An uneasy alliance
HR in the balance
Wright, N. (2000) ‘An Uneasy Alliance - HR in the Balance: 2000 and Beyond', Organisations & People, Association for Management Education & Development, August, Vol7, No3, pp2-7.
To attempt to differentiate between ‘human resource management’ (HRM) and ‘development’ (HRD) is to enter murky and controversial waters. This article explores the nature of each, clarifies some of the tensions involved and suggests the future requires a more flexible, strategic collaboration between the disciplines.
A growing debate about the potential formation of a new development-orientated professional body to accredit, support and represent HRD practitioners[i] has raised again to the surface underlying tensions between HRD and HRM within the wider HR professional arena. In order to help inform this debate and to clarify certain underlying principles and assumptions, this article focuses on key aspects and implications of the relationship between these disciplines at this critical moment in our professional development history, including:
- A brief overview of the HR functions.
- A convergence of HR disciplines in the 1990s.
- Potential tensions in underlying philosophies.
- The way forward in 2000 and beyond.
HRD in outline
The professional fields of HRD and HRM have evolved markedly over the last decade as a result of accumulated ‘learning through experience’ and our respective responses to the changing environmental factors that influence what happens to, by and within organisations. The terms HRD and HRM are used variously, however, to describe a range of different philosophies and approaches to working with people within (and related to) organisations to I will first summarise how I am using these terms to avoid confusion.
HRD is associated, typically, with ‘training and development’ activities within an organisation but also, more broadly, with helping to create the cultural conditions under which employees (and, according to Rothwell & Kazanas (1994), non-employees) may achieve their full potential for the benefit of both individuals and organisation (Bolman & Deal, 1991). In this respect, HRD finds itself aligned closely with OD (Organisation Development). The HRD Partnership (a coalition of major HR agencies in the UK) summarises these points in its definition of HRD as, ‘the development of cultures and processes which encourage and integrate organisational and people development to achieve corporate objectives.’
In 1983, the American Society for Training & Development conducted a survey of HRD practitioners in the USA and described the key roles fulfilled by HRD practitioners under fifteen task areas (Rothwell & Kazanas, 1994).[ii] It might have been more than alphabetically significant that ‘strategist’ took 12th place in the list since traditional approaches to HRD have been criticised, with some degree of justification, for tending to focus more on tactical/operational than strategic issues (Rothwell & Kazanas, 1994), on efficiency rather than effectiveness (Mayo, 1995 in Tyson, 1995). In this new ‘lean and mean’ era, HRD is being called upon to justify its activities in terms of strategic business criteria.
At this crucial juncture, Rothwell & Kazanas (1994, p13) sound a cautionary note: ‘HR plans should not (simply) be driven by Strategic Business Plans; rather, HRD should be interactive, at once influencing Strategic Business Plans and being influenced by them. My own experience suggests that this is the crux of the matter concerning the relationship between HRD and HRM at the start of this century. The notion of ‘influence’ in a strategic context implies but access to and active engagement in wider business planning processes and, as we will see below, the outworking of this idea is often more straightforward in principle than in practice.
Rothwell & Kazanas to on to comment that, ‘Strategic HRD (that is, distinct from HRD strategy) is the process of changing an organisation, stakeholders outside it, groups inside it and people employed by it by planning learning so that they possess the knowledge and skills needed for the future’ and, furthermore, offer four key factors to help ensure that this takes place:
- There should be an overall purpose statement for the organisation and the HRD strategy should be related to it.
- Every major plan of the organisation should be weighed in terms of human skills available to implement it and alternative ways of obtaining those skills.
- People at all levels in the organisation’s chain of command should share responsibility and accountability for HRD.
- There should be a formal, systemic and holistic planning process for the organisation, personnel department and HRD.
The factors outlined here assume: (a) a rational and strategic organisational context and (b) access to the strategic planning processes by HRD practitioners. Anecdotal research alongside HRD practitioners within a range of private, public and voluntary sector organisations over the last five years suggests, however, that Rothwell & Kazanas are describing strategic HRD within a somewhat ideal scenario. In practice, conditions (a) and (b) are frequently absent and HRD practitioners have to resort to influencing from a distance, often through indirect representation via an HRM counterpart. The nature of this relationship and the stresses/tensions it can create will be explored in greater detail below.
HRM in outline
HRM is, as the name implies, concerned principally with the management of people; i.e. the acquisition, management and organisation of people to achieve organisational goals as effectively as possible (Torrington & Hall, 1991). It includes, ‘all management decisions and actions that affect the nature of the relationship between the organisation and its employees – its human resources.’ (Beer et al, 1984 quoted in Hendry & Pettigrew, 1990). It is apparent from these definitions that HRM is normally regarded as a derivation from Personnel Management which has its own roots in the work of social reformers, welfare officers, consensus negotiators and manpower analysts (Torrington & Hall, 1991).
In explaining the distinction, Fowler asserts that the real difference between HRM and traditional Personnel Management is, ‘not on what it is but on who is saying it’ (Fowler, 1987 in Legge, 1989 p28).[iii] Modern holistic approaches to management with emphases on mutuality, collaboration and communication, influenced by developments including the growth in quality culture, mean that many of the traditional people-management tasks undertaken by specialist personnel departments are now undertaken by line-managers as part of their ordinary work (Torrington & Hall, 1991). Personnel functions have evolved largely into, ‘internal technical consultancy support’ (e.g. vis a vis employment law) alongside more broadly generic line-management functions. HRM is the conceptual umbrella spanning both.
In recent years, strategic dimension to HRM have included the following (Hendry & Pettigrew, 1990):
- The use of planning.
- A coherent approach to the design and management of personnel systems based on an employment policy and manpower strategy, and often underpinned by a philosophy.
- Matching HRM activities and policies to some explicit business strategy.
- Seeing the people of the organisation as a strategic resource for achieving competitive advantage.
The strategic aspects are particularly significant since some of the greatest difficulties faced currently by organisations result from the complexity and rapidly ‘chaotic’ nature of the environments in which they are operating’ (Stacey, 1993).[iv] Rational long-term strategies based around objectives, budgets, programmes etc. often fail to produce planned and coordinated outcomes because the context within which such planning occurs is not sufficiently stable (Mintzberg, 1994 in Tyson, 1995). In light of this, organisations are having to reconsider how to work and organise themselves. Some of the most common innovations (Tyson, 1995) include:
- New forms of strategy (e.g. short-term and flexible).
- New types of organisation (e.g. de-layered and devolved structures).
- New ways of using the labour market (e.g. part-time/short-term contracts).
- New employee relationships (e.g. mutuality and gainsharing).
- New policies to achieve competitive advantage.
- New emphasis on change management as a core organisational competency.
The combined impact of these changes has meant that HR practitioners from both -D and -M disciplines are having to find new ways to work together collaboratively, flexibly and strategically. The external environmental shifts outlined above have included a marked change in industrial relations over the last decade, involving a loss of trade union influence and a greater emphasis on ‘mutuality’ (mutual goals, mutual influence, mutual respect, mutual rewards and mutual responsibility) between management and workforce (Walton, 1985 in Legge, 1989). These developments, especially in the USA, have enabled the HRM function to shift is focus from personnel-related industrial relations problem-solving onto wider strategic people management issues and onto the development of employee skills and capabilities to achieve strategic business objectives (Hendry & Pettigrew, 1990).
It is at this point where HRM finds itself very close to the realm of HRD. The nature of this convergence is particularly since HRM functions have shifted positionally within organisations from Personnel to line-management, HRD functions have often followed suit with HRD being, at times, regarded simply as a sub-function of HRM. The merger in 1994 of the Institute of Personnel Management (IPM) and Institute of Training & Development (ITD) in the UK to form the Institute of Personnel & Development (IPD) was regarded by many as an important symbolic event that would help reinforce the ‘mutual’ nature of this collaborative relationship (at least at the level of professional association) but questions remain concerning the degree to which this wider goal has been achieved.
In principle, I believe that the repositioning of HRD alongside HRM within closer proximity to line-management spheres of influence (reinforced by shared professional association) does provide welcome and enhanced opportunities for involvement in strategic business planning processes.[v] There can be, however, practical difficulties in outworking this interdisciplinary alliance on organisational contexts, especially where HRD is regarded as subordinate.
Hendry & Pettigrew (1990), citing Morris (1974), explain these tensions by describing underlying philosophical distinctions between these HR disciplines. In early discussions about the meaning of ‘human resources’, fundamental questions were raised about the potential incompatibility of approaches based on the principles of utilitarian-instrumentalism (human resources) and those based on developmental-humanism (resourceful humans). The former approach characteristically considers employees as a ‘necessary cost’ whist the latter considers those same employees as a ‘valuable asset’. Throughout the 1990s, HRM in the British context retained significant elements of the instrumentalist view whereas HRD (perhaps more closely aligned with HRM in a US context) tended to align itself more readily with the developmental view (Legge, 1989).
Concern about the potential for on-going polarisation and friction between these positions was reflected in the pre-94 debates about the proposed IPM/ITD merger (above). On the one hand, HRM and HRD professionals were keen to build closer links together in order to increase the potential for influencing national policy in the HR field (Carson, 1993 and Cowan, 1993); the underlying belief being that 72,000 combined membership would speak louder than IPM’s 52,000 and ITD’s 20,000 memberships separately. ‘If we cannot speak with one voice, we might not be asked to speak at all’ (McCoy, 1993). On the other hand, ITD professionals had particular concerns that the HR agenda would be dominated by issues of a ‘personnel’ nature (Townsend, 1993).
An underlying question about compatibility between HRD/HRM, in spite of the common HR focus, ‘may not be altogether unfounded’ (former IPD committee member and writer, 1996). HRD practitioners are, typically, concerned less with control issues than their HRM counterparts (Hendry & Pettigrew, 1990; Legge, 1989) and concerned more with release; e.g. of new ideas or of individual/team potential.
These tensions reflect a wider organisational paradox, described by Stacey who argues that an organisation operating in rapidly changing environments needs to achieve, ‘consistency and stability in order to conduct its existing business in an efficient day-to-day manner; (whilst, at the same time) also needing to shatter that consistency and stability in order to generate creative new moves; (1993, p101). In practice, if HRM is concerned with issues of control and ‘fit’ where personnel are concerned in order to achieve ‘consistency and stability’, HRD approaches stimulating creativity and innovation may be viewed as invalid or, worse still, subversive; in spite of the potential benefits of greater organisational resourcefulness in the longer-term.
There are, nevertheless, certain overriding environmental pressures that may yet force the gap between the disciplines to close. The current trend in employment practice away from career-orientation towards short-term contracting is a case in point and raises the shared HR concern about how to retain employee commitment and motivation within a short-term contract culture (Tyson, 1995). Integration between the respective concerns of HRD and HRM is being established within this environment at a tactical level through the implementation of, for example, NVQs which are primarily task-orientated and transferable. The focus at this level is on ‘getting the job done and doing it well’.
At a more strategic level, however, HRM and HRD need to find closer integration in the broader developmental arena if sustainable benefits are to be achieved; particularly in terms of enabling organisations to challenge their environments and not simply react to them. Training employees in new skills without paying corresponding attention to wider organisation development considerations can result in, for instance, repetition of previous mistakes and/or inadequate preparation for the challenges presented by on-going change. This comment echoes Argyris’ (1992) concern for what he describes as ‘double-loop learning’ (that is, being open and able to question organisations’ most basic assumptions) as a key factor in influencing organisational success.
As it stands, the debate about relationships between HRD and HRM and the nature of their respective professional/organisational status’ is likely to continue for some time to come. In the meantime, if HRD with its distinctive developmental focus us to play a truly strategic role in the future of organisations, the core issues for debate must include:
- HRD’s status: fully recognised as a professional discipline in its own right, rather than implicitly as a sub-function of HRM.[vi]
- HRD’s positioning: wholly involved in organisational business planning alongside HRM counterparts.
- HRD’s role: free to challenge and influence the cultural assumptions, values and practises or organisations without fear of alienation.
In closing, Harrison (Cowan et al, 1993), commenting on the proposed merger or IPM and ITD, offered hope that closer cooperation between practitioners could provide, firstly, HRD with access to strategic planning processes alongside HRM and, secondly, HRM with greater insight into development issues from an HRD perspective. The ongoing development of this symbiotic relationship with require patience, humility and commitment but, given the external challenges of 2000 and beyond, a closer and more equitable relationship between the functions must be a positive way forward. The years ahead will prove to be a testing time.
[i] Possibly alongside a more ‘personnel and training’ orientated IPD.
[ii] Key roles fulfilled by HRD practitioners: evaluator; group facilitator; individual development counsellor; instructional writer; instructor; manager of T&D; marketer; media specialist; needs analyst; programme administrator; programme designer; strategist; task analyst; theoretician; transfer agent. (Based on Rothwell & Kazanas (1994), p26)
[iii] Common distinctions between HRM and Personnel Management: proactive and system-wide intervention vs reactive and piecemeal response to specific problems; people are social capital capable of development vs people are variable costs; coincidence of interests between stakeholders can be developed vs self-interest and conflict characterise the nature of management/employee relations; seeks power equalisation for trust and collaboration vs seeks power advantage for bargaining; goal orientation vs people orientation; participation and informed choice vs control from the top. (Based on Legge, 1989)
[iv] Examples of environmental changes include: world competition; global trading and single European market; demographic shifts; cultural diversity; strategic use of IT; growth in ‘knowledge’ rather than ‘skills-based’ jobs; changing labour patterns (e.g. end of ‘career’ concept); political shift to ‘right’ (shareholder value more important than social goals); loss of trade union powers; rising popular expectations (e.g. ‘quality’ culture); emergence of vocational standards (e.g. NVQs); Investors in People. (Based on Jackson, 1993 and Tyson, 1995)
[v] Indeed, without realistic access to and active involvement in such processes, it would be pointless to describe HR as ‘strategic’ in any meaningful sense of the word.
[vi] IPD membership criteria could be modified, for instance, to accommodate HRD professionals without insistence on HRM-specific qualifications.
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