Think Business to Become a Business Partner
By Garvita Chaturvedi
All HR executives go through rigorous sessions on inculcating qualities that will get them the status of a Business Partner in real terms. However, as is the rule with everything, this concept also needs a re-look, with the changes in the Human Resources (HR) function per se and the state of economy. One would do well to see the evolution of HR function and find the key expectations from the most important stakeholder – the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) in the current times.
Megatrends shape lives of individuals and destinies of nations. Today we are in the midst of one such momentous transition, namely the rise of the Asian continent; and within it, particularly China and India. Indeed, some have referred to the 21st century being Asia’s century. Others draw attention, specifically, to our country’s Demographic Dividend. It is not a coincidence that the two emerging superpowers are also home to the world’s biggest populations. Regardless of the shade of opinion one subscribes to, it is clear that there is a renewed focus around People as a productive resource. Equally, within modern organizations, this has also reemphasized the role of HR as a function. Most notable of these is its role a Business Partner to best harness and develop this critical resource.
Again, in the context of the world over last few years, the most striking aspect of social, political and economic life is ‘change’. Volatility has been described as the ‘new normal’. In this backdrop, and given the sheer magnitude of changes, the impact on organizations in the future may be widespread as well. This could encompass not only the environment businesses operate in, but also their productive models. Hence, organizational structures, enabling processes and people practices would also evolve. It is reminiscent of Peter Drucker’s semi-prophetic description of New Realities many years ago as change that impacts the climate, topography and language of business. From an HR perspective, therefore, it may be worthwhile to examine various elements of these changes and the consequences on Business Partner deliverables.
‘The Times They Were A-Changin’
At one level, the specter of change in economic environment and business models is not new. In India, the transition from a primarily agrarian economy to one dominated by the Services sector, has been discernible since the decade of the Eighties. The post-Nehruvian economic liberalization gave this a massive fillip. Simultaneously, there were rapid advances in technology and in particular Information & Communications Technology (ICT). Arguably, ICT applications helped partially mitigate the challenges of physical infrastructure typical to an underdeveloped but developing economy. New Indian entrepreneurs could envision and build new ventures; and existing businesses could upgrade internal and customer facing processes to achieve better speed, reliability and customization.
This growth of industries that relied almost exclusively on human resources, led to tangible rise in the demand for generalists. Frontline managers in, say, Information Technology-enabled Services (ITeS) firms were expected to cater to a broader range of employee interactions. Demands were two-way in nature: from hygiene issues to service delivery related inputs and business communication. Concurrently, roles and responsibilities for the HR Business Partners (HRBP) rose to identification, understanding and resolution of a larger gamut of personnel management considerations. In this sense, Business HR became an integral part of the organizations’ daily operations as well as the first-level delivery mechanism for more specialized interventions.
Another notable aspect of this growth was the scramble to keep pace with it in terms of resource availability. In fact, in most such industries, employee attrition figured as a key concern. Partially for this reason, apart from an understandable general bias on retention saw the emergence of employee engagement as a significant expectation from HR from leadership of companies across the board. Often, the ownership of this reinforced ask devolved to Business HR folks at the frontline, and going all the way up to the strategic business unit level. Thus, across levels, HR managers worked in tandem with line managers to plan and execute key engagement initiatives. This, in fact, was of great help in deeply enmeshing HR within the business; and providing it recognition as a Partner.
It is interesting to note that simultaneous with the rise of the ‘Generalist Human Resource’, there was a sustained move to centralize and consolidate other key HR deliverables into specialist units. Thus, across organizations, functional areas like Talent Acquisition, Learning & Development, Performance Management, Compensation & Benefits were turned into ‘Centers of Excellence’ with a dedicated focus, even as they were expected to leverage and support generalist Business HR workforce. There was, in a number of cases, also an attempt to standardize – including occasionally to outsource – back-office HR operations in a quasi-Center of Excellence ‘Shared Services’ approach. In this instance too, Business HR was mostly expected to be the vital link between these Centers and the organization at large.
All this is not to say that the cutting edge of all development in HR was merely in Services, or people-intensive industries. A significant chunk of ‘shop-floor’ HR management practices were borrowed from the manufacturing sector. In fact, a simplistic analogy could be borrowing a skeleton that was subsequently fleshed out. What of course has been most healthy about this evolution is that it has been most porous, as it should. Good practices have been sought after, highlighted and travelled across sectors. We can easily expect this trend to continue.
The HR manager’s greatest friend amidst all these developments has perhaps been Technology. In particular, advances in computing and telecommunications have provided highly productive tools to identify, analyze and improve HR processes. Ranging from general media like emails to specific solutions like employee databases with bolt-on hire-to-retire functionalities, e-Learning, tele-presence, attendance tool etc. have made Business HR improve the quality and speed of its responsiveness to different organizational demands. This too, is a trend we can expect to intensify and evolve going forward.
Director and Head of India Recruitment at Convergys Corporation, Ashish Garg feels “HR has always been the connecting glue between management committee and employees at large. It is no different now, organizations have changed the way they operate in the last few years, so has HR. HR has moved from Employee transactions to Employee Engagement. Having said that, I feel HR is in an advisory role now, be in any of the core HR deliverables like Performance Management, Competency development, Talent engagement. With outsourcing being the name of the game in most arenas of HR, the role of BPHR will evolve even more now, towards higher alignment to business.”
What Lies Ahead?
While change has always been a reality of life, it is pertinent to note that its pace and scale seem to be going up substantially. To begin with, we are an increasingly globally connected economy. From fuel prices to recession in key markets, the impact is felt on company results and household budgets across India. Politically too, at home and across the world, upheavals are the name of the game. This too has a social impact. Technology and social media, on the other hand, are changing the way we talk to each other, with implications on how the workforce of the future will think and act – as a matter of fact, the results are visible even now, social media has impacted the work of HR to a great extent, e.g. Recruitment.
All this uncertainty also leads to ostensible contradictions. There is growth in pockets, slump elsewhere. Massive investments in IT and People paint a picture of an upbeat Services sector but contradict with severe cost-cutting in the Airline industry. From a People perspective, while such complexities have always been part of Indian economy, these will only multiply with the multiple-gradient growth across sectors. For instance, these contrasts in various industries entail consequences much deeper than differences in annual increments and performance bonus. The recruitment plan faces a deep impact, so does retention strategy. Senior HR Professional-turned-Entrepreneur Deepak Dhawan opines “The current year has actually started on a reasonably uncertain note, and that has translated across to the HR community as well. As the business heads have been a little uncertain about the how 2012 will pan out, even in global economy, when it comes to business policy and consequently HR, everyone’s going slow. People are careful about making changes or taking new initiatives. The environment right now is reasonably tentative and everyone just wants to carry on with business as usual.”
These factors affect everyone in the Human Resources Function, but none more so than the Business Partner HR (BPHR). In fact, in some senses, with 65 percent of our current population below the age of 35; and with the world’s largest workforce, we can be expected to be in the thick of the action for the foreseeable future.
The most important mirror to foretell the future lies in asking BPHR’s core customers – let us use a CEO’s voice to capture the voice of the organization across internal/external stakeholders.
CEO’s HR Wish-list
While the Human Resources function has been evolving as a strategic partner to the Chief Executive Officer, his/her HR wish-list has been getting longer too. Nandhini Anand, who’s been with leading Indian insurance player in the capacity of Lead BPHR, takes a logical view: “A CEO would always want HR to keenly partner with business, above the mandatory assignments like staffing etc, play a fair and just employee champion. Another normal expectation of a CEO from his HR organization would be to learn from his personal strengths and emulate them while helping him run the business.”
A quick check on some key preferences from business heads are mentioned below:
- Solutions based on Business Architecture: The oldest principle that all HR newbies are taught. And the most effective.
- Know the Voice of People: Who will ensure the happiness/dissatisfaction from the bays reaches that corner cabin – good ol’ HR.
- Identify Key Roles: Roles which cannot remain open, critical to the business. For such roles, CEO needs to provide blanket understanding of retention efforts.
- Data and Numbers for value-addition and improvements: What’s working when it comes to Value-addition by Human Resources executives, in mathematical form.
- Performance Improvement Efforts: Is HR helping improve the performance of employees, or simply letting the bad ones go.
- Competitors’ Analysis with respect to Talent Acquisition and Retention: Look at the profile of new hires – what level compensation is being offered to them, are those profiles the best or average from the lot available for the job, how the goal sheets stack up vis-à-vis competition. Similar data for retention blueprint – where are the employees getting attracted to, what are the differences being offered to them in the market, what kind of incremental efforts will help them stay.
- Metrics related to Productivity, Staffing numbers, Compensation: The more metrics, the easier it is to understand and communicate these critical factors in each business. How many resources required for each unit of delivery, definition and calculation of employee productivity, detailed market analysis on compensation – setting up ranges for convenience of all et al.
- Data related to Employees’ Acceptance of Efforts being put in by the Human Resources Department and Employee Satisfaction: How do employees feel about the work being put in by their HRBP?
- Ease of Usage of HR systems: While it’s good to invest in systems for HR, there’s nothing more frustrating than spending 5 minutes on an automated process which would take 30 seconds in its manual avatar.
Special contributions from General (ist) HR
We cannot complete a discussion on the contribution from HR without talking about David Ulrich’s research on the subject. According to David, the core deliveries of BPHR as a strategic partner to business can be broken down into small parts:
David’s model needs to be given a fair bit of time to show results for a BPHR. The benefits that a BPHR can see after following this model could be:
- Quick and Proactive approach to work
- Ability and reputation of readily embracing change
- Wholesome development and control on all aspects of the employee group
Let’s not forget the CEO’s expectations from a BPHR, while David Ulrich’s model shows us the ‘how’ approach towards handling the employee group – we need to have a handle on ‘what’ as well. Particularly in times of slump, it is imperative that the BPHR is a strategic partner to the business and is helping the team embrace change to come out victorious. Also, in such times, not to be ignored, is Information dissemination. If one is looking at strategic interventions and partnership from their HR organization, they need to ensure that this team is up to speed with all developments in the business, at all times. In the words of Nandhini Anand, “A BPHR can only convey as much information as s/he gets”. Coming back to the concrete action part, some of the factors that come to fore here:
- Get the Basics Out of the Way: On-time salaries and letters, accurate employee data, Performance Management Process (PMP) understanding, processes in place, employee redressal mechanism, attrition formulae, job descriptions and above all - no surprises and no delays! The basics are non-negotiable at all times, in bad times even more so!
- Depend on Technology: The BPHR’s ground rule – never present a manual work on something that can be automated. Systems have better acceptance and are more dependable. Reducing manual interventions in a focused manner also frees up BPHR to devote time to the most important part of their role – Strategic Partner.
- Do the Undoable – Create an HR Analytics Factory – Data for everything!
- Refocus on Role-clarity/Career-paths: Employees find it easier to be part of the plan, when they are able to see where their future lies. We often mistake people’s acceptance ability for bad news, but more often than not – if they are part of the decision, and being communicated to regularly, we’ve got them with us for sure. It’s the timing of communication that makes or breaks the game.
- Rework the Plans for Hiring/L&D/C&B: Best to proactively decide these with the stakeholders and communicate to all, as required. Usually in times of bad business, recruitment freeze is applied to all non-critical roles and C&B budgets need to be reworked. However for L&D initiatives, since there’s less business pressure, this might be a good time to take people out for training programs.
- Renew the Employee Engagement Efforts: Slump times require more focus on communication and engagement. And in a way, since recruitment pressure is away in most organization during such times, it’s also a good investment on a BPHR’s part.
With the growth of Human Resources function, its role as a Business Partner has evolved too. Impressive execution was always supposed to be the forte of BPHR, increasingly creativity and technological know-how are also impacting the delivery and effectiveness of the HR manager. And all the successful HR Professionals, having reached the top themselves, can’t stop emphasizing on the importance of this role. Like Senior HR Professional-turned-Entrepreneur, Deepak Dhawan annunciates, “In my view, the HR Business Partner role is the foundational piece that actually creates performance out of an HR system. Working in the business partner role, actualizes one’s base in the core HR requirements from the customers’ point of view. The skills that one needs to be a good HR professional are honed sharply during the BPHR stint. In fact, during uncertain times, when employees face anxiety, the policies might need changes etc. the role of a BPHR is even more critical. Also during such times, the need to present a strong HR face to employees is required and so the capability to partner with other HR sub-systems, like Recruitment, C&B, HR technology, L&D etc. comes to the fore during difficult times. Conversely true, also, is the fact that the other HR sub-systems can do well to take advantage of the BPHR’s ringside view, in order to manage change well, during tough days.”
So, our HR fraternity needs to move beyond the level of partnering with business to using their experience to actually direct the image they make during times of uncertainty. By ensuring that the hygiene expectations are always in place, we give ourselves time to work on the good-to-have!
The author is Gurgaon-based freelance writer, Coach and HR professional. Garvita has worked in areas including Project Management, Performance Management, and Compensation & Benefits across sectors including IT/ITeS, Financial Services, and Insurance.