Seven ways to make functional ‘business partner’ roles a success at your university

Interlinked RopesWhy do universities look to implement any business partner models?  What benefits are there in adopting such a model, and what are the major pitfalls to watch out for?  A recent Cubane study of ‘lessons learned’ from UK, Australian, and New Zealand universities that have undergone significant professional services transformations highlighted the importance of the role of business partners in providing a bridge between central administration and academic units. The business partnering role, when properly designed and supported, sits in tension between supporting local needs whilst ensuring these also align with the university’s needs and policies. The skill of any business partner is in meeting these two objectives. The role’s value is in ensuring there is consistency across the organisation and being able rapidly to escalate access to necessary skills when local needs demand this.

Cubane’s recent study also highlighted the difficulties universities have faced in getting business partnering right, and what follows are the seven key factors which stood out as being critical to success:

1.    Put in place a supporting framework that works and is well understood

Universities enjoy most success when the business partner role is one part of an overall operating framework centred on improving the service users’ experience. In practical terms this means every type of interaction with service users or academic units has been clearly mapped out (covering everything from simple query management types, through to complex strategic support), with clear guidelines on who is responsible for what, how the interaction works, and what escalations are available.

If business partners are clear on how they fit into the overall service support model, they will be better placed to support the organisations and stakeholders they are aligned to, and understand the required service levels.

Business partners within a function coming together regularly to share ideas and challenges from their particular academic unit as part of a coherent community of practice can also be a key part of this framework. When these communities of practice extend across functions as well, they are all the more powerful.

“Our business partners are more effective when they know that there is a supporting framework around them that works” – Director of HR, UK

2.    Free up business partners from transactional work, but ensure it is clear to the organisation how the transactional work is supported

The business partnering roles is most effective when it is clearly designed to provide advisory support rather than also supporting transactional processes. For this to be achieved it needs to be very clear to the organisation how the routine transactional work is handled. For example, a business partner providing strategic HR support such as advising on an organisation’s staffing needs, should not then be engaged in preparing documentation in support of a new hire or the logistics support needed to arrange interviews.

Academics and others in schools and faculties will always need access to support that a business partner cannot provide, including both around routine transactional and more specialist matters. Designing effective processes and support for these is therefore a critical part of introducing an effective business partnering approach.

“Simple questions such as “What are your problems, how can I help?” can go a long way to building relationships, but having the capacity to invest in these sorts of interactions is key” – Programme Director, UK

3.    For functions that operate similarly across all sectors, look to bring people in from outside of Higher Education

Universities often struggle with the question of whether to source their business partners from the academic units they are serving, or whether to focus on recruiting people with a proven track record in this kind of role from outside of the sector. The answer is that it depends. For functions like HR and Finance where people with the right expertise can be commonly found in other sectors, the evidence suggests that universities fare best by recruiting in. For other functions which are HE specific or where a functional business partnering standard is less common (such as research administration or commercialisation), universities have had more success sourcing internally, where an understanding of the institution and its complexities and the sector context is more critical to the role.

“Most weren’t from the sector; it’s more about dealing with complexity, presenting on particular topics, real ‘do-ers.’” – Director of HR, Australia

“Some business partners, e.g. in external relations, don’t come with a functional standard, and require deep understanding of sector and specific university offering, and so internal sourcing may be better.” – Faculty Executive Director, Australia

4.    Err on the senior side

Earning the right to have a ‘seat at the table’ in key strategic meetings is critical from the outset, and one of the biggest failings of universities is having business partners that are simply not senior enough to engage credibly with the leaders and stakeholders with whom they have been aligned. The size and complexity of the academic unit receiving services, and the levels of stakeholders with whom alignment is required, will also impact what is required in this respect. There’s obviously a trade-off here: more senior hires will be more expensive, but the overall cost over time can even out if a more experienced member of staff is more likely to succeed.

“Our best business partners are adept at influencing senior stakeholders, even in project teams.” – Director of HR, UK

5.    Personal attributes can be just as important as deep technical skills

There are certain key personal attributes that are essential for a business partner to possess, and without which no amount of technical or university-specific expertise will bring success. Two of these attributes - political nous and influencing skills – would already be there in the ideal candidate but can also be developed with experience and training. The other two - adaptability and an analytical mindset - are more ingrained and are essential to search out as part of the appointment.

“He is politically astute, deeply understands organisational politics, and this is key to his success” – HR Operations and Business Partnering, Director, Australia

“She is interested in data – probing questions such as ‘did you know you have a high level of turnover?’ can unlock new and interesting ways of thinking in the stakeholder” – Programme Director, UK

6.    Irrespective of who line-manages business partners, a clear line of sight to senior management is vital

Reporting lines for business partners varied across the universities included in our recent study, available to UniForum members. In some cases the business partner reports directly to the director of the functional unit, in other cases to a senior manager responsible for all the business partners for that function. The specific arrangements matter less than having a clear ‘line of sight’ and access to the people responsible for running the function.

High performing business partners often have no line management responsibility themselves: as we saw above in terms of transactional support, a role focused squarely on building strategic relationships with people in the academic unit being served is one of the primary success factors.

“One of the most critical success factors has been to relieve my business partners of line management responsibility.” – Director of HR, UK

7.    Physical proximity isn’t essential, but can be helpful at the outset

The last point is perhaps most surprising: contrary to expectations, there appears to be no clear pattern in terms of whether business partners are more effective if they’re co-located with the people they serve. And we found that the degree of physical proximity even varies between business partners in different functions within the same university, with no apparent consistent effect in terms of success. What does seem to be important, however, is that business partners are ‘nearby enough’ to build relationships based on periodic face-to-face contact with staff in academic units, and that this is especially crucial in the earliest stages of a new business partner being in place.

Conclusion

There are of course many complexities and institution specific factors that contribute to the choices and successful implementation of the business partner role.  The UniForum 2018 full study around this subject is available to UniForum members, but please feel free to contact us directly if you have a particular interest in this area and would like to speak to one of our sector leaders on this matter.

Future UniForum Insight articles will share research into role redesign and best practice in organisational effectiveness. Subscribe to UniForum Insights.

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