned as a service-delivery function, and all HR roles are defined for efficient and effective service delivery. The service-delivery model creates common processes and systems; centers of excellence are staffed with specialists focusing on areas such as recruiting, talent and performance management, and management development. With this model, the focus is on efficiency and low-cost service, but not necessarily high-value consulting. The HRBP role usually is seen as a generalist but can also become strategic. In fact, I believe the HRBP role was invented during the development of this “Ulrich” service-delivery model because of the need for individuals to have face-to-face contact with business stakeholders.

Phase 3: Focus on employee experience

In this phase, HR implements intelligent systems and redesigns the COEs to focus on employee journeys and experiences. Rather than a “talent COE,” there are solution centers or solution teams, such as an employee onboarding center or a team focused on low employee performance or global talent mobility. Such cross-functional teams design solutions for these integrated multi-disciplinary problems by bringing together IT, HR, finance, facilities and other groups. The big focus is on creating employee experiences, and such solutions often require a tremendous amount of automation. In this model, HRBPs are fewer, but they are more strategic and consultative.

Phase 4: Agile and predictive

In this future phase, the teams and infrastructure built at Phase 3 are applied to specifically support and facilitate new business opportunities or challenges, such as mergers and acquisitions, new growth initiatives or sale productivity. These teams will go well beyond the traditional functions of HR and become more steeped in business issues and drivers. In order to move to this level, the company must have established systems and practices in Phase 3 to ensure all core employee experiences are well-designed and managed. In this model, teams will include domain specialists, as well as HRBPs who work directly with the business units involved.

How to Develop HR Business Partners

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As I wrote last month, I believe the HRBP role is critically important to the HR function, and also one that can be an important career stepping stone. Many of the HR leaders in our recent meeting were HRBPs at some point in their careers.

For those looking to cultivate HRBPs in their own organizations, I recommend focusing on four primary areas:

  • Learning to be a strategic advisor. HRBPs begin every project with a single question: What is the business goal we are trying to achieve? It’s a simple question, but the answer is usually highly complex. HRBPs must have an intimate understanding of the business challenges at hand and the influencing factors. In most cases, HRBPs have to dig for this information, which means asking probing questions, thinking holistically and, above all, having an investigative mindset.
  • Knowing how to use data for problem-solving. In older models of HR, HRBPs were often consulted on specific questions that had clear, specific answers: How much salary can we offer this candidate? What is the onboarding procedure in this market? What training is available for these skills? As HR moves to the cloud and such information is more broadly available, the HRBP is no longer the primary source. Instead, HRBPs are being asked more complicated (but equally important) questions: How can we leverage the immense amount of data we have about our people to solve complex, strategic talent problems? How can we improve the employee experience? These questions have no easy answers, no codified processes or procedures. HRBPs have to seek useful conclusions out by finding the right data, formulating and testing hypotheses, and designing novel solutions with the results.
  • Learning to be an influential storyteller. HR business partners rarely have the authority to make major business changes on their own. They have to work with and through the members of their teams, both on the business side and the HR side. Great HRBPs manage that complexity through a combination of clear communications, relationship building, and proactive management of their internal and external networks. The result is a high level of influence over key decisions regarding talent and people, even in the absence of direct authority.
  • Develop excellent coaching skills. Because HRBPs are at the intersection of strategy, organization and talent, they are often called on to give advice, coaching and mentorship to a diverse array of team members. HRBPs’ coaching responsibilities can range from giving strategic coaching to senior executives to helping new hires plan a career path. The core of any good coaching relationship is trust and empathy. HRBPs have to earn teammates’ trust with sensitive information, and they must have a clear sense of empathy for their teammates’ situations, regardless of their position on the org chart. More often than not, these conversations won’t be easy. HRBPs have to be comfortable navigating difficult discussions and complex, interconnected relationships.

I’ll be talking more about how this role fits into the new world of HR in my keynote presentation at the upcoming HR Technology Conference and Exposition®. I hope to see you there.