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Amazingly most focus on HR Partnership is the structure of the new organisation – should it be three legs, four legs, how will it work, who does what etc…?  Whilst it is a legitimate question we feel there is a disproportionate emphasis on this to the detriment of focusing on the people side of the HR transformation.

However, this series of blogs would be incomplete if we didn’t spend at least a bit of time looking at the structural implications, so here goes.

The purpose of the original three legged HR BP model was to take the three distinctive parts of Human Resources (generalist, specialist and transactional), create one function with a seamless service.  Sounds so obvious, it’s amazing it took the HR profession so long to wake up to the business and operational benefits of such a structure.  However, there were a number of inherent contradictions built into the model (for example each part of HR had its own distinct mandate, measures and talent needs whilst for many within the HR Function their loyalty was to their department rather than the Function). 

The result was organisations were faced with creating a structure that should be able to: Build deep functional HR expertise whilst aligning to customer segments; Be flexible at low cost; Link the front and back of the function seamlessly; Deliver organisational solutions through business focused teams; Gain benefits from a centralised infrastructure & decentralised decision-making.

For us, the three legged model is a great starting point so long as it is not the primary focus of the HR changes, the limitations and tensions of the restructuring are recognised and it is done all at once.  So often we have heard of organisations who only focus on HR Partner population and then they wonder why the HR Function becomes more dysfunctional and the tensions between the departments increase.  The trick is understanding that the Partnership concept applies equally within HR as it does to the business. 

As part of the evolution of HR thinking and its structure a further ‘leg’ emerged in the 2000’s in very complex (typically multinational) HR functions as the HR Partner became more specialised.  While these teams could be known by different names, a common one was; Case specialists (fourth leg).

These teams were staffed with HR professionals whose focus was on operational matters: Not dedicated to a particular business and will pick up issues as required; Capable of interacting with customers at an operational level; These teams maximised flexibility, HR development and shared learning; Focused on operational, non routine work at varying levels of complexity (technical, customer or organisational risk); Similar to HR Generalists (at various grade levels) but not aligned to a business long term.

However, the emergence of these teams led to (or was led by) HR Business Partners who were
more senior, they had standalone roles with minimum support, who acted as true facilitators (and not ‘doers’), negotiating with other HR ‘legs’ to deliver business needs.  It is this group which has most dramatically reshaped the role of HR as they required different skill sets with minimum HR technical and maximum relationship skills.   Interestingly enough these often come from outside of HR!

As organisations entered the second decade of the 21st century, there was an increasingly realisation that no single solution let alone a simple model could capture the reality of the issues and pressures facing HR.  Research over the previous fifteen years had highlighted numerous issues the initial three legged model had either not addressed or had created.

Despite the popularity of the so-called ‘three legged’ or ‘four legged’ HR Partnership Models, the reality could be very different. Organisations found that their formal HR structure varied depending upon a number of factors;

  •   Organisational e.g. geography, product / service portfolio, tradition / heritage, culture
  •   Environment e.g. marketplace, competition
  •   Functional e.g. expertise, management, experience, ‘maturity’

Although often painted as a simple model, the reality of HR Partnership was (and continues to be) much more complex.  Which is why an over reliance on restructuring without also focusing on the quality of the HR Professionals who populate the new structures has turned out to be a very expensive lesson for many HR Leaders.
HR transformation came from and influenced a desire by HR to move away from its administrative roots and be seen as a full partner to the organisation.  The emergence of research and a ground-breaking book by Ulrich in the middle 1990’s gave HR a language to use and a sense of the direction they needed to take to begin to demonstrate their greater worth.

To break free from the past, HR also used this newfound language to justify the need (and therefore the resources) to transform itself.  Early attempts at transformation however struggled to meet the promises as the organisational reality proved to be far more complex than expected. 

To finish off with here are a few quotes from the great man (i.e. Dave Ulrich) himself on HR structure.

I would not take credit for this [three-legged] model.

I would rather see the emergence of operational HR [as a new delivery channel] as the latest in a series of evolutionary adaptations. Firms that worked to shift the transactional work to service centres and transformational work to embedded HR [business partners] and centres of expertise often found that they were left with gaps.

To find out how CourageousHR can support the development of your HR Function please email [email protected] to arrange a call to discuss your specific development needs.