Josh Bersin: Tracing the evolution of HRBPs

By: | September 12, 2019 • 5 min read
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. He can be emailed at

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.

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.