Human Resource Management

Human resource management (HRM) has various definitions, but in the main there are two general approaches. The first descriptive approach states that HRM is the managing of employees and human assets at work and within the organization in an integrated and coherent manner. The second approach elaborates this further by stating that HRM is distinct to previous forms of personnel administration in being proactive and therefore strategic: it concerns itself with soliciting higher forms of employee commitment and motivation. It is therefore both a relationship with organizations and a dedicated field of academic inquiry that has developed under this heading since the early 1980s.

Intellectually, HRM draws from various academic disciplines and subdisciplines, which in turn vary according to its distinct national contexts. Firstly, HRM derives from both traditional personnel management and labor/ industrial relations as an area concerned with the question of employee control, cooperation, and commitment. It has, however, managed to constitute itself as something distinct to these two dimensions, with key proponents arguing it is more individualistic, strategic, and performance driven in orientation and not “reactive” or collectively underpinned. Hence, the role of occupational psychology has dovetailed into discussions on HRM regarding leadership and motivation, for example, and even matters of occupational health. Secondly, there is an economics tradition within HRM studies which is very much drawn from labor economics and concerns itself with matters concerning the relation between HRM processes and out comes, as well as the subject of changing (flexible) labor markets and their relation with the HRM strategies of firms. Thirdly, there is a sociological trajectory which concerns itself with employment matters and management-employee-trade union relations within the workplace, and the broader composition of the workforce.

Human resource management is therefore a multidisciplinary area of analysis in terms of its academic context. It is a highly “populated” subject in terms of academic researchers, in the main due to the prevalence of business schools within the academy during the past two decades. There has also been an increasing demand from a practitioner perspective for information and guidance. This demand has come from organizations seeking greater flexibility in their workplaces, greater employee commitment, and developments in the capabilities of employees (e.g., the move from technical skills to communication and social skills). These demands have been driven by a range of changes in product markets, competitive strategies, the structure of the firm, the competitive challenge through the globalization of economies, social changes and employee demands, and the changing context of regulation.

The topic is based on a growing belief that competitive success increasingly depends on securing more from employees in terms of commitment and resources rather than passive compliance to managerial instruction. The topics that have emerged were best described by Walton (1985), who argued that future competitive success required the eliciting of commitment rather than the imposing of control. There were five “pillars” to this:

  1. High commitment or high involvement management: hence the increasing interest in forms of involvement and participation at work of a direct nature through team briefings and not just intermediaries such as trade unions.
  2. Employee development: the emergence of the human resource development field with its interest in new forms of skills such as communication and interactive skills – seen as essential for service delivery in a service economy.
  3. An emphasis on the individual employee: this dovetails with the manner in which reward and performance management systems begin to constitute the employee more as an individual and less as part of a collective.
  4. An emphasis on leadership both at the senior and workplace levels: the changing nature of leadership through the proliferation of coaching and communication skills.
  5. An adoption of a more ”strategic approach” to HRM, which can take two forms in terms of (1) ”internal fit” (i.e., that there is a consistent link and planned approach to the way elements outlined above are tied together around a ”vision”) and in terms of (2) ”external fit” (which has this strategy linked to the needs and demands of the product market and external environment in a more responsive manner).

There emerged approaches that referenced such developments in terms such as ”hard” and “soft” HRM. Normally, these were equated with the work of such American schools of HRM as Michigan (“hard”) and Harvard (“soft”). The first approach is more drawn to questions of control and direction (e.g., the role of cultural imposition of values and surveillance) and the second to a more negotiated approach based on involving stakeholders in the elaboration of strategy. These approaches have been nourished by the development of total quality management, with its emphasis on performance management on the one hand and employee involvement in matters related to service quality on the other.

HRM has expanded as an area of study in part due to the manner in which it is seen as being less a department or management identity/profession, and more a feature of all managerial functions. It remains an integral feature of core management education at various levels, although it has not always been able to rival the strategic popularity of areas such ”change management,” and especially marketing, within the confines of the business school tradition.

There are two schools of thought and practice. One sees HRM as a series of techniques and practices which are transferable across time: the much feted emergence of the Japanese model of HRM during the 1980s and early 1990s with its emphasis on team working, employee commitment, and performance management, has been integrated by an Anglo Saxon model which prioritizes employment flexibility, financial control, and greater customer awareness. Both these models were seen as being transferable to other contexts in their attempts to develop competitive economies through labor management policies. The second school of thought is increasingly concerned with context – both regulatory and, to a greater extent, cultural. Hence the idea of prescribing models and strategies is increasingly being confronted with an emergent interest in environmental/regulatory constraint and mediation. Thus, questions of convergence are being discussed in relation to questions of divergence/ contingency/context.

This is being mirrored in the debate on organizational culture and the emergent interest in the historical narratives of the firm. Not only are external national, economic, and cultural perspectives a focus of analysis; internal cultural and organizational specificities and identities have also emerged as a source of study and intrigue which mediate the nature and content of HRM.

There are traditions within the study of HRM in recent years that also draw attention to the way management strategies are con strained and even mediated by the question of employee rights. The issue of diversity has begun to impact on the HRM debate as the tradition of equal opportunities and legal intervention has been complemented by the organizational utilization of employees and their socially diverse characteristics in the form of the discourse of ”managing diversity.” HRM debates have placed great store on the fact that such issues as gender and ethnicity rights can be enhanced for social and economic gain, leading to the building of a business case for a diverse workforce. This business case is also apparent in the question of partnership, and a renewed interest in a form of cooperation between management and unions/employees based on the mutual gains both ”sides” can achieve through a dialogue which removes traditional forms of adversarialism of a class nature and replaces it with a common alliance and strategy. Such developments, in the terms of representation and rights within HRM, are hotly disputed due to their slow progress, the concern with real gains for employees, and the nature of employer motives regarding social and representational issues (Kochan & Oster man 1994; Martinez Lucio 2004).

Current work is broad and research is expanding rapidly in the area due to the sheer scale of researchers within business schools and the dominance of consultancy practices. There are very broad sets of developments: the main ones are as follows. Firstly, there is growing interest in taking the question of ”fit” discussed above and modeling it and studying it through quantitative research methods. This is known as the ”bundles” approach, which aims to establish the ingredients that ensure effective HRM strategies and which allow for a match between product market pressures and HRM ”recipes.” This has its own political dynamics as a feature of HRM in that there are concerns about the extent to which employee involvement and trade unions are part of such recipes in leading edge firms. There are various firm specific approaches and national/geographical studies aimed at substantiating such links. Hence, a more qualitative approach to this subject in the form of the mutual gains approach (Kochan & Ostermann 1994) attempts to establish the role of labor – collectively and individually – as a key factor in ensuring greater quality and contentment at work and in terms of production.

Another departure is the question of meaning (i.e., the meaning of HRM in terms of its rhetoric, its contingent qualities, and its tendency to be more of a cultural and political veil than a measurable reality in terms of increasing levels of skill formation and involvement). In this respect there are studies and overviews aimed at revealing the rhetorical and political qualities of HRM (Legge 2004), its tendency to be driven by an imperative for control as suggested by the increasing levels of surveillance at work (which has drawn interest from Marxist and postmodernist accounts), and, with regards to postmodernism, the way HRM strategies have attempted to construct employees ideologically in a variety of manipulative ways. In turn, studies are showing that such strategies often lead to new forms of contestation and resistance – and even misbehavior (Ackroyd & Thompson 2000). Hence, there is a growing preoccupation with issues of employee dignity and work-life balance due to the pressure brought by HRM strategies.

There are fundamental tensions in the study of change and HRM, especially in relation to research methodology. The first is the tension between prescriptive studies of HRM which are common in the managerialist and guru/fad literature, with its recommendations as to what managers and organizations should do with regards to issues such as commitment, and the more descriptive and explanatory literature (Huczynski 1993). This tension is played out in terms of the practitioner dimension of the discipline and the academic end, with the former tending to reproduce itself in business schools, especially when there is no critical dimension or tradition present among HRM staff. The second tension revolves around quantitative and qualitative approaches. Increasingly, the dominance of North American academic paradigms means that organizational change and the evolution of HRM is understood through a quantitative prism and the concern with strategic and organizational factors regarding issues of “fit” -both internal and external. Whereas qualitative research has focused on the more contradictory and contingent nature of change; it has also drawn attention, increasingly, to the distinct meanings of management processes and practices. Moreover, there are severe disputes between the sociological and economic perspectives on the one hand, with their interest in social relations and regulation, and psychological perspectives on the other, with their emphasis on distinct methodological concerns and research questions based on the individual.

The comparative agenda is the main challenge to the future research on HRM. Models of analysis still default to cultural perspectives or regulatory traditions of analysis. Mapping varieties of HRM at the macro and micro level is a major development, in part driven by the concern with efficient and “better” models of people management and by a cartographic desire to see if there are common features emerging in the way people are managed.

This is paralleled by a broad diffusion of interest in the changing nature of the firm as a space within which HRM strategies are elaborated. Firstly, with regards to spatial boundaries, there is the increasing internationalization of the firm. The development of transnational corporations brings the question of “fit” and employee management across boundaries up against the question of national regulatory and cultural context. Secondly, the firm’s boundaries are changing in organizational terms: the impact of decentralization, subcontracting, and ICT means that the jurisdiction of management is mediated and influenced by a broader set of sub actors. This has led to a growing interest in the role of social and corporate networks in the study of the firm, and inevitably to questions of social capital, transaction costs, and organizational coordination. There is also a third feature to this boundary issue in terms of the relation between HRM and other areas such as marketing, with its interest in communication/branding/ethics, and information management, for example, calling on academics to appreciate the interactive nature of management processes in an age of IT and image.

Finally, regardless of the initial talk of a break from traditional stakeholders and forms of organization there is an ongoing concern with (1) the sociological characteristics of management and employees (e.g., in terms of gender and ethnicity), (2) the challenge of cooperation and involvement, and (3) the ethical framework of the firm. The ethical dimension in terms of the role of corporate social responsibility within the firm is a major aspect of current concern.


  1. Ackroyd, S. & Thompson, P. (2000) Organizational Misbehaviour. Sage, London.
  2. Huczynski, A. (1993) Management Gurus. Routledge, London.
  3. Kochan, T. A. & Osterman, P. (1994) The Mutual Gains Enterprise: Forging a Winning Partnership Among Labor, Management and Government. Harvard University Press, Boston.
  4. Legge, K. (2004) Human Resource Management. Pal­grave, London.
  5. Martinez Lucio, M. (2004) Swimming Against the Tide: Social Partnership, Mutual Gains and the Revival of “Tired” HRM. International Journal of Human Resource Management 15(2): 404-18.
  6. Walton, R. (1985) From Control to Commitment in the Workplace. Harvard Business Review (March/ April): 77-84.

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