I recently listened in on a conversation of senior Human Resource Business Partners (HRBPs) and Organization Development practitioners, discussing the need for distinct definitions of their disciplines. I feel differently, as I have found that, over 30 years of doing both HR and OD work:
- Line partners don’t much care if there are distinct definitions; they care about having talented practitioners that can help them get business results.
- There is an increased blurring of HRBP & OD capabilities into talented practitioners who are true business partners.
While HRBPs still struggle in some organizations to show their relevance and influence strategic decisions, their counterpoints in OD struggle to define the value they bring in a way that is both easy to understand and that resonates for their stakeholders—to answer the question “what exactly do you do?” The two disciplines are thrust together in most organizations—whether by design or by default—with each sometimes distancing themselves from what they perceive as the other discipline’s less-than-sterling reputation. In doing so, business impact gets caught in the cross-fire. Rather than spend the next thirty years on these same struggles—both within our disciplines and between them--it is time we rethink the delineation between HRBPs and OD practitioners, finding ways to leverage the strengths of each to advance our common purpose: improving the way organizations operate.
Too often, the relationship between HRBPs and OD practitioners plays out like this: HR business partners receive a request for strategic work in the business they support—whether shifting an organization’s culture, developing a senior team, or designing a new business model. They then call in an OD resource with whom they partner on the project or to whom they hand it off. This approach is problematic for a few reasons:
- HRBPs lose momentum with business leaders if they pause to bring in an OD resource. The pace of business has increased; leaders and stakeholders place a premium on agility and responsiveness. The delay from contacting an additional resource and bringing them up to speed can result in missed opportunities and cause leaders to think “you don’t know my business and can’t work at our pace.”
- It’s a disservice to HRBPs. It is a much better investment to improve HR organizations’ OD skills than to have entirely separate departments. We’ve reached a moment in history where HR’s role in organizations is going to go in one of two directions: it’s going to deliver on its promise or its going to die on the vine. At exactly the time when leaders are looking for HR to deliver more than simple transactions, we’re telegraphing that their closest HR contacts—the people who know their business the best—are lacking core capabilities for providing the support they need.
- It positions OD as a highly-specialized field that requires someone with a PhD or advanced education to do the work, rather than a way of thinking that is accessible to everyone. That’s not to say that advanced degrees and development aren’t useful: there is value in OD practitioners constantly working to advance their skills—just as there is in any field. Large, complex initiatives often benefit from people with a deeper understanding of human and organizational systems. However, there is also great value in sharing OD knowledge and tools with a wider audience. Businesses would be stronger if their HRBPs and line leaders understood—and felt empowered to employ—OD thinking in their day-to-day work.
What will it take to move beyond our old ways of working?
- Leadership. Too often HR leaders roll changes out to their functions without recognizing that they are as much a part of the old system as anyone, and that their behavior needs to change as well. HR leaders must learn along with their organizations, and model behavior that makes HR a high-value, business-focused function.
- A change in mindset. For some HRBPs, it means moving beyond the thinking that OD is work that is inaccessible to them; OD is a way of thinking they can—and should—use in every interaction with their clients. Often we separate HRBP work into “transactional” and “strategic,” with the implication that the transactional work is less important. In reality, all of HRBP’s work is strategic. HR professionals must learn to see how foundational processes like compensation, benefits, and staffing relate to and reinforce the organization’s strategic priorities, and understand that how these processes are delivered can have an enormous impact. For OD practitioners, it’s learning to see themselves as a primary enabler of HRBPs’ success, and being comfortable working more backstage than onstage. OD practitioners often wish they could have a larger impact on their organizations: taking responsibility for skilling up their HR organizations and serving as behind-the-scenes advisors is a great way to expand their reach. They must learn to proactively look out at the needs of the business and provide the function—and by extension the business itself—with the tools needed to be successful.
- An ongoing commitment to development. It takes sustained effort to get people to think and act in new ways. Providing an HR team with a one-time OD training may set them on the right path, but will not be sufficient in the least to change the function over the long term. For change to stick, the skills must be reinforced over time and applied to the function’s real work.
In the end, line leaders care less about where a solution comes from than whether it has a positive business impact. Rather than perpetuating a difference where the business sees none, there’s much more value to be gained by re-thinking the delineation between HRBPs and OD practitioners to better support how organizations grow.