A new report argues strategic HRM is increasingly a reality inorganisations, not just a theory. But the original questions asked about HRMhave yet to be answered, writes Stephen OverellAs readers of Personnel Today will know only too well, HRM is not one ofthose subjects that has passed unnoticed into the record. Rarely has a drablittle acronym excited such torrents of words. Over the past 20 years or so of its existence, many have come to theconclusion that HRM is evil1, akin to necromancy. Attempting to secure thecommitment of employees beyond mere compliance could be immoral. “Thegovernance of the employee’s soul becomes a more central element in thecorporate strategy for gaining competitive advantage,” warned an articlecalled Strength is Ignorance, Slavery is Freedom in the Journal of ManagementStudies in 19932. Others – notably those who fondly recalled plain ‘personnel management’ –suggested HRM was unchecked boss-power by another name. How could workers feelinvolved in the aims and values of an organisation if that involvement waswholly on management’s terms? “Is it really possible to claim fullmutuality when at the end of the day the employer can decide unilaterally toclose the company or sell it to someone else,” worried Alan Fowler, thepractitioner 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 employeescould be reconciled. It was ‘individualistic’ because the important link wasbetween individual and organisation, rather than organisation and union. Itcould be ‘hard’, with employees as resources to be exploited in line withbusiness 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 anend, but it’s about how they are managed and what they get in return. HRM meantthe death of HR function, because it was about devolving responsibility to linemanagement. 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 werewrong and HRM was a purely verbal revolution4. It introduced a new vocabulary –competence, flexibility, co-operation, quality, learning, etc – and made littledifference to the real world. Words, words, words. Some 20 years of dispute. And all signifying preciselynothing if the CIPD’s latest page-turner on strategic HRM is to be believed(5).”Practitioners have pressed on regardless in the justified belief thatwhat the academics were writing about had little relevance to their day-to-daylives as they wrestled with the realities of organisational life. The truepersonnel or HR professionals just kept on doing what they had always done buttried to do it better.” Successfully ignoring the arcane wrangles has helped many organisationsintegrate HR and business strategy, maintain Angela Baron and MichaelArmstrong. As a result of this kind of ‘due negligence’, strategic HRM is now aliving phenomenon which is making a significant, measurable and practicalimpact on the effectiveness of organisations. At Coventry Building Society, for example, one of the case studies in thebook, HR director Julian Atkins, sums up the organisation’s HR strategy.”We wanted to create a clear line of sight between what the business wastrying to achieve and what every individual in the business did, so that wecould harness their collective effort.” Many of the other organisationssay all the right things about being a business partner, credibility with seniormanagement, gaining the respect of line managers and so forth. Strategic HRM thus directly affects the lives of millions of Britishworkers. And they seem to like it – or so the book claims. “At the heartof the model is employee commitment: good people practices – including rigorousrecruitment and selection procedures, extensive training and managementdevelopment, incentive pay and performance management systems – generategreater satisfaction, satisfaction yields greater motivation and greatermotivation in turn is reflected in better performance.” If this is anything like a fair reflection of the situation more widely, itrepresents a significant transformation in attitudes. Previous research hasdetected only sluggish moves towards integrating HR and strategy, fuellingacademic 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 HRfunction as ‘fairly well’ integrated(6). Baron and Armstrong reckon HRM is nowentrenched. For HR practitioners, there is little doubt that this is profoundly goodnews. Ensuring the best fit between HR practices and strategy has broughtgreater prestige and credibility, greater recognition that one way or anotherpeople can be a source of diff- erentiation. It has also brought more clarityto the role: HR exists to enable organisations “to get from here tothere”. Yet one can’t help feeling the book is a little hard on academics and alittle dismissive of the questions they have raised. Arguing that HRM hasbecome widely adopted despite some often hostile commentary in no way makes thequestions posed by the literature irrelevant. Take the debate about whether the adoption of HRM has tilted power towardsemployers. Just because surveys have detected higher satisfaction in workplacesthat use strategic HRM does not mean that the interests of workers andinterests of employers have necessarily been reconciled. More like luckyconfluence, perhaps. And academics are surely right to point out that, potentially, there is amanipulative 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 thwartedand people can even lose their jobs for not showing the requisite keenness –‘exhibiting the appropriate behaviours’ is the ghastly phrase – the employmentrelationship begins to trespass into dubious psychological territory. Abuse ofthe managerial prerogative becomes an active pitfall. As to a durable definition of HRM, that again is a constantly evolvingdebate that needs its theorists just as much as its practitioners. It may meanmore books to plough through, more words to chew on, but in the gung-ho rushfor HRM, the wider questions become bigger and more important than ever. 1 Eg Experiencing Human Resource Management, by C Mabey, D Skinner and TClark, 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, CTruss, Oxford University Press 1999 5 Strategic HRM: The Key to Improved Business Performance by M Armstrong and ABaron, CIPD 2002 6 Personnel and the Line by S Hutchinson and S Wood, IPD, 1995 Related posts:No related photos. Previous Article Next Article The evolution of HRMOn 4 Jun 2002 in Personnel Today Comments are closed.