The evolution of HRM

A new report argues strategic HRM is increasingly a reality in
organisations, not just a theory. But the original questions asked about HRM
have yet to be answered, writes Stephen Overell

As readers of Personnel Today will know only too well, HRM is not one of
those subjects that has passed unnoticed into the record. Rarely has a drab
little acronym excited such torrents of words.

Over the past 20 years or so of its existence, many have come to the
conclusion that HRM is evil1, akin to necromancy. Attempting to secure the
commitment of employees beyond mere compliance could be immoral. "The
governance of the employee’s soul becomes a more central element in the
corporate strategy for gaining competitive advantage," warned an article
called Strength is Ignorance, Slavery is Freedom in the Journal of Management
Studies in 19932.

Others – notably those who fondly recalled plain ‘personnel management’ –
suggested HRM was unchecked boss-power by another name. How could workers feel
involved in the aims and values of an organisation if that involvement was
wholly on management’s terms? "Is it really possible to claim full
mutuality when at the end of the day the employer can decide unilaterally to
close the company or sell it to someone else," worried Alan Fowler, the
practitioner turned author, in 19873.

Meanwhile, dozens of books were published trying to understand it. HRM was
‘unitarist’ in that it assumed that the interests of employers and employees
could be reconciled. It was ‘individualistic’ because the important link was
between individual and organisation, rather than organisation and union. It
could be ‘hard’, with employees as resources to be exploited in line with
business strategy – a means to an end. But also ‘soft': employees were ‘valued,
adaptable assets’ who gave their best if organisations paid attention to
’empowerment, teambuilding, involvement and culture’. They may be a means to an
end, but it’s about how they are managed and what they get in return. HRM meant
the death of HR function, because it was about devolving responsibility to line
management. But it also meant new life for HR as a business partner.

While the words flew, a hefty body of opinion thought all the others were
wrong and HRM was a purely verbal revolution4. It introduced a new vocabulary –
competence, flexibility, co-operation, quality, learning, etc – and made little
difference to the real world.

Words, words, words. Some 20 years of dispute. And all signifying precisely
nothing if the CIPD’s latest page-turner on strategic HRM is to be believed(5).

"Practitioners have pressed on regardless in the justified belief that
what the academics were writing about had little relevance to their day-to-day
lives as they wrestled with the realities of organisational life. The true
personnel or HR professionals just kept on doing what they had always done but
tried to do it better."

Successfully ignoring the arcane wrangles has helped many organisations
integrate HR and business strategy, maintain Angela Baron and Michael
Armstrong. As a result of this kind of ‘due negligence’, strategic HRM is now a
living phenomenon which is making a significant, measurable and practical
impact on the effectiveness of organisations.

At Coventry Building Society, for example, one of the case studies in the
book, HR director Julian Atkins, sums up the organisation’s HR strategy.
"We wanted to create a clear line of sight between what the business was
trying to achieve and what every individual in the business did, so that we
could harness their collective effort." Many of the other organisations
say all the right things about being a business partner, credibility with senior
management, gaining the respect of line managers and so forth.

Strategic HRM thus directly affects the lives of millions of British
workers. And they seem to like it – or so the book claims. "At the heart
of the model is employee commitment: good people practices – including rigorous
recruitment and selection procedures, extensive training and management
development, incentive pay and performance management systems – generate
greater satisfaction, satisfaction yields greater motivation and greater
motivation in turn is reflected in better performance."

If this is anything like a fair reflection of the situation more widely, it
represents a significant transformation in attitudes. Previous research has
detected only sluggish moves towards integrating HR and strategy, fuelling
academic suspicion that HRM was heavy on the hyperbole. An IPD report in 1995,
for instance, found that just over half of 27 organisations described their HR
function as ‘fairly well’ integrated(6). Baron and Armstrong reckon HRM is now
entrenched.

For HR practitioners, there is little doubt that this is profoundly good
news. Ensuring the best fit between HR practices and strategy has brought
greater prestige and credibility, greater recognition that one way or another
people can be a source of diff- erentiation. It has also brought more clarity
to the role: HR exists to enable organisations "to get from here to
there".

Yet one can’t help feeling the book is a little hard on academics and a
little dismissive of the questions they have raised. Arguing that HRM has
become widely adopted despite some often hostile commentary in no way makes the
questions posed by the literature irrelevant.

Take the debate about whether the adoption of HRM has tilted power towards
employers. Just because surveys have detected higher satisfaction in workplaces
that use strategic HRM does not mean that the interests of workers and
interests of employers have necessarily been reconciled. More like lucky
confluence, perhaps.

And academics are surely right to point out that, potentially, there is a
manipulative strand to HRM. Commitment has become an important buzzword in HR,
but the danger is that employers begin to feel they have an entitlement to it,
instead of having to earn it. When an individual’s advancement can be thwarted
and people can even lose their jobs for not showing the requisite keenness –
‘exhibiting the appropriate behaviours’ is the ghastly phrase – the employment
relationship begins to trespass into dubious psychological territory. Abuse of
the managerial prerogative becomes an active pitfall.

As to a durable definition of HRM, that again is a constantly evolving
debate that needs its theorists just as much as its practitioners. It may mean
more books to plough through, more words to chew on, but in the gung-ho rush
for HRM, the wider questions become bigger and more important than ever.

1 Eg Experiencing Human Resource Management, by C Mabey, D Skinner and T
Clark, Sage 1998
2 Journal of Management Studies, Vol 29, No 6 by H Willmott
3 When Chief Executives Discover HRM by Alan Fowler, Personnel Management,
January 1987
4 Strategic Human Resource Management, by L Gratton, VH Hailey, P Stile, C
Truss, Oxford University Press 1999
5 Strategic HRM: The Key to Improved Business Performance by M Armstrong and A
Baron, CIPD 2002
6 Personnel and the Line by S Hutchinson and S Wood, IPD, 1995

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