Becoming a Trusted Strategic Business Partner: Lessons from the Government of Alberta | Queen's University IRC

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Becoming a Trusted Strategic Business Partner: Lessons from the Government of Alberta

Stephanie Noel, Queen's IRC Business Development Manager
Publication date: March, 2013
Graduates of the HR Business Partner Program, Dec 4-6, 2012, Edmonton Alberta
Graduates of the HR Business Partner Program (Series 3), December 2012, Edmonton, AB.

In 2008, when Mary Jefferies first consulted with Queen's IRC to build a new program that would enhance the Alberta government HR professionals' ability to be true business partners, she was not motivated by an industry trend, or faddishness.

The changing business of the Alberta government and of her department — then called Alberta Environment — demanded it.

"Our work was increasingly being seen on the international stage, whether it was in oilsands or in conservation. And we were being challenged to work in a more collaborative, more networked, more interactive way," said Jefferies, now an organizational culture expert in the Alberta government's Environment and Sustainable Resource Development department.

"We needed to give people capacity for systems thinking, facilitation, learning, and organizational development. We needed to respond to changes in the business, and in the expectations of senior leaders. We needed to think about emerging competencies in the workforce, talent management, and leadership development.

"And so we asked: What are the capabilities we need to be trusted strategic business partners? How do we get there?"

Jefferies knew precisely where to turn for the answers: to Queen's IRC and to Brenda Barker Scott, with whom Jefferies had previously worked on an organization design project.

The Queen's IRC team, including Barker Scott and Stephanie Noel, the IRC's business development manager, were up for the challenge to develop an HR Business Partner program, first for Jefferies' department and collaborating departments of Energy and Advanced Education and Technology, and then for the Alberta government's HR community as a whole. Participants now come from many of the Alberta government's 18-plus ministry HR departments.

The leading-edge curriculum has five interrelated workshops designed to expand HR professionals' capacity to be internal business partners: Foundations for Internal Consulting, Change Management, Building Relationships and Strategic Partnerships, Coaching Skills, and Organizational Design. Other facilitators include former Queen's IRC director Carol Beatty, Sharon Parker, Gary Furlong, and Francoise Morissette.

The goal of the HR Business Partner Certificate program is to enhance the capacity of HR professionals to work as business partners; to develop them into trusted advisors who use the knowledge of business needs, organizational context and HR policy and practices to generate insight and influence decisions. For example, the internal consulting workshop — about which Jefferies still raves — teaches a skills process, which shows participants how to diagnose challenges, collect and analyze data, design options and implement solutions.

For her part, Barker Scott credits the Alberta HR community for its foresight, and for recognizing that HR professionals need to bring thoughtfulness and a strategic perspective to their work.

"A true business partner is someone who brings strong depth and skills so they can facilitate change, so they can get good results from their knowledge of the business, so they can get really good energy and participation from their partners," Barker Scott said.

Current Queen's IRC Director, Paul Juniper, said his Centre custom-designs programs for clients like the Alberta government, a key differentiator in a crowded marketplace of HR professional development.

"The IRC's programming is unique. Programs are designed specially for practitioners, adhering to adult learning principles and practices. Our facilitators are subject matter experts who draw on their own professional experiences, while weaving academic theory and key concepts into the program content. Each program incorporates a variety of learning strategies, including exercises that allow time to reflect on and apply the concepts learned in the classroom," said Juniper.

"This experiential learning is a fundamental component of the IRC's programming; it ensures opportunities for dialogue, discussion, and debate, so that participants can network with and learn from each other. The IRC has a long tradition of excellence and strives to ensure that our programs are relevant, practical, and provide the kind of learning that participants need to address their own workplace challenges."

The result of that learning, Jefferies said, is clear: HR professionals who can better navigate increasingly complex situations.

The change Jefferies has seen in participants conjures to her a favourite quote — "A mind once stretched never returns to its original dimensions" — and a familiar acronym: VUCA.

"If you think about VUCA — about volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity — what we need in the HR world is the vision in the volatility, the understanding we can shape in the uncertainty, the clarity in the complexity, and the actions we can take in the ambiguity," Jefferies said.

"To me, that is how you add value."

For Juniper, the HR Business Partner program is about showing HR practitioners how to move beyond the traditional HR roles, and enlarge their perspectives on what the work is, and what it can be.

"HR professionals have become an integral part of HR management strategy. The IRC is proud to help HR practitioners gain the knowledge and skills they need to be successful in their roles."