Posted On November 30, 2016

MCI Solutions Senior Learning and Capability Consultant Helen D’Arcy recently held a lively webinar to shed light on this issue – and offer her advice. Here’s a summary of the valuable insights and experiences Helen shared.

The evolution of the business partner

The HR and Learning and Development (L&D) function has changed considerably over time.

Around 30 years ago, they were tightly focused on operational activities. HR was responsible for personnel administration, negotiating awards, payroll, managing safety and compliance, and L&D put employees through training programs. Neither area took a particularly strategic view of the needs of the organisation.

The late 80s and 90s saw the rise of the HR generalist. This role took an increasingly strategic focus but still supported the day-to-day management of a wide range of HR operations.

Over the last 15 years, the HR business partner role has emerged. Even in that time, it has undergone significant change, including the expectations around the support the role provides to the business. Corporate Executive Board research suggests that 75% of business leaders surveyed expect the business partner to take on a more strategic focus.

The rise of a tiered HR model

Although HR and L&D are shifting focus, many operational aspects still exist and need to be covered effectively. The increasing availability of technology-enabled solutions is paving the way and has spurred the adoption of a tiered HR service model in larger organisations.

Tier Zero – self-service.

Employees have direct access to learning programs, policies, procedures and other corporate material through new technology platforms. These could be a Learning Management System or a company-wide intranet.

Tier One – ‘contact centre.’ HR generalists provide a first point of contact for the majority of questions.

Tier Two – specialist HR functions. Specific HR queries are directed to subject matter experts in areas like learning and leadership, culture, talent, recruitment, occupational safety and employer relations.

Tier Three – the HR business partner. This role is often embedded in a business unit or aligned with specific leaders. Their focus is ensuring HR services are delivered in alignment with the business strategy and providing insight to managers.

In theory, HR business partners are free from most of the administrative burden, which is allocated to earlier tiers. In practice, however, they often work across a number of these tiers. Internal clients will look to them for in-depth support and advice although the business partner has a much broader organisational agenda. That’s one of the big challenges of the role – balancing operational with strategic aspects.

The HR ‘conduit’

The HR consultant, often embedded in the business, will also provide feedback to the group-wide functions. And that presents two other major challenges of the business partnering model – juggling the volume of communication and the integration between the various HR functions and the business.

Top 4 challenges facing today’s business partners

Balancing the strategic and operational aspects of the role. While the tiered model aims to reduce most of the operational aspects of HR, the reality is often different. Corporate Executive Board research shows that while line managers say they want more strategic support; they rarely seek help on strategic initiatives. They more often come to the business partner for operational support, which can sometimes create tension in the relationship.

“That’s the experience business partners have shared with me as a key issue,” said Helen.
“There’s a lot of talk about providing strategic support but actually it’s at an operational level that business partners are being asked to contribute. They’re balancing the need to be a service provider with the need to realise the strategic outcomes.”

Navigating a complex business environment. In today’s fast-moving business environment, HR business partners have to manage increasingly complex stakeholder relationships and at a faster rate. Corporate Executive Board research has found that 60% of the people surveyed said they need to coordinate with up to 10 other people to get things done.


The need for speed. The third challenge HR business partners face is the speed and agility at which they’re required to operate, both individually and organisationally. There’s much more data available from which to draw insights, but that must be balanced with the speed of decision making. Thankfully, the modern agile approach of launch – test – learn – iterate and co-create is lessening the need for things to be perfect.

“We’re asking our team members and employees in the organisation to be more flexible and adaptive to receiving outputs in a less than perfect way too,” added Helen.

Holistic consulting. The role of a business partner requires a holistic consultation approach. This often means operating beyond their traditional areas of expertise and comfort, and not necessarily being constrained by their job description.

“Traditionally, an L&D manager might only focus on a learning solution,” said Helen, “but the business manager now expects them to consult on the cultural impacts of the change, the leadership behaviours required to support it and potential change management aspects.

“This can sometimes bring a degree of discomfort and credibility conflict.”

Line managers are notoriously busy people. Having lots of different business partners involved in various strategic projects makes it hard for them to balance their particular needs. This is where the ability of the HR business partner to holistically manage all those various functions and create a unified approach is very valuable.

Three key capabilities of the HR business partner

The capabilities required of HR business partners are also changing to fit our new work environment. The RBL Group 2016 Human Resource Competency Study of 30,000 professionals across the world – including more than 4,000 HR practitioners – pointed to three core competencies needed for success today:

The strategic positioner
This competency relates to applying knowledge of the business context and strategy to create practical solutions and insights. It requires business partners to have a good understanding of the external environment, the internal decision makers, and customers and investors’ expectations.

The paradox navigator
Here, the skill is managing tensions that come from trying to balance business, customer and stakeholder needs. Many organisations are taking a shared value approach where different stakeholders are taken into account for decision-making.

The credible activist
This is the ability to build trust and respect with key people in the organisation so that the business partner’s role is valued and supported. They need to understand how to build relationships based on genuine interest, confidence, humility, integrity and learn from past successes and failures.

The full report can be accessed here:

Our 5-step consulting model

“Taking into consideration the challenges of the business partner role, MCI Solutions has developed a simple consulting model. It’s designed to help business partners overcome a lot of the issues we’ve raised here while engaging with stakeholders and influencing outcomes,” Helen explained.

“It provides a clear structure for a consulting meeting or process, or can simply be used as a framework for a conversation.”

The five steps incorporate the three core competencies outlined above and will help business partners become a trusted advisor. The model itself is quite straightforward, but requires advanced communication skills. Also, moving stakeholders through these stages doesn’t need to happen in the one session. It can take place over a period of time and numerous meetings. When applied consistently, everyone sees better results.

  1.  Preparation. Consider what information you’ll need and to whom you should speak. Draw up an agenda and reflect on your own objectives of developing relationships, building trust and getting everyone on board.
    2.    Opening. Set the direction and tone for the proceedings and be ready to influence through leadership behaviours. Your objective is to get agreement on the outcomes and establish some mutual goals. One of the best tactics you can use is framing the message – whoever frames the meeting tends to be able to exert the most influence. In many cases, showing the big picture is the most successful framing method.
    3.    Investigation. As Stephen Covey said, ‘Seek first to understand and then to be understood.’ Apply your listening, questioning and emotional intelligence skills to better understand your stakeholders’ needs and concerns. By listening carefully, you’ll learn a lot about their position before you begin to advocate anything.
    4.    Validation. This is the point to assure your stakeholders that they’ve been heard and understood and to build your credibility with them. By now, they should be engaged and ready to listen as you summarise the situation and uncover any blind spots.
    5.    Solution. By step five, you’ll have a good understanding of your stakeholder’s perspective and the information you need to propose a solution or a way forward. Frame your message once again in a way that’s meaningful to your stakeholders.
    On a personal level, the five-step process allows business partners to build a personal brand in the organisation by demonstrating credibility, growing relationships and building trust. It allows them to perform the duality of that role – providing a needs-based service while advocating the strategic requirements of the business.

Not just for HR

As the business partner model gains momentum, service lines other than HR are being required to adopt it. “No matter which part of the organisation is involved, the challenges remain the same,” Helen explained.

“For example, a consulting role will be new to financial analysts who have to move from providing data to providing business insight. Whatever the role, our five-step formula will help them through the process.”
What about you? Are you transitioning to business partnering and would like some help? We can organise a private workshop on leading a consulting meeting for your organisation or your team so please get in touch on 1300 768 550 or