HR: Business Partner? No. Player? Yes

HR: Business Partner? No. Player? Yes

“In your company, does HR have a seat at the table?”

At this very moment, some HR professional is asking this question to another HR professional. The response to this question is normally very long and confused. The problem, however, is not the response. It is the question.

The eternal popularity of this meaningless question is hard to understand. Perhaps, its historical roots lie in the swamp of uninspiring and foolish descriptors of the HR function over the years: ‘Facilitator’, ‘Change Agent’, ‘Catalyst’, ‘Support’, ‘Service’, ‘Enabler’, ‘Coach’ and more. Each one of these descriptors, over the years, have ensured that the HR function got its knickers in a twist while attempting to be supremely relevant.

Until Dave Ulrich came along and gifted the HR function with a new descriptor: ‘Business Partner’. Change in language does bring about a change in perspective. As ‘Business Partners’, HR professionals now attempted to re-purpose their contribution from providing service to creating value. It did move the needle for some. But, the ‘seat of the table’ question stubbornly persisted. Its popularity remained undiminished.

The ‘business partner’ revolution in HR was a Pyrrhic victory. The ‘partner’ proposition seduced HR professionals because it elevated them from less equal sounding ‘support’ to a more equal sounding ‘partner’. However, it never solved the ‘outsider’ problem for HR. In fact, it cemented the outsider position of HR with firmness and clarity. The underlying thesis was that business and HR are two separate, distinct entities that need to ‘partner’.

Every business has experts that play together to execute strategy and win in the market: Marketing experts, HR experts, Product Development experts, Finance experts, Technology experts and many more. Like in any sport, while each player has an expert position, all players frequently and effortlessly adapt to the current dynamics of the game. It is as simple as that.

HR, like everyone else, is a player. Along with other experts, it is in ‘the business’.

The implication, of course, is that if you are a player, you obviously need to know how to play the game. Just as a marketing expert in a services company has a different ‘game’ to play than a marketing expert in a luxury goods company, an HR expert’s game in every business is different. If you know your game, you are a ‘player’.

If not, you are still asking that ‘seat at the table’ question.