by Wendy Tan
For the successful transformation of HR as business partners, HR professionals need to play a consulting role with the line. This requires HR professionals to recontract with the line managers on the new role of HR, clarify what it means to work in partnership and what they need from the line managers in order serve them more effectively.
HR is redefining its role and contribution to the organization in its shift from the traditional transactional role to the strategic partnership role. The organization demands more from HR beyond being the policeman and guardian of policies and processes. HR professionals themselves want to add more value and shift from simply acting on the instructions of managers to playing a more consulting role in helping the organization leverage on its human capital. In addition, with the increasing emphasis on productivity and efficiency, HR departments have been driven to use more technology-based solutions that relieves HR personnel from time-consuming tasks, such as checking on leave applications. The structure of the HR department has also been changing from a central group of HR personnel to one of having HR partners attached or reporting to each business unit, supported by a central group of HR specialists and HR shared services hub. However the HR transformation journey to a strategic partnership role remains fraught with challenges.
In my work with HR professionals in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Hong Kong and China, some commonly expressed remarks are:
“Our line managers don’t understand what HR transformation is about and thinks HR is trying to push more work to them.”
“The business managers don’t know how to work with HR or use us effectively to solve their people issues.”
The shift to HR as a business partner requires a new conversation with the line managers on how HR will work with them in the future and what it means to work in partnership. At the simplest level, partnership means respecting each other. An example of this could be returning calls as promised or responding to each other’s emails! HR professionals, in their desire to be helpful, are typically good in listening to what their clients want from them, but they shy away from telling their clients what they need for the partnership to work successfully. For example, a HR partner might say to his business manager that he wants the business manager to tell him the real problems, including the sensitive political issues around them, as he discovers the underlying dimensions of the problems. The HR professional also wants the business manager to listen to his independent view of the problems and to discuss solutions together as equals. These requests to the business manager need to be stated upfront and in a clear and specific manner.
As the HR partner proposes and assists in the implementation of a solution, he also negotiates the shared responsibility in the implementation of the solution. For example, the HR partner may ask the business manager, “How do you see your role in this initiative?” or “I want you to take ownership of this initiative and communicate to your team why we are doing this.” In this way, responsibility is shared. This is different from HR doing everything and the solution becoming HR’s initiative. Many a times, this re-contracting conversation to educate the line managers on how to work with HR differently does not take place and both parties stumble along compromising the speed and effectiveness of the HR transformation.
In the heart of the HR transformation to business partnering is a desire to play a more strategic role in leveraging on the organization’s human capital for the success of the organization. This is expressed by a HR Vice-President in Hong Kong,
“As HR, we should have a seat at the table and play a role in formulating the business strategy incorporating the people perspective!”
HR’s credibility as a partner for solving business problems is an issue. HR is often relegated to ‘people issues’ and asked to run ‘feel good’ programmes to motivate the staff and the line departments go along based on their convenience. A successful partnership would be when a HR partner has a conversation with the line manager on his business challenges and discusses solutions that the line manager would commit to. This conversation helps HR deliver real value in the eyes of the line manager, rather than being perceived as pushing the ‘HR agenda’. In this way, the HR partner becomes a consultant to the business. For this to happen, other than understanding the business and having a strong foundation in the HR domain, the HR partner needs to be assertive and to be able to challenge the line manager on issues. The HR partner also needs to ‘speak the truth’ and sometimes this includes giving difficult but honest feedback on how the line manager needs to lead his department differently.
More often than not, HR professionals themselves are barriers to their own success. For example,
“I can’t tell my customers that I cannot help them to check on their leave anymore, they would think I am being unhelpful!”
These were the words of a HR partner whose organization had recently started the HR transformation journey. Many HR professionals see their value as being helpful to their customers and doing what their business managers want them to do.
At the other extreme, as expressed by a business manager,
“HR is always making things difficult for us and giving ‘policy’ as an excuse why things cannot be done!”
Often HR has expertise on corporate processes and acts to adhere to them. This unintentionally leads to HR having a reputation of being a policeman or being bureaucratic. The line managers accuse HR of making them waste time in filling in forms and not helping them with the real business problems.
In his book, “Flawless Consulting: A Guide to Getting Your Expertise Used,” Peter Block differentiates three types of consulting roles that HR professionals can play – pair of hands, expert and collaborative. In the above two examples, the HR staff is functioning as a ‘pair of hands’ or an ‘expert’, rather than as a ‘collaborative’ partner. A key aspect to HR business partnering is to shift from taking orders or prescribing solutions to collaborating with their business managers to find and implement the best solutions that will solve their problem and meet business goals.
Whilst this definition of partnership seems straightforward, some HR professionals are taking a longer time to make the shift. As with every change, they are faced with uncertainty and need to shift how they see their own role, the value they bring to the client and the way they operate. This shift involves risks and requires them to unlearn and relearn their ways of thinking and behaviours. We need to recognize the signs of resistance in HR professionals themselves, uncover their concerns and equip them with the right skills so that they can be effective and confident in their new partnering roles. This is certainly a key success factor in the HR transformation process. As shared by some HR practitioners,
“I discovered the importance of contracting with my business manager before diving into the implementation of any initiative. This positions me as a consultant to him and sets up the partnering relationship.”
“Expressing my needs is something I never thought of in the past. Before, I thought I had to do whatever my clients wanted. Now I know they have as much responsibility for meeting my needs as I have to meet theirs. Instead of causing problems, this attitude wins respect.”