Human Resource Management In Context Introduction HR Management

An event seen from one point-of-view gives one impression. Seen from another point-ofview it gives quite a different impression. But it’s only when you get the whole picture you fully understand what’s going on. The need to be aware of the context of human affairs was demonstrated dramatically in this prize-winning advertisement for the Guardian newspaper that is still remembered today. We can easily misinterpret facts, events and people when we examine them out of context, for it is their context that provides us with the clues necessary to enable us to understand them.

Context locates them in space and time and gives them a past and a future, as well as the present that we see. It gives us the language to understand them, the codes to decode them, the keys to their meaning. This chapter will carry forward your thinking about the issues raised in Chapter by exploring the various strands within the context of HRM that are woven together to form the pattern of meanings that constitute it. As that chapter explained, and the rest of the book will amplify, HRM is far more than a portfolio of policies, practices, procedures and prescriptions concerned with the management of the employment relationship.

It is this, but more. And because it is more, it is loosely defined and difficult to pin down precisely, a basket of multiple, overlapping and shifting meanings, which users of the term do not always specify. Its ‘brilliant ambiguity’ (Keenoy, 1990) derives from the context in which it is embedded, a context within which there are multiple and often competing perspectives upon the employment relationship, some ideological, others theoretical, some conceptual. HRM is inevitably a contested terrain, and the various definitions of it reflect this.

From the various models of HRM in Chapter , you will recognise that the context of HRM is a highly complex one, not just because of its increasing diversity and dynamism, but also because it is multi-layered. The organisation constitutes the immediate context of the employment relationship, and it is here that the debate over how this relationship should be managed begins. The nature of organisation and the tensions between the stakeholders in it give rise to issues that have to be addressed by managers: for example, choices about how to orchestrate the activities of organisational members and whose interests to serve. Beyond the organisation itself lie the economic, social, political and cultural layers, and beyond them again the historical, national and global layers of context. Considerable change is taking place within those layers, making the whole field dynamic. It is not the purpose of this chapter to register these many changes; you will become aware of some of them as you read the remainder of this book.

However, we need to note here that the events and changes in the wider context have repercussions for organisations, and present further issues to be managed and choices to be made. The various layers and the elements within them, however, exist in more than one conceptual plane. One has a concrete nature, like a local pool of labour, and the other is abstract, like the values and stereotypes that prejudice employers for or against a particular class of person in the labour market.

The abstract world of ideas and values overlays the various layers of the context of HRM: the ways of organising society, of acquiring and using power, and of distributing resources; the ways of relating to, understanding and valuing human beings and their activities; the ways of studying and understanding reality and of acquiring knowledge; the stocks of accumulated knowledge in theories and concepts.

It is the argument of this chapter that to understand HRM we need to be aware not just of the multiple layers of its context – rather like the skins of an onion – but also of these conceptual planes and the way they intersect. Hence, ‘context’ is being used here to mean more than the surrounding circumstances that exert ‘external influences’ on a given topic: context gives them a third dimension. The chapter is arguing, further, that events and experiences, ideas and ideologies are not discrete and isolatable, but are interwoven and interconnected, and that HRM itself is embedded in that context: it is part of that web and cannot, therefore, be meaningfully examined separately from it. Context is highly significant yet, as we shall see, very difficult to study.

Conceptualising and representing context

How can we begin to understand anything that is embedded in a complex context? We seem to have awareness at an intuitive level, perceiving and acting upon the clues that context gives to arrive at the ‘tacit knowledge’. However, context challenges our formal thinking. First, we cannot stand back to take in the complete picture, which has traditionally been one way to gain objective knowledge of a situation. Because we are ourselves part of our context, as defined in this chapter, it is not possible for us to obtain a detached perspective upon it.

In that respect we are like the fish in water that ‘can have no understanding of the concept of “wetness” since it has no idea of what it means to be dry’ (Southgate and Randall, 1981: 54). However, humans are very different from the ‘fish in water’. We can be reflexive, recognising what our perspective is and what its implications are; open, seeking out and recognising other people’s perspectives; and critical, entering into a dialogue with others’ views and interrogating our own in the light of others’, and vice versa.

The ‘stop and think’ boxes, activities and exercises throughout the chapter are there to encourage you in this direction. Second, we need the conceptual tools to grasp the wholeness (and dynamic nature) of the picture. To understand a social phenomenon such as HRM, we cannot just wrench it from its context and examine it microscopically in isolation. To do this is to be like the child who digs up the newly planted and now germinating seed to see ‘whether it is growing’. In the same way, if we analyse context into its various elements and layers, then we are already distorting our understanding of it, because it is an indivisible whole.

Rather, we have to find ways to examine HRM’s interconnectedness and interdependence with other phenomena. The study of context, therefore, is no easy task, and poses a major challenge to our established formal, detached, and analytical ways of thinking. Nevertheless, as we shall discuss later in this chapter, there are ways forward that enable us to conceptualise the many loops and circularities of these complex interrelationships in an often dynamic context.

Meanwhile, we shall try to conceptualise context through metaphor: that is, envisage it in terms of something concrete that we already understand. We have already used the metaphor of the many-skinned onion to depict the multiple layers of context, but we need another metaphor to suggest its interconnectedness and texture. We could, therefore, think of it as a tapestry. This is a ‘thick hand-woven textile fabric in which design is formed by weft stitches across parts of warp’ (Concise OED, 1982).

The warp threads run the length of the tapestry, the weft are the lateral threads that weave through the warp to give colour, pattern and texture. This metaphor helps us to visualize how interwoven and interrelated are the various elements of the context of HRM, both the concrete and the abstract; and how the pattern of HRM itself is woven into them. In terms of this metaphor, our ways of seeing and thinking about our world – the assumptions we make about our reality – could be said to be the warp, the threads which run the length of the tapestry contributing to its basic form and texture.

Ideologies and the rhetoric through which they are expressed – ways of defining reality for other people are the weft threads that weave through the warp threads, and give the tapestry pattern and texture. Events, people, ephemeral issues are the stitches that form the surface patterns and texture of HRM. We see this in Figure. In the case of the context of HRM, this tapestry is being woven continuously from threads of different colours and textures. At times one colour predominates, but then peters out. In parts of the tapestry patterns may be intentionally fashioned, while observers believe they can discern a recognisable pattern in other parts.

This metaphor again reminds us that an analytical approach to the study of context, which would take it apart to examine it closely, would be like taking a tapestry to bits: we would be left with threads. The tapestry itself inheres in the whole, not its parts. How, then, can the chapter begin to communicate the nature of this tapestry without destroying its very essence through analysis? The very representation of our thinking in written language is linear, and this undermines our ability to communicate a dynamic, interrelated complexity clearly and succinctly.

We need to think in terms of ‘rich pictures’, ‘mindmaps’, or ‘systems diagrams’ (Checkland, 1981; Senge, 1990; Cameron, 1997). It is not feasible nor, indeed, necessary to attempt to portray the whole tapestry in detail; the chapter will focus instead upon a number of strands that run through it. You will be able to identify and follow them through the remainder of the book, and observe how their interweaving gives us changes in pattern and colour, some distinct, others subtle. Before beginning to read the exposition of the context of HRM, you will find it helpful to carry out the following activity.

The concepts and language needed to understand context

To understand context, it has been suggested so far, we need to recognise its wholeness. We therefore need to incorporate both the concrete world and the world of abstract ideas. Although the appropriate language to enable us to do this may be largely unfamiliar to you, you will find that you already have considerable understanding of the concepts it expresses. Your own experience of thinking about and responding to one aspect of context – the natural, physical environment – will have given you the basic concepts that we are using and a useful set of ‘hooks’ upon which to hang the ideas that this chapter will introduce to you.

It would be helpful to your understanding of this chapter, therefore, if you examined some of the ‘hooks’ you are already using, and perhaps clarify and refine them. (In this way, as Chapter explains, the new material can be more effectively transferred now into, and later retrieved from, your long-term memory.) Carry out the exercise at the end of the chapter. This will focus your thinking and enable you to recognise that you already have the ‘hooks’ you will need to classify the material of this chapter in a meaningful way and increase your understanding of the nature of the context of HRM. It will show you that, although you may not necessarily use the terminology below, from your present knowledge of the environment you already recognise that:

  • Context is multi-layered, multidimensional, and interwoven. In it, concrete events and abstract ideas intertwine to create issues; thinking, feeling, interpreting and behaving are all involved. It is like the tapestry described above.
  • Our understanding depends upon our perspective.
  • It also depends upon our ideology.
  • Different groups in society have their own interpretations of events, stemming from their ideology. There are therefore competing or contested interpretations of events.
  • These groups use rhetoric to express their own, and account for competing, interpretations, thus distorting, or even suppressing, the authentic expression of competing views.
  • Powerful others often try to impose their interpretations of events, their version of reality, upon the less powerful majority: this is hegemony.

The metaphor of tapestry to convey HRM in context

This subsection has perhaps given you a new language to describe what you already understand well. You will find some of these terms in the Glossary at the end of this book, and their definitions will be amplified in later sections of this chapter as it continues its exploration of the context of HRM.


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