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The role of the HR business partner: Making it work

Laura Albregts and Cindy Meervis

PA Consulting Group

HR Zone

13 January 2009

Although many organisations employ HR business partners, there are different interpretations of the role and varying levels of success. Laura Albregts and Cindy Meervis examine the important part they play in inspiring your organisation and assess what is needed to make the role work effectively. 

Many organisations have implemented HR business partner roles, whose aim is to be strategic partners and change agents alongside senior leaders helping them execute the people dimensions of business strategies. Yet, translating this concept into the real world, where operational issues and ad hoc queries seem to rule the daily agenda, is not an easy task.

Consequently, organisations tend to struggle with the positioning of their HR business partners as truly effective operators. Here we share our views on the elements that influence success and effectiveness of an HR business partner, based on our client work with multinational organisations. 

These are tough but exciting times for HR

While HR's focus has shifted towards cost-effectiveness and downsizing, talent management remains a key concern for businesses, with continued demand for team building, succession planning and leadership development.

The extreme business conditions of 2009 could prove to be the year when HR business partners prove their worth - or fail. In theory, the role has never been more necessary, but the lack of a clear definition or common understanding of what an HR business partner is for might be exposed in this climate, making it difficult for people to be successful in the role.

What are the elements that determine the contribution and success of an HR business partner? Although there’s no straightforward or obvious answer, it is recognised to be about exerting behaviours that both influence the strategic agenda and gain business buy-in while also applying a skill set that improves the effectiveness and delivery of quality HR services. It is well acknowledged that the HR business partner role cannot be successful in isolation; its effectiveness heavily depends on its position within the entire HR function, and particularity its relationships with HR service centres and centres of expertise.

What drives the success of an effective HR business partner?

In our view, the effectiveness of the HR business partner is determined by their ability to act along three key themes: Strategic Advisor; Service Manager; and Business Catalyst.

Be a strategic HR advisor to senior management

Understanding the business and its external environment is essential for any HR business partner wanting to develop into a strategic advisor to senior management. We say 'senior' because for advice to be strategic, the person receiving it needs to have a planning horizon that exceeds immediate tactical concerns – five years, not 12 months.

Knowing the business's landscape creates an initial entry into the management team, but continuing to operate with impact is established by showing the appropriate behaviours and acting from the right beliefs and values, so that business leaders see their HR people as peers in whom they can confide.

How to behave and influence?

  • Learn what drives the business and what the numbers look like

  • Derive a coherent HR and people strategy - prioritise processes that will deliver the most benefits
  • Influence the strategic agenda by building relationships at key levels in the organisation; gain their commitment and belief that HR can contribute to business results
  • Develop personal and professional HR credibility through courage, integrity and initiative and with this, challenge business leaders
  • Proactively promote HR interventions that will add to the bottom line today and in the future, instead of merely responding to requests for service

Act as a catalyst for continued business performance

HR needs to share in the responsibility for sustaining and improving business results by ensuring that HR strategies and plans are translated into concrete actions and tangible results. HR business partners should define, prioritise and measure HR's contribution to business performance as well as monitor and maximise staff effectiveness to business operations.

What to do?

  • Shape the organisation structure by aligning activities with people and capabilities in support of business operations

  • Implement position and competency frameworks and design motivational career paths
  • Match resource capability to changing business requirements and conditions, maintaining a workforce plan (quantity and quality) and making resource projections
  • Monitor and foster talent by facilitating talent reviews. Plan for succession and identify the values, behaviours and skills for future leaders to develop against
  • Enable a working environment where sharing knowledge and expertise is not prohibited by organisational 
  • Identify key metrics for HR to measure business performance and HR performance (ie. length of service, illness rate, attrition rate, etc.)

Ensure that operational excellence in HR is delivered

As a service manager, the HR business partner needs to monitor and provide excellent HR service delivery. Not only should the person in this role fulfil the local demand function of the shared service centre and the centres of expertise, they should also provide specialised HR service delivery when required (ie. local recruitment).

How to make sure these excellent services are delivered?

  • Drive for uniform and best practice processes, it enables for a quality and consistent service delivery. But don’t lose sight of the end-service delivery by overly focusing on how it is provided

  • Actively manage the service provider by agreeing a service catalogue (what is and what isn’t delivered) and the levels for delivery. And help them say no to things that aren’t in scope
  • Monitor the quality of services delivered (ie. timeliness, accuracy, efficiency and responsiveness) and take prompt, corrective action in any cases of dissatisfaction or issues with delivery
  • Continuously steer for further efficiencies and improvements in how HR services are provided to managers and employees (ie. ease of accessing self-service, linking processes to avoid handovers)
  • Make sure the right governance model is established and that the whole of HR works together (i.e. through organisation structures, RACI matrices, planning and control cycles). This to avoid HR services having multiple owners, or worse, no owner at all.

Contact the people and talent team

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