Strategic HR Business Partnering – Beyond Organizational Structure

In our most recent post, we began discussing Galbraith’s Star Model of Organizational Design.  We concluded with our view that HR departments have generally overstated the importance of Structure as a critical organizational design feature.  According to research published by Gartner in 2019, less than half (42%) of organizational redesigns are successful and more than a third (37%) take longer than expected.  Our view is these statistics reflect a lack of holistic organizational design planning.   All the various components of Galbraith’s model need to be considered and they must, in the end, be aligned among and between themselves to increase the odds of success.  Therefore, in this post, we will briefly explore three other dimensions of Galbraith’s model as a means to understand, beyond structure and role design, how HR can better evolve to the status of strategic business partner.  The remaining dimensions are Strategy, People Practices, and Rewards & Metrics.  Our approach will be to:

  • Define the design feature and its importance in the bigger picture
  • Discuss some of the design criteria
  • Explain the importance of its linkage to the other elements of the model


Strategy, in its simplest terms, is the identification of the goals, priorities, success factors, and critical capabilities the organization needs to attain success.  Strategy then, is what an organization does – and in many cases chooses not to do – to win its designated markets. Design criteria for strategy includes the observable/measurable operating features and the outcome indicators of success.  By articulating these design criterion, the organization will benefit from increased focus.  With that focus, the organization is guided through conflicting needs and will be able to objectively evaluate alternative design approaches.  At the end of the day, all other dimensions of the Star Model need to be aligned with strategy.  Without a coherent strategy, the deployment of the Star Model will be suboptimized, at best.

For HR practitioners this means starting with the business strategy, not with the HR programs. For example, if a business is trying to better serve and engage customers, a key strategy implication for HR may be shifting the focus from process to customer. HR programs that would support these outcomes may take the form of aligning rewards with customer satisfaction, training for line employees in interpersonal customer relations or developing selection programs that attract people with a high need for affiliation and service.

Some questions practitioners should ask include:

  • What is the clear business strategy?
  • What new capabilities are required?
  • What does success look like?
  • Are there key geographies, products/services, customers, or technologies that need to be considered?
  • Do we keep all processes in house or subcontract some or all?
  • Are there aspects of the strategy that require some form of differentiation or variation across our business?
  • What are the people and organizational implications of the answer to these questions?
  • How does HR align programs, practices and policies that enable individuals and teams to deliver the strategy?

People Practices

Strategy is implemented through and by the organization’s people. People practices consist of identifying what competencies are needed for your business model in your industry.  Supporting the required competencies are the creation of processes to assure the organization has those competencies in the right places and at the right times.  Similarly, people practices need to anticipate the need for meaningful professional and career development opportunities for the people who are implementing strategy.  Finally, but certainly not least, people practices must include the roadmap to enable effective leadership at all levels of the organization. 

With COVID, there has been (and will be) an evolution of design criteria for People Practices.  We suggest that some new and important criteria now include consideration of both where and how work is done.  From a leadership perspective, what new, changed, or enhanced capabilities are needed – by both people managers and staff – in a world when a manager regularly sees her/his people only through a video connection.  

Some questions for practitioners include:

  • What new or changed competencies are needed to realize the strategy?
  • Can we build those competencies, or do we need to buy them, i.e., do we need to change our staffing model?
  • What is the framework of the employment relationship?  Think of values, expectations, obligations.  Said another way, does the organizational redesign impact our culture?  If so, how and what should be done about it.
  • How to build engagement and manage the change(s)


This area of the Star Model deals with the tools and processes used to motivate behaviors and acknowledge successes at the individual, team, and organizational unit levels. 

Representative questions for practitioners include:

  • Does the performance assessment process provide the kind and quality of feedback our people need to achieve their and the organization’s objectives?
  • Does the reward system deliver the differentiation needed to motivate “above and beyond?” behavior in our key contributors?
  • Is the reward system relevant?  Think about your demographics.  How have they changed and what is the trajectory of the changes you are almost certainly experiencing?
  • Are there valuable, non-financial ways of recognizing success?


Business Intelligence (BI) as a discipline within the HR world is still very much in an emergent state but deployments are expanding rapidly.   Opportunities to leverage existing stores of unrelated data abound.  Some of the challenges HR Business Partners need to overcome in using BI techniques include:

  • Is the available raw data “clean”?  Is it accurate and up to date?
  • In a world that is increasingly focused on protection of data privacy, how do I access and manipulate only the data I need.  This principle of “Data Minimization” is a key feature of the European Union’s GDPR regulations and is an often-overlooked risk that HR teams need to manage.
  • How to define the relationships between bits of discrete data to make analysis easier and more accurate
  •  What tool(s) to use analyze and represent the findings of our analyses?  Our experience is that simple is frequently better. 
  • How to integrate analytics into the HRBP’s interactions with her client base


To establish oneself as a genuinely strategic HR Business Partner, the practitioner needs to have a command of how the various elements of Ulrich’s model interact.  Think of your high school biology classes.  When you pushed against a wall of an amoeba, it tended to pop out opposite the pressure point.  The same is true of using Ulrich’s model.  If you overbalance one dimension at the expense of another, your solution will be suboptimal.  All the components of the strategy need to be in harmony with one another. Ideally, they are mutual reinforcing.

In our next post we will return to an exploration of how we can use the dynamics of these models to harmonize the individual and collective goals of HRBPs, COEs and Service Centers to deliver on the promise of strategic business partnering.

About the authors:

Louis Scenti is the Founder and President of Cognoscenti Associates, a consultancy specializing in executive and leadership coaching and organizational consulting. Prior to founding Cognoscenti Associates, Louis worked for more than 30 years as a practitioner of leadership development, organization development and talent management for several premier financial services firms, most recently as the Chief Talent Officer for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

He is currently an Adjunct Lecturer at Columbia University’s School of Professional Studies in the Human Capital Management Masters Degree program. 

Somers HR Solutions  is an independent consultancy dedicated to helping business leaders and their teams diagnose and solve people management challenges.  Managing Partner, Ken Somers, is especially adept at coaching HR Business Partners and business leaders to enhance their organizational impact.  He is passionate about delivering “answers for the real world.”

Ken’s career spans more than 40 years as both an HR practitioner and executive leader.  In addition to his domestic experiences, he has lived and worked in Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, India, and Malaysia.  Ken completed his most recent assignment as the interim country head for an insurance company’s back office operation in Poland.  Ken’s vast international experience enables him to bring a multicultural and multi-generational perspective to solving client challenges.

We hope you have found this series on Strategic HR Business Partners useful.  We invite your feedback.  And If you can use some help in addressing a people leadership challenge, contact us at: +1 508-507-1207

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