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Strategic Human Resources Development

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This research-based paper constitutes an attempt at assessing dominant discourses and practices of Strategic Human Resources Development strategies. An important part of modern HR discipline, the SHRD studies present a specifically interesting example of the interconnectedness between basic ideological assumptions of workforce motivation and organizational efficiency, on the one hand, and the managers and employees’ practical efforts at implementing these ideologically-driven prescriptions in firms’ daily activities. Therefore, both critical and descriptive examination of the field’s issues is warranted.

Keywords: HR studies, SHRD, managerial studies, industrial relations, people management

Strategic Human Resources Development: A Research-Based Assessment

Introduction

Although the conventional approaches to human resources management (hereinafter referred to as the HRM) frequently focus on ‘strategic’ dimension of the respective practices, the Strategic Human Resources Development (SHRD) approaches explicitly aim at understanding and constructing complex organizational efficiency strategies. The latter proceed from the assumption of a firm’s labor force being a strategic ‘resource’, rather than a cost, which needs to be correctly managed in order to bring about the desired efficiency upgrades (Storey, 2007, p.59). This essay shall focus on various concepts and perspectives in SHRD studies, with a view to contributing to further research in this area.

Conceptual issues of the SHRD definition

While one may assume that the SHRD definition might be rather simple to arrive at, in fact, several approaches exist thereto. In particular, Salaman, Storey, & Billsberry (2005) offer a dichotomy of prescriptive SHRD literature, which can be further differentiated into research-based (academic) and ‘consultant’ literature for managers, and that of focusing on “ideas underpinning prevalent practices” (p.3). The prescriptive SHRD literature would analyze the performance strategies and individual measures “claimed to impact positively on organizational performance” (Salaman, Storey, & Billsberry, 2005, p.4), while the latter would examine the political-ideological foundations of SHRD and HRM in general, with a view to presenting a critique of their basic assumptions and uncritical treatment of certain subjects. While this perspective appears innovative, it does not exhaust the multiplicity of concepts underlying the empirical SHRD practices.

According to Quinn (1980), an organization’s strategy may be broadly defined as “the pattern or plan that integrates an organization’s major goals, policies and action sequences into a cohesive whole” (1980, p. 7). Consequently, strategy should take into account such aspects of problem-solving activities as resource allocation, deficiencies and competencies’ analysis, etc. With this in mind, Quinn (1980) suggests that a firm’s strategy is invariably connected with the latter’s major goals, or objectives, which in turn predicate policies and programs to be implemented (1980, p.7). Such definition enables the reader to conceive of the fundamental aspects of the SHRD activities, if applied properly.

Another approach to the definition of ‘strategic’ activities which might provide one with better understanding of the SHRD issues may be found in Kaplan & Norton (2001). The authors conceptualize the organizations’ strategies as “the unique and sustainable ways by which organizations create value” (p.2). By focusing on strategy execution, rather than the latter’s devising, Kaplan & Norton (2001) propound a performance-based and individualized understanding of strategic management, with each firm selecting its own strategic approaches to achieving the principal goal of value generation. This perspective both shifts the emphasis from theoretical to empirical issues, and allows for integration of multiple SHRD approaches within the one basic framework. Here lies its main importance for the present research.

Therefore, the ‘strategic’ keyword in the SHRD definition would refer to the process of formulating and implementing the firm’s activities with respect to fulfilling its productive and performance targets, carried out within the limits of specified action plans/sequences. The approaches selected by managers and policy makers would thus be conceived of as variegated expressions of the unitary SHRD paradigm.

As to the ‘human relations’ aspect of the SHRD framework, one should emphasize the paradigmatic shift from the ‘industrial relations’ concept that used to be dominant in the 1960s to 1980s. While some authors regard SHRD as a generic toolset that has been made use of in various institutional frameworks and under different conditions, Salaman, Storey, & Billsberry (2005) rightly focus on the former’s historical specificity. These authors view the SHRD model as a functional substitute for the older, collective bargaining-oriented system of industrial (employee, labor) relations’ regulations, undermined by the 1980s neoliberal transition (Salaman, Storey, & Billsberry, 2005, pp.2-3). In this interpretation, the neoliberal shift, with its antagonistic dichotomy of ‘enterprise’ and ‘bureaucracy’, necessitated the alteration of labor management model, now based on managerial incentives rather than on bargaining concessions. However, this approach seems to eschew the broader definitions of the HRM, without which the effective understanding of the SHRD may not be possible.

Beardwell & Clayton (2007) emphasize the lack of standard definition for the HRM practices. These authors provide the reader with an overview of common approaches and conceptual treatments of the notion of HRM (p.5). Of these, several might warrant special attention.

For instance, Storey’s (1995) definition of the HRM as a “distinctive approach to employment management which seeks to achieve competitive advantage through a strategic deployment of a highly committed and capable personnel” (p.5) seems to precisely encapsulate the nature of modern-day interpretations of people management. According to Boxall & Purcell (2003), the HRM system would encompass both work/activity model utilized by a firm and the patterns of employment practiced by its leadership. While this definition may be considered fairly simplistic, it still provides a foundation for conceptualizing the SHRD within the broader HR studies field. Finally, Buchanan & Huczynski’s (2004) notion of the HRM as “a managerial perspective” specifying the need for psychological attachment of the employees to organizations’ concerns underscores the subjective dimension of the HRM strategies (p.479).

Subsequently, HRD as a sub-set of the HRM strategies is intrinsically connected with managerial attempts to guarantee the unimpeded access to highly proficient and capable labor force that would identify itself with the firm’s overarching production goals. The HRD concept is thus directly grounded in ‘human capital’ assumptions underlying the modern managerial logics (Salaman, Storey, & Billsberry, 2005). The necessity of maintaining a highly qualified, knowledge economy-proficient workforce requires the development of the various HRD strategies that include, while not being limited to, personnel training and learning, as well as the organizational development (OD; Grieves, 2003, p.106).

According to Grieves (2003), the HRD models are still relatively underdeveloped, especially in comparison with the more established HRM frameworks. For instance, in Continental Europe, the HRD is usually conceptualized as involving, first and foremost, labor force training and development and/or action plan making, whilst the British HRD theorists identify organizational transformation strategies as the major focus of their interpretational efforts (Grieves, 2003, p.106). The latter approach was exemplified by Swanson’s (1999) definition of HRD as a “process of developing…human expertise through organisation development and personnel training and development”, with the objective of “improving performance at the organisational, process and individual/group level” being emphasized as the HRD’s core feature (Swanson, 1999, pp. 2-3).

On the other hand, such authors as Lee (2001) and Dilworth (2003) seem to be in categorical denial on the issue of the HRD definition. They argue that the complexities of the subject matter preclude the one-dimensional definition of the HRD concept. Still, such researchers as Abdullah (2009) managed to construct a compelling framework of the HRD definition that appears to be viewing the HRD strategies through a multi-functional lens. In particular, the “interrelated functions” of individual development/training and development, organizational development/change management, career planning and development, and performance improvement were specified by the author (Abdullah, 2009, p.489).

Proceeding from the aforementioned, one may conclude that it is possible to define the SHRD as a complex of strategic approaches to organizational and personnel development, planning and performance improvement within a context of modern, competition-driven, corporate environment marked by growing specialization and managerial hierarchies. This definition may prepare the reader for a deeper discussion of the SHRD research issues.

SHRD: Aims and approaches

While Kaplan & Norton (2001) correctly observe that the strategies of each firm’s management are dependent on specific objectives under consideration, it is still possible to try and delimit typical concerns that motivate HR managers in proffering their respective approaches to human resources development. A variety of perspectives exist on this subject matter, with some of them meriting a separate discussion.

According to Grieves (2003), the key innovation produced by modern SHRD paradigm appears to be lying in the replacement of training, based on “passive stimulus and response” principles, with learning programs, designed to unleash the personnel’s creative capacities for the fulfillment of the organization’s goals (2003, p.117). The concept of work-based learning (WBL) explained by Grieves (2003) seems to be centered on “the continuous development of processes and activities within the organization” which would necessarily take the foremost place in a neoliberal competitive economy.

Reynolds (2004) specifies corporate learning culture as the key component of the HRD strategies. In his interpretation, the discretionary learning principle should be entrenched as the foundation of the SHRD, due to the latter’s dependence on personnel’s cognitive capacities.

Similarly, Keep (2001) emphasizes that HRD’s principal goal is likely to consist in “the creation of conditions whereby the latent potential of employees will be realized and their commitment to the causes of the organization secured” (2001, p.112). Thus, the link between learning strategies and organization’s human capital development is underscored by the core contributions on this matter.

According to Armstrong (2006), the SHRD philosophy rests on the four points comprising the basis for any successful HR strategy. These are learning, training, development, and education (2006, p.135).

Learning would be regarded as the result of “the intellect and the collective synergy of groups and teams” that emphasize “creativity” as their underpinning factor (Grieves, 2003, p.117). It is through experimentation and improvisation provided by superior learning that the best performance results might be delivered (Kaplan & Norton, 2001).

While straightforward training processes have been, relatively speaking, downgraded with the advent of modern HRM/HRD paradigm (Salaman, Storey, & Billsberry, 2005), it is still a necessary requirement for preparing and maintaining the professional knowledge workers’ labor force that is instrumental for present production models. In its practical dimension, training encompasses “learning events, programmes and instruction that enable individuals to achieve the levels of knowledge, skill and competence needed to carry out their work effectively” (Armstrong, 2006, p.135). Accordingly, the SHRD practitioners would need to attain a high level of organizational science knowledge before they may be able to develop the necessary organizational change strategies (Grieves, 2003).

Therefore, the majority of SHRD approaches focus on learning as the fundamental factor constituting the basis for a successful HRD practice. However, the issues of HRD strategies’ structure still remain at center of the researchers’ debate, as demonstrated in the following section.

HRD strategies: divergent approaches

In spite of nearly unanimous agreement on the importance of learning, various SHRD theorists put diverse emphasis on the specific HRD strategies which would contribute to greater performance and organizational efficiency. In this section, some of the research questions posed by this debate are to be properly reviewed.

Armstrong (2006) delineates several types of the HRD strategies that proceed from different starting points. In general, these include learning culture creation strategies, organizational learning strategies, and individual learning strategies, with further sub-divisions within each category (2006, pp.136-140).

The concept of learning culture underlies the definition of the first of the aforementioned categories. Reynolds (2004) regards learning culture as the set of corporate culture stereotypes that would promote self-managed learning among the employees. In contrast to previous understanding of training and learning, the author emphasizes the non-supervised and long-term character of the learning procedures under such HRD regime, with employees taking their own initiative to advance learning objectives. As quoted by Armstrong (2006, p.136), Reynolds proposes the multi-stage learning culture’s creation strategy which would include such steps as vision development, employee empowerment, the supportive learning environment provision, wider coaching techniques implementation, etc. The main preoccupation of the author seems to be centered on providing the “communities of practice” HRD system, as opposed to conservative top-down approaches.

Organizational learning strategies are built on the assumption that it is an organization that provides the best possible learning environment, and that organizational learning constitutes the most efficient SHRD form. According to Marsick (1994), organizational learning matrices enable both individual and group actors to “access, build and use organizational memory, structure and culture to develop long-term organizational capacity” (quoted in Armstrong, 2006, p.137). Following the Excellence Movement’s legacy (Grieves, 2003, p.50), the majority of organizational learning strategies may focus on flexibility and decentralization, with a view to preventing the formation of a knowledge-monopolizing attitude on the part of certain managerial layers (Thompson & O’Connell Davidson, 1995). Hence, a concept of “learning organization” as an “organization which facilitates the learning of its members and continually transforms itself” (Pedler, Boydell, & Burgoyne, 1989; quoted in Armstrong, 2006, p.138) has been propounded by certain scholars, with Garvin (1993) and Sloman (1999, 20 May) making the greatest effort towards its popularization.

Finally, individual learning strategies focus on shifting the emphasis in training and learning programs to the individual skill and knowledge improvement within a firm. Such scholars as Sloman (2003) uphold the need for articulating individual learning climate within the corporate environment. In Sloman’s interpretation, the key responsibility for learning and development would be devolved to individual learners and/or their teams, which would culminate in an “integrated approach to creating competitive advantage through people in the organization” (2003, p. 86).

That said, one may conclude that the SHRD activities are generally connected with the idea of learning as a progressive acquirement of the higher proficiencies in the respective fields. However, it should be emphasized that learning as quantitative change is conceptualized as a mere part of development as a qualitative progression, meaning that SHRD is not limited to simple training and learning techniques. So far, the SHRD scholars have not succeeded in constructing an all-encompassing framework for presenting the field as an integral part of wider HRM studies; therefore, this task remains entrusted to future researchers.

Conclusion

The analysis of SHRD as a sub-set of HRM studies has enabled the author to make a conclusion that the main trends in the field seem to be connected with the growing emphasis on learning strategies, both collective and individual. Such development would relegate the discipline’s peripheral aspects (such as psychological/behavioral factors influencing the process of learning, training and development) to secondary positions. This represents a major deficiency within the modern discipline of HRD studies, and should be overcome.

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