Organization Development and HR Business Partners

Monday's blog (March 29) listed a set of questions concerning the handoffs and interdependencies OD consultants have with other parts of the organization. Several of these questions centered on the relationship with HR Business Partners. The UK's Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD) has a couple of helpful factsheets on this topic – HR Business Partnering, and Organization Development.

The CIPD describes the role of the HR Business Partner as one based on the so called 'Ulrich Model' that:

involves working closely with senior business leaders on strategy execution, in particular designing HR systems and processes that address strategic business issues: a big departure then for HR from the responsive approach adopted in the past. Most commentators agree that today's HR function needs to be much more business-focused. In practice this means being more customer-focused; cost efficient; innovative, and structured in such a way that it can quickly respond to changing priorities.

The CIPD points out that the role can vary enormously depending on the organization but typically includes
1. organisational and people capability building
2. longer term resource and talent management planning
3. using business insights to drive change in people management practices
4. intelligence gathering of good people management practices internally and externally, so they can raise issues that executives may not be aware of.

And OD consultants require skills such as: strategic thinker, consultancy skills, relationship management, expert networker, business and financial understanding, change management, as well as influencing and political awareness skills.

This description seems to indicate a significant degree of overlap in the 'field of play' of the HR Business Partners and the OD consultants. But this is illusory. OD consultants are process consultants who may or may not have expertise in HR matters. They work as 'systems engineers' always bearing in mind the operation of the whole organizational system and not just the 'people' aspects of it. This means that in any project, piece of work, or intervention, they may draw on expert skills from a range of disciplines including finance, legal, marketing, etc. (It is not a given that HR expertise will be required.) The CIPD rightly confirms that:

• OD work contributes to the sustained health and effectiveness of the organization
• OD work is based upon robust diagnosis that uses real data from organizational, behavioral and psychological sources
• OD work is planned and systemic in its focus, that is taking account of the whole organization
• OD practitioners help to create alignment between different activities, projects and initiatives
• OD work involves groups of people in the organization to maximize engagement, ownership and contribution

In a piece of work I recently did – involving the merger of two business units – the work was spearheaded by the Business Unit Leaders and involved setting up cross business unit teams drawn from marketing, sales, finance, IT, communications, product development, and HR. In this intervention the role of HR was significant but it was not more significant than that of, say, IT – getting the systems right was as important in this instance as getting the people right – or finance (the merger was subject to budgetary constraints and also had to prove re-investment opportunities at the completion).

One of the issues about talking of OD and HR in the same breath is that it gives rise to the perception that HR people can be process consultants at the change of a label. Unfortunately this is rarely the case. Few (that I have come across) have the depth of consulting, facilitation, and project management skills, combined with a credible level of business knowledge that is required by an OD consultant. This is not to say that some could develop the required skills but it may not come naturally, it may be costly to develop these and many HR Business Partners may not want to take what is effectively a different career path into consulting.