The one with a rant about business partners

 Back in the days when I did my CIPD qualification (a long time ago – the best grade in GCSE was still an A and newspaper retained Investigators were still going through bins) the phrase everyone was espousing was “HR as a business partner”. You may have heard it….

In studying models of HR practice the few that stuck in my mind (in fact I think I learned them by rote for a potential essay question) were by Tyson & Fell and Storey.

Tyson & Fell

In their 1986 book “Evaluating the Personnel Function” Tyson & Fell likened the different forms of personnel function to roles on a construction site like this:

“(i) The clerk of works – all authority for action is vested in line managers. HR policies are formed or created after the actions that led to the need. Policies are not integral to the business and are short term and ad hoc. Authority is vested in line managers and HR activities are largely routine – employment and day-to-day administration.

(ii) The contracts manager – policies are well established, often implicit, with a heavy industrial relations emphasis, possibly derived from an employers association. The HR department will use fairly sophisticated systems, especially in the field of employee relations. The HR manager is likely to be a professional or very experienced in industrial relations. He or she will not be on the board and, although having some authority to ‘police’ the implementation of policies, acts mainly in an interpretative, not a creative or innovative, role.

(iii) The architect – explicit HR policies exist as part of the corporate strategy. Human resource planning and development are important concepts and a long-term view is taken. Systems tend to be sophisticated. The head of the HR function is probably on the board and his or her power is derived from professionalism and perceived contribution to the business.”


Storey was one of the first ‘two by two’ models I ever understood (far too many have come since but that’s a whole other post) and his model looks something like this…


Look kind of familiar? It will do because lo and behold 5 years later, what appeared but this…..


Yes the mother lode of Dave Ulrich and the phrase “HR as a business partner” was born (and 27,000 fairies died). Don’t get me wrong I am not one of the Ulrich haters but like any model it should be taken in context and not taken completely literally. For what it’s worth my view on models? They provoke thinking to consider what you are currently doing differently. They are not a recipe book to be ‘cooked’ verbatim.

This brings us to my point…. “HR as a business partner”. If you stick HR business partner into any job board you will get loads of adverts with a huge range of salaries doing a whole range of things at a vast range of levels. It had become a catch all job title but are any of them truly business partnering?

If you talk to someone who runs a small business and they talk about their business partner I doubt they talk about someone who polices them, tells them what they are doing wrong and runs their payroll. That is what their office manager or in some cases their book keeper does. Their business partner will have skin in the game. Their business partner will be vested in the business (usually financially) and will be to some degree, depending on the partnership, accountable for the results of the enterprise. How many HR business partners could claim that?

I truly believe (otherwise I would be doing something else) that HR can have a powerful role in the business. That positioned correctly, invested in properly and filled with courageous and knowledgeable practitioners, the HR department can be a true business partner (in the way described above). But can we please please stop kidding ourselves that we are anywhere close. Rather than focussing on the rhetoric and coolest new model, can we start working to make some of those already in existence effective….please!



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9 responses to “The one with a rant about business partners

  1. I couldn’t agree more Rob…I wrote about this a little while ago. The perpetual attempts to rebrand HR are pointless and confusing to other functions who see a change in name a rebranding but no actually change in behaviour or approach. I think at the time I likened it to the kids at school who formed a band and spent more time on picking a name than learning to play their intruments.

    Or to put it another way, if I call my cat a dog….it still doesn’t bark….

  2. Zoe

    Just written an OU assignment about the Ulrich model and came to similar conclusions – it’s all about the context and business partner means different things in different organisations.

  3. Rick

    I must confess, I haven’t read all the Ulrich books and it’s a couple of years since I read the last one. I’m still not clear how the four box model translates to the ‘3-legged stool’ (business partners, centres of excellence, shared services) that is usually implemented in his name.

    Can anyone enlighten me?

  4. I like the simplicity and effectiveness of your “rant” about HRBP.

    However, is it not the case that the Ulrich Model (as a framework) has really helped in improving (in some cases transform) a lot of HR depts?

    A lot of reviewers of the model either focus mainly on the HRBP role and not on the framework, or treat the two as one.

  5. Zoe

    Rick – I don’t think I can enlighten you as I haven’t figured out how they work together and in fact as part of my OU courses have looked at the two models/concepts separately so even the OU doesn’t seem to have been able to marry the two together. When applying the Ulrich 4/5 (it was later expanded to include another) roles model to my organisation it became clear that these roles were not undertaken by individual people but were spread across the organisation and not just confined to the HR team. Not sure if this helps at all – I really struggled with my assignment as the model didn’t really fit but it did give me lots of opportunity to ‘critique’ the model which the OU loves

  6. I love your post! My job title is HR Business Partner but I can categorically state I do not do the HRBP role (despite my greatest efforts). The Co I work for restructured the HR team 2 years ago with a view to working towards a HRBP model and they’re still no where near, not just at my level (I would say I’m Senior HR advisor / HR mgr) but even at my boss’s level and above her we fail to partner the business effectively. When studying my CIPD I was always fond of Story’s model and one of assignments was on HR models and I came to the same conclusion as yourself, Ulrich regurgitated a combination of other peoples work. Ok, my rant over, I could go on and on….

  7. Kevin Ball

    Hi Rob. I’ve recently recruited a lot of HR people. Before Director level across Europe they mostly call themselves ‘administrator’, ‘advisor’ or ‘manager’. Their CVs and aptitude lend themselves to the Storey quadrants really well. They generally have no pretensions to change the business and just want to help it run legally and efficiently. The UK HR Manager was the hardest post to fill. Most candidates wanted to describe themselves as Business Partners. Most wanted to talk about ‘strategy’ and regarded efficient administration or ER as a little bit beneath them. All were qualified; few were competent, in my view.

    It seems to me that the corporatist, federal European culture is reflected in an HR profession that regards pen-pushing slightly too highly but that has to be preferrable to the wooly, muddled and frankly deluded view of the function that I see here. Getting the basics right isn’t a stage that you go through in your career in HR and then never return to. Sometimes it’s all you can do. Sometimes it’s all you need to.

    Rick – the translation from 4 quadrants to 3 legs in Ulrich is simple evolution. The first model was written shortly before HRIS swept the world and put most low-level admin into the hands of employees, managers and microsoft. Ulrich may get mixed reviews in HR but the IS folks have always thought of him as a hero.

    • Deb

      You are absolutely spot on. It is so important to get the basics right, if only for the profession’s credibility. So many HR people lose sight of this in their rush to be ‘strategic’

  8. Pingback: To Blog To Serve « T Recs

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