HR practitioners share responsibility with their line management colleagues for the success of the enterprise. In 1985, Shaun Tyson, anticipating Dave Ulrich by 13 years, described them as business managers who have the capacity to identify business opportunities, to see the broad picture and to understand how their role can help to achieve the company’s business objectives. They integrate their activities closely with top management and ensure that they serve a long-term strategic purpose. They anticipate needs, act flexibly and are proactive.
The notion of strategic partner was introduced by Dyer and Holder (1988), not Dave Ulrich as is generally assumed. They described the role as follows.
Source review The strategic partner role for HR – Dyer and Holder (1988: 31–32)
The recommended role for the HR function is that of ‘strategic partner’. This role typically has four aspects: (1) top HR executives cooperate with their line counterparts in formulating HR strategies, (2) top HR executives fully participate in all business strategy sessions as equals to CFOs and other top executives thus permitting early evaluation of proposals from an HR perspective, (3) HR executives work closely with line managers on an ongoing basis to ensure that all components of the business strategies are adequately implemented and
(4) the HR function itself is managed strategically.
Ulrich and Lake (1990) popularized the idea of the HR strategic business partner and this was taken up enthusiastically within the HR profession and its professional body – the CIPD – as the concept of business partnering. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (2007) explained that the task of strategic business partners was to work closely with business leaders, influencing strategy and steering its implementation.
Ulrich and Lake (1990: 95–96) argued that:
To ensure that management practices become a means for gaining a sustained competitive advantage, human resource professionals need to become strategic business partners and gear their activities to improving business performance. To do this they require a good working knowledge of the organization and its strategies. In assessing the role of human resources in an organization, management needs to determine the extent to which these professionals meet the following criteria:
- Spend time with customers and clients – diagnosing, discussing and responding to needs.
- Actively participate in business planning meetings and offer informed insights on strategic, technological and financial capabilities.
- Understand business conditions.]
- Demonstrate competence in business knowledge, particularly customer relations, delivery of world-class management practices and management of change’.
Schuler and Jackson (2007: xiv) made a similar point when they wrote: ‘Today, human resource professionals are being challenged to learn more about the business, its strategy, its environment, its customers, and its competitors’.
Note that none of these comments indicated any awareness that HR should be aware of ethical as well as business considerations and act accordingly. However, to do Dave Ulrich justice, he did write later that HR professionals should ‘represent both employee needs and implement management agendas’ (Ulrich, 1997: 5).
The Ulrich term ‘strategic business partner’ has been shortened in common parlance to ‘business partner’. Conceptually, HR business partners work closely with line managers and are probably embedded in a business unit or a line function. They fully understand the strategies and activities of their unit or function and appreciate the role they can play as partners to the line managers with whom they work in ensuring that business goals are achieved. Business partners are there to enable those line managers to achieve their objectives through their people.