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HR: danger of dogma

PA Consulting Group

Evaluation Centre

1 January 2009


The Polynesian island of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) is famous for its splendid Moai – monolithic human figures carved from volcanic rock.

Hundreds of these immense figures were placed around the island, but they were erected at a terrible cost to the islanders. Once covered with palm forests, it is believed that Easter Island was deforested to enable the transportation and erection of these religious statues.

The ecosystem destruction in turn led to the loss of shelter, and famine. Ultimately, a fairly sophisticated society collapsed into war and cannibalism, with the inhabitants of the island unable to escape, as there were no trees left to build canoes.

This extreme example of devotion to dogma offers a warning to HR professionals, who are in danger of showing a similar unquestioning devotion to the concept of HR business partners (HRBPs) being strategic and for HR to ‘have a seat at the board table’.

At PA Consulting Group, we see persistent confusion over the nature of the HRBP role, leading to it becoming the weakest link in many HR transformations.

A study by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) reveals that 72% of organisations reported problems in defining the boundaries of the HRBP model. We attribute much of this uncertainty to a dogmatic belief that HRBPs are not performing the role in the right way unless they spend significant amounts of their time on strategy and planning.

One of our clients surveyed its business partners and was delighted to find that they spent on average 45% of their time on strategy and planning. The company was, however, subsequently devastated to find that fewer than 20% of managers thought that the introduction of HRBPs had improved the service from HR.

We have witnessed three recurring problems when the HRBP role is introduced to an organisation:

1. Over-promising by HR directors

In their enthusiasm to gain the required investment and buy-in to HR transformation, many HR directors unwittingly exaggerate the likely contribution of HRBPs and the pace of change that can be achieved. This leads to unrealistic expectations, both within the HRBP team and throughout the business. Companies need to recognise that the introduction of HRBPs is just the start of a journey that will in time lead to a more strategic contribution by HR.

2. Weaknesses in the skills of HRBPs

Comparisons of traditional HR manager capability against HRBP profiles suggest that 30% of HR managers already possess the competencies needed and a further 20% have the capability to acquire those competencies.

The shortfalls are rarely in HR expertise, but mostly in the broader business skills of consulting, change management, negotiating, contracting, customer engagement and business analysis. These skills should be emphasised in HRBP training.

3. Fundamentalist approach to the HR business model

With a desire to achieve what they see as ‘best practice’, many HR directors have adopted a fundamentalist interpretation of the organisation design, commonly known as the Ulrich model. As such, they devise HRBP roles with no operational delivery responsibilities, and instead focus solely on strategy and planning.

No wonder line managers are perplexed – they have little time or opportunity themselves for strategy but now they are expected to endure manager self-service so their HRBP can focus on strategy.

This fundamentalist approach to HRBPs distorts other aspects of the HR operating model. In a desire to avoid service delivery in the HRBP role, HR directors force-fit key HR processes such as grievance and discipline into remote and impersonal HR service centres.

The effect is to downgrade these practices from value-add judgement-based services to rules and procedure-based services – a clear loss to HR and the business.

Experience of working on large HR transformation projects suggests that even these HRBPs have to retain operational responsibilities. They need a reason to be in the business before they can be strategic partners to the business.

Wrong focus

These three mistakes are continuously made because HR directors are focusing too heavily on being strategic partners, forgetting the need to be change agents, employee champions and operational experts.

Partly as a result of these real-life disappointments, David Ulrich’s message to the profession has shifted to talking about HRBPs as ‘player-coaches’, both participating in and advising the business – a rather different role from the widespread interpretation of a strategic partner offering guidance from the sidelines.

However, to act in this way, HRBPs need to be given tasks they can do on the pitch, to build relationships and prove their worth to line managers.

Our fear is that unless the HR profession changes its approach – unless it works for the long-term, strengthens its team and plays an active role – it may well find itself emulating the Easter Islanders: building some impressive monuments as a legacy, but ultimately losing perspective on what is important for survival.



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