In the past 20 years or so, the management of people within organisations has moved from the sidelines to centre stage. The contribution that human resources may make to an organisation’s performance and effectiveness has become the subject of much scrutiny. Much of this change has been linked to changes in the business environment, with the impact of globalisation leading to the need for increased competitiveness, flexibility, responsiveness, quality and the need for all functions of the business to demonstrate their contribution to the bottom line.
As we have already recognised, it is against this backdrop that the traditional separation between strategy and operational activities, such as personnel and then HRM, has become blurred, particularly in a knowledge-based age. There is confusion over the differentiation between human resource management and strategic human resource management. Part of the reason for this confusion will be familiar to you, as it arises from the varying stances of the literature, those of prescription, description or critical evaluation. Some writers see the two terms as synonymous (Mabey et al., 1998), while others consider there to be differences. A wealth of literature has appeared to prescribe, describe and critically evaluate the way organisations manage their human resources.
It has evolved from being highly critical of the personnel function’s contribution to the organisation as being weak, non-strategic and lacking a theoretical base (Drucker, 1968; Watson, 1977; Legge, 1978; Purcell, 1985), through the development of human resource management models and frameworks (Beer et al., 1984; Fombrun et al., 1984; Schuler and Jackson, 1987; Guest, 1987), to critics of the HRM concept who question the empirical, ethical, theoretical and practical base of the subject (Legge, 1995; Keenoy, 1990; Blyton and Turnbull, 1992; Keenoy and Anthony, 1992), to a wave of strategic human resource management literature focusing on the link or vertical integration between human resource practices and an organisation’s business strategy, in order to enhance performance (Schuler and Jackson, 1987; Kochan and Barocci, 1985; Miles and Snow, 1984), and on the relationship between best-practice or high-commitment HR practices and organisational performance (Pfeffer, 1994, 1998; Huselid, 1995; MacDuffie, 1995; Guest, 2001).
Confusion arises because embedded in much of the HRM literature is the notion of strategic integration (Guest, 1987; Beer et al., 1984; Fombrun et al., 1984), but critics have been quick to note the difference between the rhetoric of policy statements and the reality of action (Legge, 1995) and the somewhat piecemeal adoption of HRM practices (Storey, 1992, 1995) and the ingrained ambiguity of a number of these models (Keenoy, 1990; Blyton and Turnbull, 1992). Thus, while the early HRM literature appeared to emphasise a strategic theme, there was much critical evaluation that demonstrated its lack of strategic integration. Thus terms such as ‘old wine in new bottles’ became a familiar explanation for the development of personnel to HRM and then to SHRM.
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