The Business Partner concept or model was developed particularly for HR by Ulrich and Brockbank in 2005 to stress the connection between HR as a support function and the business and its managers. It took off quickly and extended to other corporate support functions such as Finance. It has become normal to see these ‘business partner’ titles in business cards, still predominantly in HR.
The good thing about this is that it pulled HR out of the cave and brought the tribe to daylight. It gave HR a seat at the table, not just the dinner, but the kitchen table. However, in many cases, the change of title in the business card and the organization chart, was all there was, with HR people unable or unskilled to have a same level, peer-to-peer conversation with line managers. Simply put, it did not convert them into business people. And this is the problem. We created a two tear system: the ones in the business, the real people, and the business partners, who, just partner (read, serve)
Better that being in the cave with no sunlight, many HR people loved the upgrade. Some felt very comfortable and happy to adopt a ‘partner role’. However, the partner was not a real partner but a servant. A transactional model was created, more than a relationship one, in which business will shout the need and ‘the business partner’ will provide the answer. Training, hiring, firing, I’ll tell you what I need, you provide it for me. Unidirectional and always in the same direction.
Many people would say that there is nothing wrong with this, and who could contradict them? It’s a question of aspirations. In many cases, the ‘business partner’ is in effect an Internal Vendor, or an internal procurement-of-services (finding training being a key one), not even an internal consultant.
If HR wants to develop itself to the 21st Century ( and I feel sometimes that, as a function, HR has some time synchronicity problems and is often not brave enough) it needs to progress towards a relationship of equals with business and line managers. Whether an HR ‘generalist’ or ‘organizational developer’ or other categories, there is a choice: come to the table with real skills and capabilities, or become a Middle Man of human capital services.
Getting rid of the word ‘partner’ would force the discussion, would clean up the air and would bring real capabilities to the open. There would still be generalist and specialists, but they would be at the table in equal capacity to the other guests.
Scary for some, liberating for others. Or, in doubt, back to the cave for another decade or so.