Business partnering – is it right for you?

Posted on 26 May 2016 by

Although it may seem to be just a popular management buzz phrase, business partnering can provide valuable benefits for companies that go down this route; however it is not for every company.

Business partnering is the practice of assigning particular members of a back office team to frontline departments.

For example you may choose to have a dedicated finance, HR or IT professional attached to sales or the call centre.

The idea is that they will form the bridge between operational teams and the more technically minded members of a support department.

There are some very clear advantages to this.

The obvious one is that they are able to act as translators, changing highly technical jargon into everyday language. It may seem that this is a one way street with the sales team being talked through a new server implementation but it can also work in reverse as the IT business partner will be able to explain to a coder what Marketing mean when they say ‘AB test’.

The translation service is really an aspect of the improved communication that business partnering is expected to engender.

A further facet of this improved communication is the ability to give support functions advance notice of development.

If we imagine a marketing department that is planning an email send out to millions of its customers, we can see that they may need to give IT a heads up that some pretty serious computing resources are going to be required.  It’s not difficult to envisage an IT department shutting down an email server if they suddenly see a massive spike in mails that they weren’t expecting.

A further benefit of business partnering is that it promotes a team spirit. This is especially useful in companies that have seen a rise in so called ‘silo working’, that is the practice of department keeping very much to themselves and not working as part of the wider business team.

The good business partner will be able to open up links between the two departments and foster better relationships in the company as a whole.

Increased business intelligence is a useful product of the business partnering approach. Companies with an effective partnering method see an improvement in the way that the company leverages knowledge with many different departments working on the same issue.

As a useful by product of the improved communication, sharing knowledge between different functions of the company means that shared ideas can be developed and knowledge that is held closely within a department can be better disseminated across the company as a whole.

With all of these advantages you may be forgiven for wondering why all companies don’t adopt the business partnering approach.

In fact there are some companies that it’s not suitable for.

Business partnering provides little if any benefit for a small company where everyone knows what’s going on. For smaller businesses with few employees information travels quicker and more efficiently and so partnering is simply overkill.

It’s also true that companies with very small functional departments may not have or be able to afford the resource to dedicate to business partnering. Giving one person this responsibility will simply take the person away from their core role with no perceivable benefit.

Businesses that are growing rapidly will often feel the sort of pains that are alleviated by using business partnering but the converse of this is that if a company is not growing, or indeed is planning to contract then actually adopting a new approach can prove counterproductive. As a general rule of thumb it becomes viable at around the 250 employees mark although this is highly variable depending upon sector and individual firm.

For specialist companies that outsource their support functions then there is no point in dedicating an internal resource to the partnering role. Instead support should be available within the contract from the external provider.

Similarly where a business is comprised of staff that carry out very similar technical roles then the approach isn’t as helpful, especially from the translation point of view and it may be more efficient to look for other methods of fostering teamwork and communication.

For very large companies, especially those that are organised along Separated Business Unit  (SBU) lines there will again be less valuable benefits to business partnering. In general terms these businesses will have devolved support function sitting in the SBU and so the partner is less useful.

To decide whether it is right for your company there are some key questions to ask;

Do you have large support functions? Generally speaking where you have more than 4 or 5 people in a technical support area such as HR or IT then Partnering may make sense.

Have you noticed an increase in silo working? If you find that departments are locking themselves away in splendid isolation then think about this structure.

Has poor communication hampered operations or cause issues? If you have seen problems that could have been avoided simply by people speaking to one another then business partnering is a possible solution.

In summary then, business partnering can provide some useful benefits to companies, especially if they are going through a growth phase and feeling the pains that this brings. It’s not for every company and adopting the approach just because it sounds good is not the way to go but with a measured approach it can provide a useful tool for the forward looking firm.

Sochall Smith, Leeds Accountants


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