A lot is expected of HR Business Partners. They are the key link between line managers and operational HR, and need comprehensive training if they are to do their job well. Johannes Brinkkötter, hkp/// group’s expert on anything to do with strategy & transformation talks to hkp.com.

Mr. Brinkkötter, over recent years, more and more companies have established the HR Business Partner role within their organization. Can Dave Ulrich, who introduced the concept, be happy with this development?

Johannes Brinkkötter: Yes and no. On the one hand, some companies have successfully streamlined their personnel work with a customer-oriented HR business model, which traditionally also includes experts and service units in interconnected HR roles, but on the other, there are still quite a lot of issues at the touchpoint to management.

What, exactly, is the problem?

Johannes Brinkkötter: The full potential of the HR Business Partner role is often not exploited. The managers responsible for operations simply do not think that HR Business Partners are capable of supporting the company’s objectives. They want HR to stick to contracts, transfers, recruiting and other operational stuff, and keep their noses out of business strategy and operational goals.

Do HR Business Partners defend their role against this attitude?

Johannes Brinkkötter: Sadly, all too often only half-heartedly. Many feel quite comfortable with traditional administrative and operational tasks and actually find it difficult to engage with the issues occupying management. Business plans and financial key performance indicators are a closed book to them. But how can they translate the company’s challenges into HR solutions if they don’t understand the business?

Do HR Business Partners need to move closer to management?

Johannes Brinkkötter: Generally speaking, yes. After all, their job is to make a substantial contribution to the company’s success. On the other hand though, they should not be too closely involved with management. The simple reason for this is that HR Business Partners are meant to be the face and voice of the HR function, i.e. their job is to present the HR perspective in any discussions of business-relevant topics.

How can they manage this balancing act?

Johannes Brinkkötter: Firstly, HR Business Partners need to act with the knowledge and belief that they are strategic advisers to line management. They can only constructively and critically support operations if they actually have a sense of responsibility for the company’s performance — and then either demand business-oriented solutions from the HR experts and HR service units, or develop these together with them.

And secondly?

Johannes Brinkkötter: HR Business Partners can only do justice to this responsibility if they are well trained for it. Executive officers who simply provide their personnel manager, or the person appointed to the HR Business Partner role, with a set of new business cards should not be surprised if they end up with tensions between HR and management.

So, what should companies do?

Johannes Brinkkötter: The entire HR function needs to be transformed towards business partnering to make it a top performer in the interest of the company’s performance.

That is huge!

Johannes Brinkkötter: Absolutely! And there is no blueprint for that. Every company must find the HR setup that is right for them, based on the company’s vision for its future management and its support functions. But they all need a high-quality generalist role, which acts as a key account manager, if you like, and represents HR vis-à-vis line managers. That is exactly what a HR Business Partner does ...

... if they have the necessary skills.

Johannes Brinkkötter: What is needed is a “training offensive”. In the first instance, future HR Business Partners have to develop the right kind of mindset and must recognize the significance of their role within the interaction between management and the other HR roles. Only then are they in a position to find business-oriented solutions with an end-to-end perspective, based on HR products and services.

Of course, line management will want to get involved...

Johannes Brinkkötter: And rightly so! HR business partners must therefore be able to represent the position of HR assertively and convincingly from a strategic point of view, and to be confident in working to resolve any conflicts with their opposite numbers. That can be learned; in simulated conflict situations for example.

But confidence and rhetoric are not enough.

Johannes Brinkkötter: Only HR Business Partners who can defend their position with figures, data and facts are convincing. They must be able to speak the language of business and to translate business imperatives into HR solutions on an analytical basis. They must always think: facts, facts, and yet more facts — always with the company’s business in mind.

What is most important for management?

Johannes Brinkkötter: Business managers want to achieve objectives, develop their function and implement strategic initiatives. HR Business Partners need a high level of change competence if they want to support their management colleagues effectively. They must be empowered to think in scenarios, and to make and manage change plans.

That goes far beyond the traditional approach, which was mostly concerned with operational HR representation.

Johannes Brinkkötter: It is all about involving line managers, experts and the workforce alike, and deliver change.

Every change also needs a new impulse...

Johannes Brinkkötter: ... and new solutions. In the times of digitalization and New Work, nothing is going to happen without innovative HR solutions. The learning objectives for HR Business Partners therefore also include familiarization with new approaches, such as design thinking and customer journey, that are focused on the customers of HR. This not only ensures acceptance of HR’s work but also can provide valuable impulses for the future development of the company.

Does all of that not overload the training schedule for HR Business Partners?

Johannes Brinkkötter: Not if it is properly structured and delivered. Subjects can be taught on a modular basis, depending on where the trainees are at and where both sides have identified a need for further training. The training format is focused on practical application. It is meant to stretch, but not overstretch, trainees. The results are always clear for all to see: HR Business Partners who contribute to the company’s success.

Can this contribution be measured?

Johannes Brinkkötter: Definitely. And it should be measured; by regular satisfaction surveys of the HR Business Partners’ internal customers about their performance. It goes without saying that these surveys should also take account of the business objectives that were actually achieved. After all, management's objectives are also those of the HR Business Partners. We therefore recommend that the performance feedback for HR Business Partners not only looks at the implementation of the HR agenda but also includes how well the business objectives of the line managers looked after by the HR Business Partner were achieved. Nothing beats joint responsibility for the company’s success when it comes to credibility. If you want to be involved on a strategic as well as operational level you must be willing to take responsibility for the results — be they good or bad.

Mr. Brinkkötter, thank you very much for this interview.