The notion of best-practice or ‘high-commitment’ HRM was identified initially in the early US models of HRM, many of which mooted the idea that the adoption of certain ‘best’ human resource practices would result in enhanced organisational performance, manifested in improved employee attitudes and behaviours, lower levels of absenteeism and turnover, higher levels of skills and therefore higher productivity, enhanced quality and efficiency. This can be identified as a key theme in the development of the SHRM debate, that of best-practice SHRM or universalism.
Here, it is argued that all organizations will benefit and see improvements in organisational performance if they identify, gain commitment to and implement a set of best-HRM practices. Since the early work of Beer et al. (1984) and Guest (1987), there has been much work done on defining sets of HR practices that enhance organisational performance.
These models of best practice can take many forms; while some have advocated a universal set of HR practices that would enhance the performance of all organisations to which they were applied (Pfeffer, 1994, 1998), others have focused on high-commitment models (Walton, 1985; Guest 2001) and high-involvement practices (Wood, 1999) which reflect an underlying assumption that a strong commitment to the organisational goals and values will provide competitive advantage.
Others have focused on ‘high-performance work systems/ practices (Berg, 1999; Applebaum et al., 2000). This work has been accompanied by a growing body of research exploring the relationship between these ‘sets of HR practices’ and organisational performance (Pfeffer, 1994; Huselid, 1995; Huselid and Becker, 1996; Patterson et al., 1997; Guest, 2001). Although there is a wealth of literature advocating the best-practice approach, with supporting empirical evidence, it is still difficult to reach generalised conclusions from these studies.
This is mainly as a result of conflicting views about what constitutes an ideal set of HR best practices, whether or not they should be horizontally integrated into ‘bundles’ that fit the organisational context and the contribution that these sets of HR practices can make to organizational performance.
One of the models most commonly cited is Pfeffer’s (1994) 16 HR practices for ‘competitive advantage through people’ which he revised to seven practices for ‘building profits by putting people first’ in 1998. These have been adapted for the UK audience by Marchington and Wilkinson (2002).
Pfeffer (1994) explains how changes in the external environment have reduced the impact of traditional sources of competitive advantage, and increased the significance of new sources of competitive advantage, namely human resources that enable an organization to adapt and innovate. Pfeffer’s relevance in a European context has been questioned owing to his lack of commitment to independent worker representation and joint regulation (Boxall and Purcell, 2003), hence Marchington and Wilkinson’s adaptation, highlighted in Table.
HR practices for ‘competitive advantage through people’
With the universalist approach or ‘ideal set of practices’ (Guest, 1997), the concern is with how close organisations can get to the ideal set of practices, the hypothesis being that the closer an organisation gets, the better the organization will perform, in terms of higher productivity, service levels and profitability. The role of Human Resources, therefore, becomes one of identifying and gaining senior management commitment to a set of HR best practices, and ensuring that they are implemented and that reward is distributed accordingly.
The first difficulty with the best-practice approach is the variation in what constitutes best practice. Agreement on the underlying principles of the best-practice approach is reflected in Youndt et al.’s (1996: 839) summary below: Lists of best practices, however, vary intensely in their constitution and in their relationship to organisational performance. A sample of these variations is provided in Table. This results in confusion about which particular HR practices constitute high commitment, and a lack of empirical evidence and ‘theoretical rigour’ (Guest 1987: 267) to support their universal application. Capelli and Crocker-Hefter (1996: 7) note:
A key theme that emerges in relation to best-practice HRM is that individual practices cannot be implemented effectively in isolation (Storey, 1992) but rather combining them into integrated and complementary bundles is crucial (MacDuffie, 1995). Thus the notion of achieving horizontal integration within and between HR practices gains significance in the best-practice debate.
HR practices for ‘competitive advantage through people’
The need for horizontal integration in the application of SHRM principles is one element that is found in the configurational school of thought, the resource-based view approach and in certain best-practice models. It emphasises the coordination and congruence between HR practices, through ‘a pattern of planned action’ (Wright and McMahan, 1999). In the configurational school, cohesion is thought likely to create synergistic benefits, which in turn enable the organisation’s strategic goals to be met.
Roche (1999: 669), in his study on Irish organisations, noted that ‘organisations with a relatively high degree of integration of human resource strategy into business strategy are much more likely to adopt commitment-oriented bundles of HRM practices’. Where some of the best-practice models differ is in those that advocate the ‘universal’ application of SHRM, notably Pfeffer (1994, 1998). Pfeffer’s argument is that best practice may be used in any organisation, irrespective of product life cycle, market situation or workforce characteristics, and improved performance will ensue.
This approach ignores potentially significant differences between organisations, industries, sectors and countries however. The work of Delery and Doty (1996) has highlighted the complex relationship between the management of human resources and organisational performance, and their research supports the contingency approach (Schuler and Jackson, 1987) in indicating that there are some key HR practices, specifically internal career opportunities, results-oriented appraisals and participation/ voice, that must be aligned with the business strategy or, in other words, be context-specific.
The ‘bundles’ approach, however, is additive, and accepts that as long as there is a core of integrated high-commitment practices, other practices can be added or ignored, and still produce enhanced performance. Guest et al.’s analysis of the WERS data (2000a: 15), however, found that the ‘only combination of practices that made any sense was a straightforward count of all the practices’. As with many high-commitment-based models, there is an underlying assumption of unitarism, which ignores the inherent pluralist values and tensions present in many organisations. Coupled with further criticisms of context avoidance and assumed rationality etween implementation and performance, the best-practice advocates, particularly the universalists, are not without their critics.
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