The search for the defining characteristics of HRM HR Management

An important part of the debate, both in the USA and in the UK, has been the search for the defining characteristics that will describe, analyse and explain the HRM phenomenon. To a considerable extent this quest has proved largely unresolved because of the wide range of prescriptions and expectations placed upon the term, and the relative lack The search for the defining characteristics of HRM 15 of available evidence to determine systematically whether or not HRM has taken root as a sustainable model of employee management. This difficulty is further compounded if one considers a series of critical questions about human resource management:

  • Is HRM a practitioner-driven process that has attracted a wider audience and prompted subsequent analytical attention?
  • Is HRM an academically derived description of the employment relationship, to which practitioners have subsequently become drawn?
  • Is HRM essentially a prescriptive model of how such a relationship ‘ought’ to be?
  • Is it a ‘leading edge’ approach as to how such a relationship actually ‘is’ within certain types of organisation?

Each of these questions leads the search for the innate qualities of HRM along different routes and towards different conclusions. If the first approach is adopted, then evidence is required that would identify the location, incidence and adoption of defined HRM practices and suggest factors that caused organisations to develop those approaches. The second approach would have to locate the HRM debate in the academic discussion of the employment relationship and demonstrate why this particular variant of analysis emerged.

The third approach would have to explain why, among so many other prescriptions concerning management, the HRM prescription emerged and quite what the distinctive elements were that permitted its prescriptive influence to gain acceptance. The final approach would have to provide satisfactory evidence that, where HRM had developed within certain organisational contexts, the evidence of the particular setting could be applied to the generality of the employment relationship.

However, when these questions have all been taken into account there still remains the residual problem that none of them can conclusively define the nature of HRM in its own terms to the exclusion of each of the others. What are seen as practitioner-derived examples of HRM can be matched by similar policies in non-HRM-espousing organisations; what are seen as academically derived models of HRM are each open to large areas of contention and disagreement between analysts; what are seen as prescriptive models of ‘what ought to be’ might well be just that and no more; and what could be held up as ‘leading edge’ examples could be wholly determined by the particular circumstances of organisations that are either incapable of translation into other contexts, or may indeed be unsustainable within the original organisations as circumstances change. Storey (1992: 30) outlines this competing set of considerations within the debate very clearly.

These considerations have not prevented the active debate about the nature of HRM proceeding with increasing velocity and breadth. A significant division can be noted between those analyses that seek to stress the innovative element of HRM, which is claimed to address the fundamental question of managing employees in new ways and with new perspectives, and those that stress its derivative elements, which are claimed to be no more than a reworking of the traditional themes of personnel management. Thus Walton (1985: 77–84), in attempting definitions of HRM, stresses mutuality between employers and employees:

Beer and Spector (1985) emphasised a different set of assumptions in shaping their meaning of HRM:

  • proactive system-wide interventions, with emphasis on ‘fit’, linking HRM with strategic planning and cultural change;
  • people as social capital capable of development;
  • the potential for developing coincidence of interest between stakeholders;

Mutual goals, mutual influence, mutual respect, mutual rewards, mutual responsibility. The theory is that policies of mutuality will elicit commitment which in turn will yield both better economic performance and greater human development.

  • the search for power equalisation for trust and collaboration;
  • open channels of communication to build trust and commitment;
  • goal orientation;
  • participation and informed choice.

Conversely, some writers, most notably Legge (1989) and Fowler (1987), have commented that personnel management was beginning to emerge as a more strategic function in the late 1970s and early 1980s before the concept was subsumed under the title of HRM, and that in this sense there is little new in HRM practice. However, allowing for problems of definitions and demarcation lines between various conceptions of human resource management, there is little doubt that HRM became a fashionable concept and a controversial subject in the 1980s, with its boundaries very much overlapping the traditional areas of personnel management, industrial relations, organisational behaviour and strategic and operational management. Its emergence created a controversy, which extends through most of the issues that touch on the employment relationship.

Many proponents of HRM argue that it addresses the centrality of employees in the organisation, and that their motivation and commitment to the organisational goals need to be nurtured. While this is by no means a new concept, the HRM perspective would claim at least to present a different perspective on this issue, namely that a range of organisational objectives have been arranged in a strategic way to enhance the performance of employees in achieving these goals. Before examining these arguments in more detail, a brief account of the origins and recent historical development of HRM would be appropriate in order to understand why it emerged when and as it did.


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