The changing face of HRM: in search of balance

  • Published on

  • View

  • Download

Embed Size (px)


<ul><li><p>The changing face of HRM: in searchof balance</p><p>Helen Francis, Napier University Business School, EdinburghAnne Keegan, RSM Erasmus University, RotterdamHuman Resource Management Journal, Vol 16, no 3, 2006, pages 231249</p><p>Current models of HRM suggest that expectations about HR roles are changing asorganisations are striving to make the HR function leaner and more strategic. Inour article we explore the changing roles of HRM as they are perceived by differentstakeholder groups within the HR profession through the medium of a studyexamining the diffusion of the concept of the thinking performer launched by theChartered Institute of Personnel and Development in 2002. We explain how theconcept of business partnering dominates respondents talk about HR policy andpractice and raise questions about the impact of this in terms of HRMs relationshipwith employees, employee well-being and the career paths of HR professionals. Weargue that the profession needs to reflect seriously on the consequences of adominant business/strategic partner framing of HR work, which fails to address theduality that has historically always been inherent in HR practice. We conclude thatthere is a need for a more balanced HR agenda addressing human and economicconcerns in current and future models of HRM.Contact: Helen Francis, Napier University Business School, 210 ColintonRoad, Edinburgh EH14 1DJ. Email:</p><p>For the past decade, research in HRM has focused on the take-up and impactof commitment seeking high performance HR practices that are argued tolead to improved employee and organisational performance (Huselid et al.,1997; Wood, 1999; Legge, 2001). More recently, attention has been drawn to thepotential of e-enabled HRM in helping to reduce costs of HR services and toliberate HR practitioners from routine administration so they can focus on strategicand change management issues (Martin, 2005: 17). Linked with this is the emergenceof the business partnering modelling of HRM originally developed by David Ulrichin 1997.</p><p>In what follows, we critically evaluate key assumptions underpinning newconceptualisations of HR practice framed by the notion of business partnership, andpresent initial findings from our in-depth research into the concept of the thinkingperformer, launched by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development(CIPD), as it relates to the changing roles of HRM. We do this by structuring ourarticle into four parts. In the first part we show how models and vocabularies ofHRM driven by the business partner concept are currently being amplified, and howthese are shaping the creation of current and future HR agendas. In the next sectionwe explain our research design, and then move on to present our findings, whichpoint to the dominance of business speak in framing talk of HR practice and the</p><p>HUMAN RESOURCE MANAGEMENT JOURNAL, VOL 16 NO 3, 2006 231</p><p> 2006 The Authors.</p><p>Journal compilation 2006 Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford, OX4</p><p>2DQ, UK and 350 Main St, Malden, MA, 02148, USA.</p></li><li><p>notion of the thinking performer, and how this is squeezing out space for framingHR outcomes in terms of employee well-being and advocacy. In our final section, weconclude by suggesting that the thinking performer concept could be a powerful toolto encourage more explicit critical reflection on HR practice. We ask whether theframing of the concept around the notion of business partner/strategic partner isdamaging its potential to facilitate the incorporation of broader issues of employeewell-being through promoting more critically reflective HR practice.</p><p>EMERGENT MODELS OF HRM</p><p>The term thinking performer evolved from a deep-seated frustration amongst theCIPD executive at the emphasis typically placed on operational rather than strategicissues amongst HR practitioners, and the need for them to understand theimportance of the links between HR activities and business outcomes (Whittaker andJohns, 2004). Described as a conceptual device for focusing new entrants to theprofession on both thinking and reflecting, on the one hand, and performing anddoing, on the other (Marchington and Wilkinson, 2005), the term frames the visionfor the CIPD Professional Standards, launched in 2002, which is to ensure that allCIPD members become thinking performers who continuously update theirprofessional knowledge and add value to the businesses by which they areemployed (CIPD Professional Standards, 2004). This business focus is clear in theCIPD definition of thinking performer as</p><p>[s]omeone who makes the move to becoming a business partner and( . . . ) is an HR professional who applies a critically thoughtful approachto their own job so as to make a contribution to organisational survival,profitability and to meeting its vision and strategic goals. (CIPDProfessional Standards, 2004; Whittaker and Johns, 2004)</p><p>The framing of the concept by the CIPD is tightly bound with expressions likestrategic, value added, customer advantage and doing things cheaper, better orfaster. This is exemplified in the discussion found on the CIPD website on what thethinking performer is (CIPD website, 2005) and the recent launch of the newleadership and management standards, an element of the Institutes ProfessionalDevelopment Scheme (PDS):</p><p>The long-heralded shift from practitioner to HR business partner ishappening more and more and its the biggest change since therestyling of the personnel function. How is the CIPD helping membersmake the move? . . . What is emerging is a shift from practitioner focusedon process to the thinking performer, a breed of professional who can,through acquiring a top-to-toe, thorough knowledge of their business,have a tangible influence on corporate strategy. (Whittaker and Johns,2004: 3233)</p><p>The values propounded here are similar to those underpinning the businesspartner modelling of HRM as developed by Ulrich (1997). Described by the CIPD asa fundamental rethink of what HRM is for, and how it is measured (CIPD Factsheet,2005), the business partner framework developed by Ulrich (1997) has recently been</p><p>The changing face of HRM: in search of balance</p><p>HUMAN RESOURCE MANAGEMENT JOURNAL, VOL 16 NO 3, 2006232</p><p> 2006 The Authors.</p><p>Journal compilation 2006 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.</p></li><li><p>trumpeted as the practitioner paradigm towards which the profession should aspire(Caldwell, 2003: 988).</p><p>Ulrich (1997) prescribes that HR practitioners engage in a set of proactive rolesdefined along two axes: strategy versus operations, and process versus people. Thefour key roles that emerge are strategic partner, administrative expert, employeechampion and change agent. The strategic partner role is one in which HRprofessionals partner with line managers to help them reach their goals througheffective strategy formulation and strategy execution (Ulrich and Brockbank, 2005b:27). Change agents are responsible for the delivery of organisational transformationand culture change. Administrative experts constantly improve organisationalefficiency by re-engineering the HR function and other work processes such asintroducing shared services.</p><p>The employee champion is a particularly interesting role. It combines a focus onpeople with a focus on day-to-day operational issues. In his most recent modificationof HR roles, Ulrich splits the employee champion role into the employee advocateand human resource developer, placing the latter as a more future-focused processrole (Ulrich and Brockbank, 2005a, b). Central to the employee advocate role is therequirement for the HR professional to make sure the employeremployeerelationship is one of reciprocal value, requiring the ability to</p><p>see the world through employees eyes and act as their representative,while at the same time looking through customers, shareholders andmanagers eyes and communicating to employees what is required forthem to be successful in creating value. (Ulrich and Brockbank, 2005b:201)</p><p>The employee champion/advocate role is most closely associated withresponsibility for employees but it differs from previous conceptualisations ofemployee-facing roles such as the consensus negotiator of Torrington et al. (2002),the regulator of Storey (1992) or the contracts manager of Tyson (1995). Theseother roles recognise the inherent plurality in managing the employment relationshipand acknowledge the inevitability of trade-offs between employee needs and goalsand organisational objectives. The occupiers of these roles are recognised as beingcaught in a precarious balancing act between management and labour, whereas theemployee champion appears to be closely identified with management as a partnerin delivering value (Caldwell, 2003: 997) in a pattern typically reminiscent of Legges(1978) conformist innovator. Given the uptake of the business partner model by theCIPD and others, this framing of the employee champion role is profoundlyimportant when we discuss employee well-being, and we return to this issue laterin the article. The positioning of the HR function as a key organisational player isproving very attractive to HR professionals and the term business partner isincreasingly popular with HR practitioners (CIPD HR Survey Report, 2003); thus weneed to locate these developments in a broader context.</p><p>Setting the business partner model in context</p><p>Business partnership can be set in the broader context of the long-running debate onthe roles of HR managers (Ulrich, 1997, 1998; Hutchinson and Purcell, 2003; Purcellet al., 2003; Marchington and Wilkinson, 2005). In the UK context, Legge (1978)</p><p>Helen Francis and Anne Keegan</p><p>HUMAN RESOURCE MANAGEMENT JOURNAL, VOL 16 NO 3, 2006 233</p><p> 2006 The Authors.</p><p>Journal compilation 2006 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.</p></li><li><p>produced one of the most influential models of HRM which identified two strategiesby which personnel managers could gain power and influence within theorganisation the conformist innovator and the deviant innovator. The conformistinnovator attempts to relate his/her work clearly to the dominant values and normsin the organisation aiming simply to satisfy the requirements of senior management.The deviant innovator subscribes to a quite different set of norms, gaining credibilityand support for ideas driven by social values rather than strict economic criteria(Marchington and Wilkinson, 2005: 131).</p><p>Alternative classifications include one constructed by Tyson and Fell (1986), whichdrew on a building industry metaphor to identify three distinct types or models ofHR practice. These ranged from a basic administrative model (clerk of works) toa sophisticated, industrial relations model (contracts manager) and a business-oriented, strategically aware function, which designed the employment relationship(the architect) (Tyson, 1995: 22). Storey (1992) proposed a fourfold typology of HRroles based on two dimensions, strategic/tactical and interventionary/non-interventionary: advisers, handmaidens, regulators and changemakers.</p><p>These models construct how the HR function can best contribute to improvedemployee and organisational performance and therefore create expectations abouteffective HR practice. Increasingly, they have focused on a split between strategicand non-strategic roles played by HR practitioners, and links between HRM and firmfinancial performance have become more prominent (Huselid, 1995; Boxall, 1996;Boxall and Purcell, 2003, Purcell et al., 2003). As a result, the HR function is ever moreexpected to embrace a strategic and less transactional approach to peoplemanagement as HR information systems are extended or supplemented with newtechnologies (Martin, 2005). By framing the HR contribution in this way, it may bedifficult for HR practitioners to assume an independent stance from their linepartners, and thereby draw on different sets of criteria for the evaluation oforganisational success that are reflective of social as much as business/economicvalues (Legge, 1978; Townley, 2004). In other words, it is likely that HR professionalswill progressively seek to enhance their influence in the strategic decision-makingprocess through enactment of a conformist strategy, thereby treating dominantbusiness values as a given.</p><p>Noting the attractiveness of the strategic partner role amongst HR professionalsin the UK, Ulrich and Brockbank call for practitioners not to lose sight of theemployee champion role, and argue that employee relations is not just windowdressing and that . . . caring for, listening to, and responding to employees remainsa centrepiece of HR work (Ulrich and Brockbank, 2005b: 201). Here, attention isdrawn to the need for fair treatment of employees and to treat individuals withdignity. Nevertheless, like their earlier modelling of business partnership, argumentsremain underpinned by a strong notion of mutuality between different stakeholders,guided by the belief that managers, employees, consultants and HR professionalswill all work collaboratively towards a common goal of efficiency and highperformance levels.</p><p>Ulrich and Brockbank explain that HRMs role in delivering value to customers,shareholders, managers and employees rests on being able to create a unique andpowerful perspective in which they see aspects of the business environment that gobeyond what other disciplines bring and that add substantially to business success</p><p>The changing face of HRM: in search of balance</p><p>HUMAN RESOURCE MANAGEMENT JOURNAL, VOL 16 NO 3, 2006234</p><p> 2006 The Authors.</p><p>Journal compilation 2006 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.</p></li><li><p>(2005b: 8). In terms of employee advocacy, focus is placed on the need for HRprofessionals to form a bridge between management and employees so that mutualunderstanding makes the best of whatever the company faces (2005b: 85). Thesearguments fail to address in any depth the real problems HR professionals face inachieving a balance between competing stakeholder interests and values, nor why somany firms still operate with an imperialistic rather than empowering style ofleadership; with a financial rather than people-driven approach (Brown, 2005).</p><p>Strategic amplification and employee well-being</p><p>What are the consequences of the strategic amplification of HR work? Peccei (2004)argues that the heavy emphasis traditionally placed within the HR literature onthe achievement of business-oriented performance outcomes has obscured theimportance of employee well-being in its own right, and that there is a dearth ofresearch investigating what HR practices help to sustain and underpin happyworkplaces.1 Similarly, Grant and Shields (2002) argue that the emphasis typicallyplaced on the business case for HRM suggests a one-sided focus on organisationaloutcomes at the expense of employees, resonating with Winstanley and Woodalls(2000) assertions that employee well-being and ethics within the unfolding field ofHRM remain contentious, and that</p><p>the ethical dimension of HR policy and practice has been almost ignoredin recent texts on HRM, where the focus has shifted to strategic fit andbest practice...</p></li></ul>