Mary Greene and Helen Bradley, Client Directors at London Business School, on why business partnering is a necessity for today’s corporations.
The days of performing one specific role within an organisation are long gone. In a globally competitive business climate, being an IT, finance, legal or marketing specialist is no longer enough – employees from these departments also need to understand the business strategy and help implement it using their expert insight.
Aside from carrying out their daily duties, employees have to be effective internal business partners – people who add value to the company by applying their knowledge, experience and skills to its overarching strategy. The role for HR executives and directors is to facilitate the transition, by educating staff about this critical business need and getting them to go beyond their normal duties in order to contribute to the organisation’s growth.
The role of HR leaders is to help other teams understand why sharing and applying their deep-rooted understanding of their department’s function will benefit the business. It’s about changing business partners’ behaviour by showing them how their expert knowledge helps set the firm’s medium and long-term agenda and enables the company to meet its key objectives.
The increased focus on business partnering within organisations can be attributed to the recent trend of companies bringing outsourced services such as IT back in house. In the last two decades, organisations paid firms in other countries to carry out key functions, believing it was more cost effective than training existing or hiring new staff.
But things have changed, with more companies bringing these critical business functions back in house. The upshot is that businesses expect more from the IT, finance or legal experts within their organisation, and they hope to draw on their employees’ deep knowledge and understanding of how the company works, and on their insight, to add value.
Convincing staff to adopt a new mindset to their work and accept a bigger role that involves duties outside of their job remit is just one challenge facing HR executives. They also have to encourage them to become entrepreneurial figures who work more effectively with people from different departments in order to achieve strategic goals.
Today’s HR executives are becoming increasingly responsible for working with business partners to establish effective lines of communication and collaboration throughout an organisation. To that end, HR specialists need to answer the following questions:
Enabling employees to become effective business partners who make a significant contribution to the organisation and work closely with colleagues from other departments seems simple enough. But to encourage incredibly busy staff to adopt a different approach, HR executives need to offer support and direction and highlight the impact and the benefits that the staff bring to the business.
One way to achieve this is to work closely with business partners within the organisation, which is what a major global confectionary company did in 2012. Having identified different levels of engagement and varying results between functions within its business units, the company established a programme – in collaboration with London Business School (LBS) – to address the issue.
The finance experts were taught to use the ‘three I’s’ – information, insight and influence – to gain insight into how the rest of their business worked and to communicate more effectively with their colleagues. Moreover, they were asked to step into the shoes of colleagues in other business units to make decisions and deal with the daily challenges that their counterparts regularly face.
The simulation exercises were hugely impactful, teaching the finance team to communicate with colleagues from other departments in a relevant ‘language’. Ultimately, the executives realised they needed to provide context and use language that people from outside the department could understand. They learnt the key role they could play as finance experts in making sound suggestions and insightful contributions to help their partners drive the organisation’s growth.
As well as encouraging employees to become internal business partners, organisations should support staff who work closely with clients to be more skilled in building and maintaining these key relationships. These employees could be external business partners, account managers or technical experts such as accountants or lawyers – people who use their deep-rooted industry knowledge and expertise to support their clients, solve their problems and in turn foster stronger relations with clients and prospective clients.
Changing employees’ behaviour so they become effective external business partners who have a range of skills in their toolkit to strengthen ties with their clients can be tricky. But businesses that master this approach will benefit greatly. One example is a global IT and telecoms company who have worked collaboratively with LBS to create a programme for the sales executives. One of the objectives was to show members of the sales team how to engage with their clients’ C-Level executives across all departments rather than take the traditional and comfortable approach of interacting with just the technology or IT specialists.
Porter’s Five Forces, a model for identifying and analysing the competitive features that shape every industry, was introduced on the programme to give the participants a tool to gain client insights and to enable them to widen their conversations with their clients about sector and market trends. This strategy tool, along with other tools, and sessions on self-insight, creative thinking and the application of learning on a client project, have proved useful for the sales executives to think and work in different ways with their clients in future.
The benefits of internal business partnering are clear: it empowers employees from an organisation’s finance, legal, IT and marketing departments to apply their own knowledge and understanding of the business to shape its strategy. It also enables them to perform better in their own role by understanding the opportunities and challenges that colleagues in other departments face.
On the external side, business partnering encourages highly-skilled employees to help drive the company’s growth, by using their industry knowledge and insight to keep clients informed about market trends and developments. This, in turn, establishes greater trust and respect between the organisation and its customers.
Any opportunity that gives organisations the edge in an increasingly competitive business climate cannot be overlooked. It’s up to HR professionals to extol the virtues of business partnering and encourage employees to accept responsibility for driving the organisation.