The wider context of HRM HR Management

Defining the wider context

The definition of the wider context of HRM could embrace innumerable topics (from, for example, the Industrial Revolution to globalisation) and a long time perspective (from the organisation of labour in prehistoric constructions, such as Stonehenge, onwards). Such a vast range, however, could only have been covered in a perfunctory manner here, which would have rendered the exercise relatively valueless. It is more appropriate to give examples of some of the influential elements and how they affect HRM, and to encourage you to identify others for yourself.

Echoes from the wider context

Here the focus will be on distant events from the socio-political sphere that have nevertheless influenced the management of the employment relationship and still do so indirectly. Although what follows is not a complete analysis of these influences, it illustrates how the field of HRM resonates with events and ideas from its wider context.

  • The First and Second World Wars

    The two world wars, though distant in time and removed from the area of activity of HRM, have nevertheless influenced it in clearly identifiable and very important ways, some direct and some indirect. These effects can be classified in terms of changed attitudes of managers to labour, changed labour management practices, the development of personnel techniques, and the development of the personnel profession. We shall now examine these, and then note how some outcomes of the Second World War continue, indirectly, to influence HRM.

    • Changed attitudes of managers to labour

      According to Child (1969: 44), the impact of the First World War upon industry hastened changes in attitudes to the control of the workplace that had begun before 1914. The development of the shop stewards’ movement during the war increased demand for workers’ control; there was growing ‘censure of older and harsher methods of managing labour’.

      The recognition of the need for improved working conditions in munitions factories was continued in the postwar reconstruction debates: Child (1969) quotes a Ministry of Reconstruction pamphlet that advised that ‘the good employer profits by his “goodness”’. The outcome of these various changes was a greater democratisation of the workplace (seen, for example, in works councils) and, for ‘a number of prominent employers’, a willingness ‘to renounce autocratic methods of managing employees’ and ‘to treat labour on the basis of human rather than commodity market criteria’.

      These new values became incorporated in what was emerging as a distinctive body of management thought, practice and ideology (see Glossary and later section on ‘Ways of seeing and thinking’), upon which later theory and practice are founded. Changed labour management practices The need to employ and deploy labour effectively led to increased attention to working conditions and practices during both wars; the changes that were introduced then continued, and interacted with other social changes that ensued after the wars (Child, 1969).

      For example, the Health of Munitions Workers Committee, which encouraged the systematic study of human factors in stress and fatigue in the munitions factories during the First World War, was succeeded in 1918 by the Industrial Fatigue Research Board (DSIR, 1961; Child, 1969; Rose, 1978). During the postwar reconstruction period progressive employers advocated minimum wage levels, shorter working hours and improved security of tenure (Child, 1969).

      ‘The proper use of manpower whether in mobilizing the nation or sustaining the war economy once reserves of strength were fully deployed’ was national policy during the Second World War (Moxon, 1951). As examples of this policy, Moxon cites the parttime employment of married women, the growth of factory medical services, canteens, day nurseries and special leave of absence.

    • The development of personnel techniques

      Both wars encouraged the application of psychological techniques to selection and training, and stimulated the development of new approaches. Rose (1978: 92) suggests that, in 1917, the American army tested two million men to identify ‘subnormals and officer material’. Seymour (1959) writes of the Second World War:

      The wars further influenced the development of the ergonomic design of equipment, and encouraged the collaboration of engineers, psychologists and other social scientists (DSIR, 1961). The exigencies of war ensured that attention and resources were focused upon activities that are of enormous significance to the field of employment, while the scale of operations guaranteed the availability for testing of numbers of candidates far in excess of those usually available to psychologists undertaking research.

    • The development of the personnel profession

      Very significantly, the Second World War had a major influence on the development of the personnel profession. According to Moxon (1951), the aims of national wartime policy were:

      Child (1969) reports how government concern in 1940 about appropriate working practices and conditions Moxon (1951) comments on the ‘four-fold increase in the number of practising personnel managers’ at this time. Child (1969) records the membership of what was to become the Institute of Personnel Management as 760 in 1939, and 2993 in 1960 the need to train millions of men and women for the fighting services led to a more detailed study of the skills required for handling modern weapons, and our understanding of human skill benefited greatly .Likewise, the shortage of labour in industry led to experiments aimed at training munition workers to higher levels of output more quickly.

      1. to see that the maximum use was made of each citizen,
      2. to see that working and living conditions were as satisfactory as possible,
      3. to see that individual rights were reasonably safeguarded and the democratic spirit preserved.

      The growth of personnel management was the direct result of the translation of this national policy by each industry and by each factory within an industry. led to direct governmental action enforcing the appointment of personnel officers in all but small factories and the compulsory provision of minimum welfare amenities. He also notes a similar increase in other management bodies. (The Institute has now become the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, with a membership of 120 000 in 2002.)

    • The postwar reconstruction of Japan
      This subsection has so far noted some of the direct influences that the two world wars had upon the field of HRM. It now points to an indirect and still continuing influence. The foundation of the philosophy and practice of total quality management, which has been of considerable recent significance in HRM, was laid during the Second World War. Edward Deming and Joseph Juran were consultants to the US Defense Department and during the Second World War ran courses on their new approaches to quality control for firms supplying army ordnance (Pickard, 1992).

      Hodgson (1987) reports that: After the war, America ‘could sell everything it could produce’ and, because it was believed that ‘improving quality adds to costs’, the work of Deming and Juran was ignored in the West. However, Deming became an adviser to the Allied Powers Supreme Command and a member of the team advising the Japanese upon postwar reconstruction (Hodgson, 1987: 40–41).

      He told them that ‘their war-ravaged country would become a major force in international trade’ if they followed his approach to quality. They did. Western organisations have since come to emulate the philosophy and practices of quality that proved so successful in Japan and that now feature among the preoccupations of human resource managers .

Contemporary influences on HRM

The two topics to be examined now also come from fields distant from that of HRM but nevertheless influence it. However, they differ from those examined above. First, they belong primarily to the world of ideas, rather than action. Secondly, whereas the influences discussed above contributed to the incremental development of HRM thinking and practice, those discussed below have the potential to unsettle and possibly disrupt established thinking, and hence practice.

Thirdly, the two world wars are, for us, history: interpretations of them have by now become established and, to a large degree, generally accepted (though always open to question: see the later subsection ‘Defining reality for others’). However, what are discussed below are ideas of our own time, not yet fully formed or understood. They both originated in fields outside social science, but have been introduced into it because of their potential significance for the understanding of social phenomena.


It was in the fields of art and architecture, in which there had been early twentiethcentury schools of thought and expression regarded as ‘modernism’, that certain new approaches came to be labelled ‘postmodern’. In due course, the concepts of modernism and postmodernism spread throughout the fields of culture (Harvey, 1990) and the social sciences. They are now used to express a critical perspective in organisation studies (for example, Gergen, 1992; Hassard and Parker, 1993; Hatch, 1997; Morgan, 1997) and in the HRM field (Legge, 1995; Townley, 1993).

Connock (1992) includes postmodern thinking among the contemporary ‘big ideas’ of significance to human resource managers, while Fox (1990) interprets strategic HRM as a self-reflective cultural intervention responding to postmodern conditions. Although questions about postmodernism merge with others on post-industrialism, post-Fordism, and the present stage of capitalism (see Legge, 1995; Reed and Hughes, 1992 and Chapter), here we focus only on postmodernism.

Postmodernism is proving to be a challenging and unsettling concept for those socialised into what would now be called a ‘modern’ understanding of the world. There is considerable debate about it. Does it refer to an epoch (Hassard, 1993), a period of historical time, namely the ‘post-modern’ present which has succeeded ‘modern times’? If so, does it represent a continuation of or a disjunction with the past? Or does it refer to a particular, and critical, perspective, which Hassard (1993) calls an ‘epistemological position’ (see Glossary)? Many, such as Legge (1995), distinguish this from the epochal ‘post-modern’ by omitting the hyphen (‘postmodern’).

An example of the epochal interpretation is Clegg’s (1990: 180–181) discussion of post-modern organisations, the characteristics of which he identifies by contrasting them with modern organisations. For example, he suggests that the latter (that is, the organizations that we had been familiar with until the last decade or so of the twentieth century) were rigid, addressed mass markets and were premised on technological determinism; their jobs were ‘highly differentiated, demarcated and de-skilled’.

Post-modern organisations, however, are flexible, address niche markets, and are premised on technological choices; their jobs are ‘highly de-differentiated, de-demarcated and multiskilled’. It is less easy to pin down postmodernism as an epistemological position but, in brief, it is somewhat like the little boy’s response to the ‘emperor’s new clothes’. Whereas modernism was based on the belief that there existed a universal objective truth which we could come to know by means of rational, scientific approaches (though often only with the help of experts), postmodernism denies that.

It assumes that truth is local and socially constructed (see Glossary and later section) from a particular perspective. It asks: ‘What truth?’, ‘Whose truth?’, ‘Who says so?’ Hence it challenges the authority of the established view, for example, of the ‘meta-narratives’ of ‘progress’, ‘the value of science’ or ‘Marxism vs. capitalism’ which had become the accepted framework of twentieth-century understanding. Instead it recognises the claims of diverse and competing interpretations, and accepts that everything is open to question, that there are always alternative interpretations.

Hence postmodernism has considerable significance for HRM. It recognises that multiple and competing views of organisations and HRM are legitimate; that the significance of theory lies not in its ‘truth’ but in its usefulness for practice. (This, perhaps, is a significant issue for the learning organization. Moreover, it throws into question (Hassard and Parker, 1993; Kvale, 1992) the traditional (Western) understanding of the individual as a ‘“natural entity”, independent of society, with “attributes” which can be studied empirically’ (Collin, 1996: 9).

That modern interpretation has underpinned the understanding and practices of HRM, such as psychometric testing: the postmodern view challenges the accepted way of dealing with, for example, competencies and assessment (Brittain and Ryder, 1999). Moreover, postmodernism recognises that, far from being objective and universal as modernism assumed, knowledge is constructed through the interplay of power relationships and often the dominance of the most powerful. This makes a critical interpretation of established bodies of thought such as psychology (Kvale, 1992), which could be seen as a Western cultural product (Stead and Watson, 1999).

Thus, whereas modernism often ignored or, indeed, disguised ideologies (see Glossary and the section later on ‘Ways of seeing and thinking’), postmodernism seeks to uncover them. It also encourages self-reflexivity and, therefore, a critical suspicion towards one’s own interpretations, and an ironic and playful treatment of one’s subject. Another important difference between modernism and postmodernism lies in the way they regardlanguage. Modernism assumes that language is neutral, ‘the vehicle for communicating independent “facts”’ (Legge, 1995: 306).

The postmodern argument, however, is that this is not the case (see Reed and Hughes, 1992; Hassard and Parker, 1993). Language ‘itself constitutes or produces the “real”’ (Legge, 1995: 306). Moreover, it is ‘ideological’ (Gowler and Legge, 1989: 438): both the means through which ideologies are expressed and the embodiment of ideology (see Glossary and later subsection). This can be seen in sexist and racist language, and in ‘management-speak’.

Postmodernism highlights the significance of discourse. ‘Why do we find it so congenial to speak of organizations as structures but not as clouds, systems but not songs, weak or strong but not tender or passionate?’ (Gergen, 1992: 207). The reason, Gergen goes on to say, is that we achieve understanding within a ‘discursive context’. A discourse is a ‘set of meanings, metaphors, representations, images, stories, statements and so on that in some way together produce a particular version of events’ (Burr, 1995: 48), a version belonging to a particular group of people.

It provides the language and meanings whereby members of that group can interpret and construct reality, and gives them an identifiable position to adopt upon a given subject, thereby constituting their own identity, behaviour and reality (Gavey, 1989). By interpreting competing positions in its own terms, the group’s discourse shuts down all other possible interpretations but its own. For example, in order to engage in academic discourse, academics have to learn Parker and Shotter (1990), using the contrast between ‘everyday talk’ and academic writing, explain how academic text standardises its interpretations:

There are many discourses identifiable in the field of organisation and management studies – managerial, humanist, critical, industrial relations – that offer their own explanations and rhetoric. You can explore them further in, for example, the chapters that follow, and Clark et al. (1994), but you should remain aware that academic discourse itself enables writers to exercise power over the production of knowledge and to influence their readers. Awareness of discourse is also important for the understanding of organisations:

The notion of discourse is relevant to our understanding of HRM. From today’s vantage point we can now perhaps recognise that the way in which we once conceptualised and managed the employment relationship was influenced by modernism. However, Legge (1995: 324–325) considers HRM to be both post-modern and postmodern. ‘From a managerialist view’ it is post-modern in terms of epoch and its basic assumptions (p. 324), whereas ‘from a critical perspective’ it is a ‘postmodernist discourse’ .

HRM, with its ambiguous, or contested, nature, discussed in Chapter, emerged alongside the spread of post-modern organisations and postmodern epistemology. The recognition of multiple, coexisting yet competing realities and interpretations, the constant reinterpretation, the eclecticism, the concern for presentation and re-presentation – all of which you will recognise in this book – can be interpreted as a postmodern rendering of the debate about the nature of the employment relationship. We must therefore expect that there will be even more, perhaps very different, interpretations of HRM to be made.

The ‘new science’

We shall now turn briefly to another possible source of influence upon the HRM field. The so-called ‘new science’ derives from new developments in the natural sciences that challenge some of the key assumptions of Newton’s mechanistic notion of the universe (see Wheatley, 1992, for a simplified explanation). Traditionally, science has been ‘reductionist’ in its analysis into parts and search for ‘the basic building blocks of matter’ (Wheatley, 1992: 32). It has assumed that ‘certainty, linearity, and predictability’ (Elliott and Kiel, 1997: 1) are essential elements of the universe.

However, new discoveries have questioned those assumptions, generating the theories of complexity and chaos. Complexity refers to a system’s ‘interrelatedness and interdependence of components as well as their freedom to interact, align, and organize into related configurations’ (Lee, 1997: 20). ‘Because of this internal complexity, random disturbances can produce unpredictable events and relationships that reverberate throughout a system, creating novel patterns of change … however, … despite all the unpredictability, coherent order always [emphasis in original] emerges out of the randomness and surface chaos’ (Morgan, 1997: 262).

To understand complexity, new approaches that recognise the whole rather than just its parts – a holistic approach – and attention to relationships between the parts are needed, and these are being developed. Although theories of complexity and chaos are sometimes referred to as a ‘postmodern science’, this is a ‘common misconception’, for ‘while recognizing the need for a modification of the reductionist classical model of science, [these theories] remain grounded within the “scientific” tradition’ (Price, 1997: 3).

They are, nevertheless, recognised as relevant to the understanding of complex social systems. For example, ‘chaos theory appears to provide a means for understanding and examining many of the uncertainties, nonlinearities, and unpredictable aspects of social systems behavior’ (Elliott and Kiel, 1997: 1). The literature on the application of these theories to social phenomena tends to be very demanding (for example, Eve et al., 1997; Kiel and Elliott, 1997). However, Morgan’s (1997) and Wheatley’s (1992) applications to organizations are more accessible.

There has been some application in the HRM field. For example, Cooksey and Gates (1995) use non-linear dynamics and chaos theory as a way of conceptualizing how common HRM practices translate into observable outcomes. Brittain and Ryder (1999: 51) draw on complexity theory in their attempt to improve the assessment of competencies, and conclude that ‘HR professionals and psychologists need to challenge widely held beliefs about assessment processes, move away from simplistic assumptions about cause and effect and take a more complex view of the world’.

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