The news that GlaxoSmithkline (GSK) is restructuring its research capabilities is very interesting from an organisational and HR point of view.
The decision to arrange its applied research into separate departments, each focusing on different therapeutic areas, is a fundamental readjustment. The move is reminiscent of BP's decision in the 1990s to break its exploration division into about 50 separate business units, each responsible for a different field of oil or gas.
GSK's restructure is an effort to create more output and a stronger pipeline from its research facilities. The underlying rationale is that the best way to develop new pharmaceutical products is by fostering specialist skills in small, dedicated units. Each will have clear targets and accountabilities, with the autonomy to decide how best to deliver.
For specialist units to thrive, they must either be arranged independently, or at least have sufficient flexibility within the corporate set-up. There is often a danger of suppressing or damaging activities if they fall outside the mainstream corporate culture. Flexing corporate policies and procedures and giving specialist units certain unique powers offers a degree of protection against this problem.
But while separate or autonomous units have the potential to create improved business results and return on investment, undoubtedly they also present certain difficulties for HR in terms of common policies, training and development, and co-ordination with other sections of the company.
The flip-side of specialisation is that synergy and co-ordination benefits can be lost.
The challenge for HR practitioners is to develop policies and activities that can be implemented across the whole organisation - but only if they do not constrain the separate specialised units.
There is nearly always a trade-off between the need for specialisation and co-ordination within the boundaries of a corporation.
In the 1980s, IBM successfully established a separate PC division away from the main corporate centre. When faced with performance problems in the 1990s, commentators said IBM should split the whole company into separate units, based on the 1980s solution. But Lou Gerstner recognised IBM's future lay in providing integrated customer solutions. Thus a combination of specialisation in product divisions and co-ordination through global sales and services became the ke