BRAD BELL: --CAHRS webcast of 2019. My name is Brad Bell. I'm a faculty member in the HR Studies Department here in Cornell ILR school. I am also the faculty director of the Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies.
I'm joined today by Beth Flynn-Ferry. Beth is the executive director of CAHRS. She is also an HR professional with over 25 years of experience and a former HR business partner herself. We're really excited to be here with you today. We're going to spend the next half hour discussing the HR business partner role and really how it's changing within our CAHRS companies.
To give you an idea of what we plan to do over the next 30 minutes or so, we'll spend the first 15 minutes really sharing information that's come out of research and a number of working groups that we've been doing here within CAHRS. As you listen, please start to submit questions that you have, either based on the content that we'll be kind of going through, as well as just the issues that are top of mind for you. And we plan to use about the, you know, second 15 minutes of the session today to go through and address as many of your questions as we can in the time available. So, Beth, great to be with you today.
BETH FLYNN-FERRY: Thanks, Brad.
BRAD BELL: So I know you've been leading a lot of research and working groups on this topic over the past few years. These have been really highly attended working groups--
BETH FLYNN-FERRY: Definitely.
BRAD BELL: --often kind of fully subscribing very quickly. So kind of what sparked your interest in this topic, as well as what do you think is driving the interests of our partners in this topic?
BETH FLYNN-FERRY: Yeah, you know, all of our companies have been talking about HR transformation over the last-- I don't know-- 10 years or so. And all of you out there will be familiar with this model that I've got up on the screen here, which is the HR operating model, where we've got our centers of excellence. We've got our HR Shared Services Group, and then we've got our HR business partners. And many, many companies, you know, almost every company we encounter, has implemented this three-legged stool model.
But what we're finding is now that with the technology that's available, with shifting of resources from the HRBP group to our centers of excellence, and to HR Shared Services, and the demands of clients on what they're expecting out of our HR function in general has really changed the role of the HR business partner. And while the the model, you know, is pretty well entrenched, there are some challenges that come up with that as well.
BRAD BELL: So it seems like, yeah, I mean, every company we've talked to seems to be kind of this is the model they're following. So it must be proving somewhat successful. But you mentioned these challenges. What are some of the, you know, key challenges that you're hearing from the companies?
BETH FLYNN-FERRY: Yeah, there are several. So one is, you know, many companies are looking at this opportunity of implementing the technology and really leveraging this model as a way to control costs. And so they're looking for headcount savings along with that. And so sometimes what that means for the HR business partner is that they are supporting more employees than ever.
We, you know, did talk in a few of the working groups about the ratios of numbers of employees that the HRBPs are supporting. And one company had one person supporting as many as 8,000 employees, which was a huge number. But we also had companies on the really low end, where they were still in a high-touch environment and maybe supporting 50 or so employees.
And so every model is a little different, depending on the culture, I think, of the company and what you're trying to do. But regardless, every one of those companies had HR business partners supporting more people than they had in the past with this model.
That also means we're doing more with less. And so there are fewer HR business partners. They are supporting more employees. But the demands are still there.
And so the question is, you know, how do those business partners support their clients in the way they'd like to? And a couple of companies have started implementing some ideas where they're pulling in resources from outside of HR to really help supplement the work of HR. So they might be doing fast action teams, where you're pulling different cross-functional resources, and you're attacking some kind of a problem or issue that might be HR-led or HR-related, but doing it, you know, with the broader organization.
And so that's been something that's been, I think, a really good way not only to leverage your internal resources more, but for more of the employees to get more involved in the work of HR, especially as it regards employee experience these days. And then, you know, the third thing that really is more of a challenge with these models is coordinating, right, coordinating across HR. And, you know, generally the HR function has been more high-touch in the past.
It's beginning to feel different. Some employees like that. Others don't. But from an HR standpoint, they still want to deliver in the sense of one HR.
I've heard that mentioned by several companies in different ways, where, you know, they don't want their employees to feel like they've got to go here for this, and there for that, and there for another thing. And if they are, that might be OK. But it must still feel coordinated and delivered, you know, as if we had in the past. So that is definitely another challenge that we're facing with this.
BRAD BELL: Great. I mean, so setting aside maybe some of these structural challenges, how has this kind of shift or this new model kind of reshaped the role itself and the type of work that these HRBPs are being asked to do on a day-to-day basis?
BETH FLYNN-FERRY: Yeah, yeah, that's a good point. You know, on the slide here, I've got some of the terminology that in one of the CAHRS studies we did came back, as we asked, you know, what are the titles? What are you calling the roles in your organization today? And certainly, HR business partner is prominent.
But there are many different roles that are still in organizations. You know, we still have HR generalists. In some of these organizations, we've got new roles, like HR advisor or HR coach as well. But HR business partner is really the predominant one.
And, you know, I would say that, again, the types of focus areas that the business partners are concentrating on are similar to what they've been doing in the past, with some nuances. But how they're delivering work to the client is much more strategic. So certainly with the implementation of the model, we're able to move some of the transactional work off of the business partner into the HR shared services.
The COEs are taking on, you know, all of the program development and deep work, with HR business partners still being involved in execution of that. But it certainly does allow the business partners to free up a little bit more and to focus on more of the strategic work that the client wants, which ultimately is really going to help deliver business performance.
BRAD BELL: Mm-hmm. So given those shifts in what they're being asked to do, does this also mean kind of shifts in the competencies or capabilities that they need to be successful in these roles?
BETH FLYNN-FERRY: Yeah, yeah.
BRAD BELL: And have you seen changes from what maybe made these HRBPs successful in the past and what they really need today to be effective in these roles?
BETH FLYNN-FERRY: Yeah, definitely. So some of the work we did is reflected on this slide here. And you can see that the HR business partner role and responsibilities, again, the buckets remain similar.
So you're still focused on organizational effectiveness. Talent is always the big one, you know, that I think the business partners add the most value in. Leadership development is something that the clients are continuing to ask for, and coaching and advising is really a stronger capability, a stronger role that the HR business partners are playing.
But the competencies are changing, right? So we're delivering some of the same things, but how we're delivering it and what level are different. And the ones that are most reflected, as I've talked with our companies, the things we are dialing up the most on, are things like business leadership.
So for years, we've been talking about business acumen and how HR leaders really need to understand the business and, you know, understand financials and those kind of things. But this is taking it to the next level, where you are actually a business leader, just like anybody else on that leadership team, and understanding not only the HR levers that can impact the business, but the business levers as well. And so that continues to be a big one. And, you know, it helps you be a thought partner with your leaders, with your leadership team, and really, again, deliver things that are going to drive that business performance.
The second thing is data and analytics. You know, certainly technology, and the tools that we have, and AI, and robotics, et cetera, you know, there's a ton of data that's out there and available. And none of us, no HR business partner can really consume all that and understand all of that.
But what we need to do is really be incisive, be able to cut through that data, you know, figure out what is the most important part of that data, and then help weave the story to our clients to talk about, you know, are the things that are changing, that we're getting new data on that can really, again, impact that business outcome and the business performance.
And then the third thing that I've heard the most about that's changing as far as HR capabilities and where we really need to scale up as business partners is agility. So not only does HR need to be more agile in how we deliver to our clients and how we do our work, but we need to help the organization be more agile. And whether that's, you know, helping with the culture and adopting the Agile mindset, or if that's taking some of the tools that Agile teams have and implementing those where they can be useful, because that's not across the organization, that's generally in different pockets of the organization, but helping our clients, again, navigate that and figure out where can that be the most useful for the organization.
BRAD BELL: So I imagine all these changes, I mean, present both opportunities for these HRBPs to have bigger impact and to be more strategic. I imagine that there are also some challenges that have come with the shifts in these roles. So as you've talked to companies, you know, our CAHRS partners, what have you heard as some of the key challenges that they're wrestling with to really kind of make this shift and to move in this direction?
BETH FLYNN-FERRY: Yeah, yeah, you know, there are a number of challenges. I'll just focus on a couple of the big ones here. One is change itself, right? And so change is always hard, and this change is no different in that regard.
And it's hard for not only our employees and line leaders, because they're being asked to do more themselves from a self-service standpoint or to adopt new technologies, et cetera. I think the biggest surprise is how difficult it is for the HR teams themselves and the HR business partners themselves. And I think, you know, why that is is that while for years HR business partners have been saying, you know, I don't have time to focus on the things I really want to because I'm too transactional, the fact is that they've had to span the transactional to the strategic. And now that they're able to more focus on the strategic, they're letting go of things that might have brought satisfaction and are certainly valuable to the client.
And so they were appreciated for doing those things and now really need to maybe say no and disappoint their clients. And that's not a good feeling. And so that's one aspect of why it's hard to change.
You know, another is what does strategic look like? And in many organizations, you may not have many role models or many people that have been operating at this level. And so defining that and gaining those new skills and changing yourself is, you know, a difficult thing to embrace. And it also involves recontracting with your clients about what expectations there are. And those are hard conversations to have and hard to stick to. And so those are some of the things that HR business partners need to understand, that they may need to address as they go through this change.
Again, on the client side, you know, many love their HRGs and have formed good relationships with them and love the role that they've played. And so they may not have been asking for a change here. They're used to having that one-stop shop where they're able to go to their HR business partner and get whatever they need. And that changes here.
Some may not want to adopt the new technology or the new role of self-service. And, you know, it's new learnings for them as well. So you can't underplay how difficult change is.
The second challenge, I really think, is these new competencies. And how do we help our employees develop those? It means changes in career paths. It means a lot of different things in that regard.
And so as I mentioned before, you know, there may not be role models in the organization for people to point to and aspire to be. And so you need to figure out what that means. You need to look at your current talent and assess them against these new competencies and roles and figure out, OK. Do I need to skill build? So what kind of training should I provide?
Do I need to hire? Because, you know, many times these HRBPs are just serving the highest level clients, the C-suite and maybe their direct reports. And so that may require a different profile of a person. And so that may mean, you know, dialing up your external hiring.
It means knowledge sharing. It means getting people together and, you know, brown bag lunches, whatever it happens to be, to talk about the issues that they're facing and how they deal with those with their clients, mentoring, action learning projects, you know, a whole bunch of things. And then career pathing, you know, is different.
And so do you bring people right in to an HRBP role? That may not be as likely anymore, especially with a new recruit, right off a campus, who may not have the same level of experience and competence that you need for these higher-skilled areas.
BRAD BELL: So, I mean, I think the piece about how to develop this talent pool is important, right, because I've heard a lot of companies talk about as we've adopted this new model, it's taken away some of these traditional career paths that we use to develop HR talent, you know, and to prepare them for some of these roles.
BETH FLYNN-FERRY: Yeah, yeah.
BRAD BELL: So in talking to companies, have you heard them talk about kind of innovative approaches they're taking to developing these HRBPs that maybe they didn't have in the past?
BETH FLYNN-FERRY: Yeah, yeah. You know, several companies have talked about forming HR academies, or HR universities, or that type of thing, where they really are building skills. They're bringing in expertise from the external areas or maybe other functions within their own companies and actually putting people through these classroom types of academies.
And the areas when I've talked to them about where are you focusing on, what are you teaching here, the ones that come up are analytics, you know, for sure, change management, or design and development, critical thinking and judgment. You know, those are the five most common things I hear when I talk to companies about what are you doing in these HR academies. So those are kind of the focus areas.
How they do those could be through classroom training. It could also be through rotating people through a variety of the different legs of the stool. So you may want your employees to have experience not only as an HR generalist or HR business partner, but also in the centers of excellence, one or two of those, as well as HR shared services, to really understand the different aspects and to, again, develop knowledge so that as you get to those more senior roles you're ready. Others are maintaining those HR generalist types of roles and bringing people into those roles as junior employees and, again, then developing the skills and moving them up to more of the HRBP types of areas.
BRAD BELL: So the rotations would seem like a good strategy for addressing some of these coordination challenges that you talked about earlier. Are there other things that companies are doing to deal with this challenge of kind of navigating this transformed team?
BETH FLYNN-FERRY: Yeah, yeah, yeah, that is the third challenge, the navigating the transformed team. And, you know, as HR folks, we have been focused on how we deliver HR from our function. And really what we want to focus on-- and this is the thing that can glue kind of the three legs of the stool together-- is the employee experience.
And so we shouldn't be focused on how we're delivering. We should be focused on what are the employees experiencing and what are they needing. And so that helps then us focus on the delivery and not so much on, you know, what each leg of the stool is doing.
So you do need to have role definition, for sure. You need to understand where the hand-offs will be throughout the three legs of the stool, as you're addressing different things. And you need to also define in this environment of shared services and this environment of reducing costs, you know, what can be systematic? What can be the same throughout the company?
What can be a common, global process? And what can be unique? And what can HR business partners or different COEs focus on that may be unique business to business?
And be clear about that, so that there is clarity. And people don't feel like they're spinning their wheels. And they're able, again, to deliver high-quality services to their clients. But on other things, be scalable, and do it at a reasonable cost.
So I think those are a couple of the things that you can do to help navigate the transformed team. But, again, I really think by shifting the focus from what we're delivering to what the employee is experiencing is the key to kind of delivering one HR.
BRAD BELL: Great. So a lot of great insights from the work that we've been doing here at CAHRS, that you've been doing here at CAHRS. I want to jump now to taking in some of the questions that have been rolling in. I encourage you, if you have questions, please submit them. And we'll try to tackle them.
Just to address some of the easy ones first, a couple of people asked how you'll get access to slides or whether we'll be posting this video. Once we're done with this session, we will be posting a copy of the video, and we'll also be posting the slides. So you will have access to those, no worries.
So one of the questions here that I think is interesting, it asks about kind of what are we seeing in terms of kind of segmenting the HRBP role in the client-facing models? I know in the one working group I did on this topic, some companies were segmenting, for example, by maybe keeping the traditional model more in plants, you know, and manufacturing settings, but maybe having more of the model that we've been talking about in kind of more professional, what they were referring to as kind of people settings.
I mean, are there ways that you're seeing companies kind of segment the HRBP model? You know, they're asking, for example, based on level of the leader. It sounds like from what you mentioned earlier, maybe it's more this is often supporting high-level leaders, at a certain level and above. Are you seeing some of those distinctions being made?
BETH FLYNN-FERRY: Yeah, definitely, it feels like each C-suite leader has their HR business partner who is truly operating at that strategic level. Depending on the size of your organization and the capacity or scope that you have, you could be supporting several of those C-suite leaders, especially in functions where it makes sense maybe to combine, et cetera.
And that gets replicated down the organization a little bit, but not too deep. And at the higher numbers of employee populations, as you mentioned, like in a corporate headquarters, a lot of those are being more centralized and not supported based on a function or a business unit type of thing. It's just call the service center, and you'll get an HR business partner on the line who will help you one to one, or through chat or robotics or the chat bots, that type of thing.
Those could be your tier 1, tier 2 types of services. And then it moves into maybe an employee relations center of excellence, where managers may be calling as they deal with an employee issue, a sexual harassment issue, or a termination, you know, whatever it happens to be, where those are pooled employees that these clients or, again, employees directly are going to.
And the other difference that we see a lot of is regional or geographic kind of dispersion. And so because, you know, many organizations are global, but things are still different country to country, you still do see regional centers popping up. Or if you're in a country that truly has unique laws, et cetera, you might still be in that HR generalist type of model because of the size of your organization, where you still are that one-stop shop. And so we are seeing a lot of that as well.
BRAD BELL: Great. So another question that came in that goes to the career pathing and development points that you made, the person asks, HR people coming out of school want to immediately jump to strategic HR work. It's something we tell our students here all the time at Cornell, that you're not necessarily going to be jumping into these strategic roles the second you walk into the organization. But how do you convince those employees to develop some of the really kind of core, foundational HR skills, you know, performance management, investigation, employee relations, particularly if maybe we're getting to this point where things are really siloed?
BETH FLYNN-FERRY: Yeah, that is a challenge, for sure, that I think is newer for companies, and they're finding some difficulty in doing that. But I think it's been, you know, just proving out how important each of those processes is and where they impact the business. And so I don't think that new hires coming in, especially off a college campus, really understand how important some of those things are.
And they may sound just like a process, and it's pushing paper or that kind of thing. But I think if you really get them to understand the strategic leverage behind what the impact of those processes can do for their clients, and then paint the picture of learning each of them kind of individually, but at that next step in their career where they come together a little bit more, again, to impact the business, that's how you're going to get people interested in that. And I think it's having them do those roles. but maybe having them work on some of these fast-action teams maybe outside of that more limited scope that they may feel, but exposed to some of these bigger issues and working cross-functionally can really, I think, help them value both parts of that.
BRAD BELL: That's great. So an interesting question here is how should organizations go about transforming their models? So should they change all at once? Should they change gradually, you know, change geographically?
And I know in your working groups, you often saw companies that were at very different stages of this transformation process. So my guess is that it varies. Different companies do it differently. But what have you been seeing?
BETH FLYNN-FERRY: Yeah, it does vary. You know, and people go after it for all different types of reasons. Probably the most common thing I've seen is when somebody is bringing in an HCM, so a new Human Capital Management system, a new HRIS system that allows them to go to more self-service and more of the employee experience, gives them more data, et cetera, that's kind of the big lever to look at all your global processes and really examine what you're doing. Get the workflow going out on that and really take the opportunity to change your whole organization.
And so that's what you see most often. But depending on what your focus areas are, what I have seen is people move things to shared services. The COEs get built out, and the HR business partner might be left behind a little bit.
And so you start calling them an HR business partner. But because you've got so much work going on, and so many things happening, you know, people moving jobs, and all those types of things, and still trying to serve your client, you aren't investing in spending that time on the HR business partner to skill them up. And so that's a danger with that.
But I think it's a fact that you can't focus on everything all at once. Again, people have to be conscious of headcount and cost with all this stuff going on. But I think if you map out the plan, decide what your critical focus areas are, and just go after that, and let your clients know, you know, this is the plan, and it's going to be implemented over time, they'll understand that. And I think quick wins, no matter how you implement it, you know, whatever you do, do it well, do it successfully, quickly, is really important, and, again, to focus on that change management aspect on all three of those stakeholders-- the HR team itself, the managers, and then the employees.
BRAD BELL: So this question asks, in a successful HR operations model, who has a seat at the business leadership table? Is it just the HRBPs? Do the COEs have a role there? How should COEs stay connected to the business?
And I know in the group or two that I ran, it seemed like this kind of goes to your one HR theme, right, in the sense that in places where it had become really siloed, there was a sense that maybe shared service and COEs were kind of getting disconnected from the business, so a lot of discussion around how do we make sure that they stay connected. How do we make sure we maintain that integration? And I heard companies talk about little things, like when we have important meetings with a business client, making sure that there's representation across each of those areas. Other things that you're seeing to kind of drive that connection between the COEs and shared service and the business?
BETH FLYNN-FERRY: Yeah, I mean, that's a great example of how to do that. I think that business partners need to be careful of wanting to maintain that primary role with your client and, again, allowing kind of others under the tent so that they can develop relationships. And they can also develop their own skills and, again, be better COE experts or be better HR operations or shared services people.
So I do think it's treating HR as one in many ways. And so even from an HR functional standpoint, where the CHRO needs to be cognizant of that, and as they do quarterly meetings or different learning opportunities and things like that, maybe it's inviting everybody to the business updates. It's not just focusing on your HR business partners. It's really making sure that the business information gets translated throughout your whole HR function, that people get those development opportunities, where it may not be part of their day-to-day job to be involved in this team or that team, but to put them on it, again, so it exposes them to the business and gets them more line of sight to various leaders and things like that. But it's going to take some elbow grease, I think.
BRAD BELL: Yeah, OK. So there's a question here from someone that is an analytics professional, kind of asking about what level of analytics competence do you need your HRBPs to have. You know, how much do they need to know, versus how much should they rely on, say, supporting people analytics, you know, support team? Again, my sense is that kind of varies across organizations, depending on kind of how mature their analytics function is. But what's your thoughts on that?
BETH FLYNN-FERRY: Yeah, you know, I think it's the maturity, their function. It's also the culture of their company, right, and how data-focused is your culture and are your leaders. And that could vary even leader to leader within the same company.
You know, HR can't be everything to everyone and can't be real deep. As a business partner, again, you're not going to be as deep on any one thing. So I think we've got to rely on our centers of excellence, like the Analytics Center of Excellence, to actually be the ones who understand the data in a deep-dive fashion.
But as those analytics folks are serving up information to our business partners, it's really sorting through that with your understanding of the business and what is important to it, looking at what you're seeing from an analytics standpoint, all that data, and cutting through. OK, what are really the most critical things? What are the most important things that are good for you to surface with your leaders or to use with your team to take a different approach, or bring a different solution, or problem solve, or, again, drive the business in a different way?
And so I think it's being kind of incisive and cutting through that noise and all that data to what is the most critical and then telling the story. I think business partners could be better storytellers as well, where they're going to take that data and help their client see why that's important and what the impact can be.
BRAD BELL: Yeah, certainly seen that shift from just crunching numbers and putting out data to really sense making and drawing out insights from the data--
BETH FLYNN-FERRY: Definitely.
BRAD BELL: --for your clients, right? So one last question before we need to wrap up, it's about accountability. I mean, you talked before that there can be pressures for these HRBPs to continue to kind of take on those transactional tasks for their clients. And so how do organizations really kind of hold them accountable for really shifting to that more and prioritizing that more strategic work?
BETH FLYNN-FERRY: Yeah, I think that comes down to measurement probably. You know, what gets measured gets done and holds people accountable. And in HR, the business partners used to be measured on things like quality of service and time, you know, speed, and things like that.
I think in the end, the accountability comes in the business outcomes and being measured on those and accountable for those, as the line leaders are. And so I think our HR business partners ought to be measured like that and held accountable to that in the same way.
BRAD BELL: That makes a lot of sense. So I think we're about out of time. One of the questions that came in was how can our company benchmark against others? That's a good segue to the fact that we have a number of different resources available in CAHRS to do just that.
You'll see on the slide a list of some of our upcoming events, so a number of working groups which are great opportunities to come out and hear what other companies like you are doing in different areas. We also have on our website, which is cahrs.ilr.cornell.edu, we have different centers of excellence. We actually have one dedicated to the HRBP space.
And there, you will find write ups from our working groups, where you will hear again about what a lot of other companies have been doing in this space, different trends, as well as research and white papers related to different topics. So certainly encourage you to explore those resources. And, of course, if you can't find something you're looking for, reach out to us. And we're always happy to help get you what you need.
Thank you again for attending today's webcast. We'll be posting it so you can find it. You can share it with your friends and colleagues. And we hope to see you at one of our upcoming events. Thank you.
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As many companies go through HR transformation, the role of the HR Business Partner is evolving. Brad Bell, Associate Professor of HR Studies and Faculty Director of CAHRS and Beth Flynn-Ferry, Executive Director of CAHRS share insights from several working groups focused on this topic. The discussion includes how the HRBP role is changing as the HR operating model matures, upskilling HRBP capabilities, and agility within HR.