The HR Business Partnering Model – Here to Stay

26 February 20


Believe it or not, it’s more than 20 years since Dave Ulrich first proposed the HR business partner model.  Ulrich’s three legged stool of strategic business partnering, centres of excellence and shared services has gone through various iterations since, but the broad concept has been, and continues to be, adopted by many organisations around the world. 

However, there are mixed views in the HR community on both its credibility and success. Nevertheless, the aims of the model – to bring a more strategic focus to people management, raise standards of HR practice and drive efficiency – remain just as valid today as they did in the 1990s. 

Analysis from organisations using the model shows a variable picture. For some, implementing the model has been transformational whilst for other it just hasn’t worked.  

Working through the analysis identifies the reasons for success or failure are not about the model itself.  In reality, it’s much more about the ability of HR to change their ways of working to support business priorities.

Four key themes emerge from the analysis that distinguish the successful use of the model.

Strategy before structure

Decide strategy, determine the plan, design the structure.  Too many HR functions decide the structure first, then work out the plan. Start with your organisational and people strategies and then work out the HR functional structure that will most effectively deliver these.

It’s a way of thinking, not a rigid model

The danger of proposing models is they can quickly become literal. The model is a way of conceptualising how HR can both deliver the basics really well and build the capability of people.  As such, it may be a variation of the model is more appropriate and more likely to be accepted within the prevailing organisational and management culture.

Don’t alienate the managers

Many managers experience the introduction of the model as a way of passing work from HR to them and quickly resist.  The shared service model can also be a source of deep frustration (how do we feel when we have to contact a call centre?).

For some HR functions who have absorbed line management activities the work does need to be passed back. However, in all scenarios working hard to win the hearts and minds of managers is essential.  It will take time and effort to bring managers along with a different way of working with HR and they’ll need to realise the value for them.

Above all, you need capability in HR to deliver

It is still the case that many HR practitioners just don’t have the skillset to become strategic HR business partners as the model intends.  So, what is the point of creating a model for a function when the skillset to deliver it doesn’t exist?

If your HR function requires a different way of working to build people capability, then you’ll need to develop the HR team and likely bring in new people with the right skills and mindset.  If that’s the case, don’t move to a new way of working until the team are able to deliver.

Whatever the views of managers and the HR profession, Ulrich’s model for HR seems to be lasting the test of time.  Those that have embraced it successfully realise it’s not really about the model.  Actually, it’s all about changing the mindset of both HR and managers.

Gallanach can help unlock the potential of people within your organisation. Discover how our services help HR teams to enhance their performance and organisations to design effective people strategies 

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