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It can be said that the term ‘human resources management’ became popular in the UK at the latter half of the eighties and at the beginning of the nineties. It has been applied to a diverse range of management strategies and has sometimes been used simply as a more modern term for personnel, employee or industrial relations.

It’s importance lies in its association with a strategic, integrated and highly distinctive managerial approach to the management of the people. The distinctiveness lies in labour being seen as an asset and resource and not as a cost. The strategy is to try to develop this resource to it’s maximum so that emphasis is on the individual employee and on his/her motivation, training and development.

Human Resources Management is defined as proactive rather than reactive, system-wide rather than fragmentary, treats labour as social capital rather than as a variable cost, is goal-oriented rather than relationship oriented, and ultimately is based on commitment rather than compliance.

The key themes upon which Human Resources Management is based include Human Relations psychology, Strategic Management theory, and the doctrines of quality and flexibility. The relative emphasis that is accorded to each of these themes can give rise to different ‘variants’ of Human Resources Management. In particular, it is possible to identify two extreme positions. These are Instrumental and Humanistic. Instrumental approaches draw upon the rational-outcome model of strategic management to view Human Resources Management as something which is driven by and derived directly from corporate, divisional or business level strategy, and geared almost exclusively to enhancing competitive advantage. Humanistic approaches, on the other hand, utilise ‘process’ theory to emphasise the reciprocal nature of the relationship between strategic management and Human Resources Management and the latter’s role in ensuring that competitive advantage is achieved through people but not necessarily at their expense.

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One positive consequence of several new approaches to human resourcing has been to force managers to address the basic concepts and values that they routinely use in the evaluation of personnel processes, thereby encouraging a clearer understanding of the overall human resource system. Such an understanding is closely linked to the success with which the performance of human resources can be evaluated. Such evaluation has tended to take two forms a concern with systems of performance management, and the use of flexible working patterns and organisational structures.

However Human Resources Management is not perfect when you ponder on the point of view of the business goals and interests. It’s extremely hard for a company to achieve maximum profits and efficiency if it takes too much at heart the wellbeing and interests of its employees. This problem can be defined as an ‘integration’ issue where we distinguish the external fit of Human Resources Management with the organisation’s broader business view and the internal consistency of the policy goals of Human Resources Management itself. This is particularly problematic in highly competitive or recessionary conditions where the needs of the business are likely to undermine any internal Human Resources Management issues. For example, if shedding of labour should occur this would challenge, if not destroy, an organisation’s Human Resources Management image of caring for the needs and security of it’s employees.

The fundamental problem with Human Resources Management is that in most cases Human Resources issues are subordinate and secondary to business strategy. It is not simply that the search for profit overrides the policy goals of Human Resources Management, but arguably that Human Resources Management is pursued only in the belief that by raising employee’s commitment, flexibility and quality of their work the bottom line will be improved.

The contradictions within Human Resources Management are most apparent at the level of actual practices, with simultaneous advocacy of workforce attributes such as individualism and teamwork, commitment to a job and flexibility and development of a strong culture and adaptability. In identifying the tension between individualism and teamwork, for example, what these cases demonstrate is the need for a redefinition of Human Resources Management, for despite any surface similarity with the textbook checklists of Human Resources Management policies these cases could certainly not be described as operating a form of ‘development humanism’. The internal contradictions, which plagued Human Resources Management, are well illustrated by the issue of employee commitment. For proponents of Human Resources Management, commitment represents a key dimension because it’s sometimes assumed that highly committed workers are more productive.

Conflicts are apparent too where organisations have attempted to introduce more flexible working arrangements and performance-related pay. The problems with flexibility began partly from the tensions between different sources of flexibility. While soft forms of Human Resources Management encourage employee development through the learning of a broader range of skills, hard forms of Human Resources Management advocate the securing of greater variability in the volume of labour, therefore providing management with greater scope to match labour input to demand fluctuations. In addition, however, conflicts exist within each of the major sources of flexibility. For example, the danger exists of securing high levels of functional flexibility at the cost of other organisational objectives such as stability, continuity and cohesion. Likewise forms of numerical flexibility potentially clash not only with the objective of securing employee commitment but also with establishing and sustaining high quality output and group cohesion.

Performance-related pay, to emphasise the more purposeful and ‘object achieving’ focus of Human Resources Management, would seem not only to have failed to yield high levels of commitment in many organisations, but also to have perpetuated a longstanding tradition in wage and salary administration of ‘muddling through’. While a strategy for reward may need to be part of a wider human resources development strategy, reward in itself is not sufficient to promote human resource contributions to corporate improvement. More importantly, however, individual reward systems could well act to undermine co-operation, teamwork and even individual motivation. And these are all key elements of Human Resources Management.

These and other conflicts and contradictions evidenced by the different contributions underline the problematic status of Human Resources Management as a coherent concept. Rather than seeing this as an excuse for abandoning the notion of Human Resources Management altogether, however, the evidence presented would seem to support a more careful circumscribing of Human Resources Management, and a clearer definition of its status as a set of management practices. In doing so, the relationship between Human Resources Management and the longstanding core issues of labour management like issues of power, control, conflict, resistance, dependence, consent, etc. Human Resources Management is one of a series of approaches management may take to secure the levels of compliance and co-operation it requires. Different sets of circumstances will influence the adoption of one approach over others, while changing circumstances will encourage a shift from one to another and possibly the creation of new practices and approaches.

The central objective of Human Resources Management policy is to secure the commitment of employees to innovation and commitment of employees to innovation and continual improvement of product quality. Some measures of employment security and considerable investment in training and development are seen as essential supports for management effort in this area. Equally, the recruitment and retention of competent and committed staff is supported by competitive pay and reward structures which are perceived as fair. At the level of the workplace, these strategies require significant change in management behaviour. The crude assertion of managerial prerogative, associated with short-term low-cost approaches, is eschewed in favour of employee involvement in problem solving and fostering of a climate of operation and trust.

Human Resources Management has been dependent upon the changing economic circumstances of the past decade. It grew in the boom of the last half of the past decade, when attachment, commitment and development were the watchwords. It faced it’s sternest test in the severe recession of the first half of the nineties with its emphasis on restructuring, downsizing and a big reduction in both employee and managerial confidence in the prospects for renewed growth. For this reason Human Resources Management is now tinged with suspicion and a certain hostility as to its role in organisations. The difficulty for Human Resources Management is to establish its credentials as a central part of employee management in economic conditions that make the expansionary and development aspects of the approach extremely difficult to sustain.

While Human Resources Management has proved possible for traditionally conceived industrial relations and personnel management procedures to have endured economic cycles, even though the managerial strategies underlying them reflected the realities of the labour market, Human Resources Management has still to demonstrate that it has the robustness to move beyond generalised managerial prescriptions as a sustainable model of management. In this sense, this decade will be the testing ground for the idea of Human Resources Management as a consistent and integrated approach, as opposed to a fragmented and opportunistic set of interventions.

Industrial Relations Theory and Practice, Michael Salamon

Reassessing Human Resource Management, P. Blyton and P. Turnbull

Principles of Human Resource Management, David Gloss

A Handbook of Personnel Management Practice, O. Aikin

Personnel Management HRM in action, D. Torrington and L. Hall

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