Articles

HR as Business Partner or Change Champion
By William J. Rothwell, Ph.D., SPHR, CPLP Fellow


There are some phrases that are easily recognizable in business today because they are so frequently used that they are in danger of becoming hackneyed. One such phrase is that we should "think outside the box." A second is that managers should "manage by walking around." And a third is that "HR should be a business partner or change champion."

What does it mean that HR should be a business partner or change champion? This article answers that question.


What Does the Phrase Mean "HR Should Be a Business Partner"?

If you want us to get upset, use this phrase on us: "HR should be a business partner."

It makes us disappointed to hear that because there is a vast difference between what that term says and how it plays out in daily practice.

To me, the best model for partnership is one of the most basic human institutions—marriage. If two people in a marriage are not contributing appropriately to it, then they ultimately face a lot of problems and conflicts. While two people in a marriage may not do exactly the same things, they do form a team that works together to achieve common goals. Hence, marriage is a good metaphor for what an equal partnership should mean.

But when someone says that HR should be a business partner, it should mean that operating (line) managers and HR professionals should have equal respect for each other. While they may not do exactly the same things, they do value the opinions of their counterparts in operating management or in HR.

But the reality of these interactions between HR and operating management often plays out differently. When operating managers experience problems with their people and visit HR for help, operating managers too often think they already know what the problem is, what causes the problem, and how the problem should be solved. They expect HR professionals to "take their order"—just as a good waiter or waitress takes orders in a restaurant when a customer wants a meal—and just fill the order. They may even become offended if HR professionals ask questions about what the problem is, how important that problem is, what the problem is costing, and what really causes that problem. They expect the HR professionals to act like good waiters or waitresses and simply "fill their order." If HR professionals go along with that thinking in the interest of maintaining good relationships with their operating manager counterparts, they are not functioning as good business partners.

Can you be a business partner with your medical doctor? We would like to think so. But when you experience a problem with your health and you go to the doctor, don't you expect your doctor to know more than you do about diagnosing the problem and identifying suitable medication or therapy to reduce the symptoms caused by the problem? Of course you do.

HR professionals should know more than operating managers about people problems facing organizations. They should act in their fields in the same way that medical doctors do when addressing health concerns. I call this role HR leadership. HR professionals should know more about HR and about "people issues" than operating managers do. They should know how to influence operating managers to diagnose problems with people, separate symptoms from root causes, and discover the best approaches to solve the problems.

Is it easy to be an HR leader? No, of course not. And to make it more difficult, about three-fourths of all HR professionals are promoted from within. These people are not experts in HR. Worse, many organizations do not train newly-promoted HR professionals in HR so as to make them more efficient and effective in their new HR roles. That means they have little credibility with operating managers.


What Does the Phrase Mean "HR Should Be a Change Champion"?

Managing change is not a topic routinely taught in MBA School or even in postgraduate programs in HR. And yet some observers of the contemporary business scene argue that the ability to manage change is quickly becoming the single important skill or skillset at present and in the future. More than one research study has been conducted on the competencies required to manage change effectively.

Some believe that, in the future, HR is becoming the change management or Organization Development function. Traditional, and activity-oriented, HR activities such as payroll or benefits administration or HR recordkeeping are being moved to outsourced vendors or else to Human Resource Information Systems (HRIS). That means HR must become more strategic. One choice for that new, strategically-oriented HR is to focus on managing or championing change.

Many models to manage change have been published and are available on the web. Some are actually based on research about the common characteristics of hundreds of successful organizational change efforts. Operating managers are rarely familiar with these models. Sadly, few HR professionals are familiar with them either. But it is possible that HR professionals can learn the models and champion their application with operating managers. When they do so, they are functioning as change champions. Some observers of HR believe that is the future of HR.


What Do You Think?

We do not believe that one size fits all. Therefore, we do not believe HR should necessarily be a business partner, HR leaders, or change champion. Instead, we believe it depends on the needs of the organization in which HR professionals find themselves.

What do you think the role of HR is now? What do you think the role of HR should be in the future? How can the shift from HR's role now and its future role be made? We believe these are important questions for HR professionals to ask themselves.


To engage Dr. William J. Rothwell or other gurus to speak, train and coach your team, please go to:

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