Saturday, 14 August 2010

A Final Blog from the AOM: New Developments in Strategic Human Resource Management

I’m about to begin writing a new book exploring the links between HRM and business strategy, a conjunction of ideas which has been at the core of my work for the last few decades. So, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the AOM conference had some core tracks on this subject, the main participants of which have organized an interest group - rather unfortunately in my view - labelled ‘strategic human capital' (are we really interested in human capital or even human resources, or should we be more interested in resourceful humans?). The first conference stream dedicated to research in this field is due to take place at the Strategic Management Society annual conference in Rome in September and fields an impressive array of American scholars, including Dave Lepak, Pat Wright and Russ Coff.

During the AOM conference there were some excellent papers mapping out the field and addressing the question of what it means to be strategic in HRM. Shad Morris used this session as an opportunity to explore how organizations manage their star performers and attempt to expropriate value from them to create firm specific human capital - a very tricky problem because stars often have an inbuilt incentive and the power to expropriate value from the companies with which they deign to work to build their own general human capital. Another paper by Dana Minbaeva from the Copenhagen Business School HR team explored the bridge between the macro-micro divide. This may sound like academic jargon but is an extremely important issue for practitioners to understand.  It is not enough to have a set of so called best HR practices in place to ensure desirable individual and group attitudes and behaviour; we also need understand how these practices are implemented, the signals they send out and how these signals are perceived by individuals in particular contexts. This signalling theory approach, of which we have written about in a new book chapter, was demonstrated in another paper entitled ‘ Why are job seekers attracted to socially responsible companies? Testing underlying mechanisms’ by David Jones and colleagues from the University of Vermont. One of the insights generated by this paper is that it is not CSR in itself that attracts potential employees, but the inferences that such people make from the signalling cues of such policies. In this paper, environmental oriented CSR policies did not have as big an impact on the attractiveness of an organizational to potential employees as those policies focusing on being community-oriented i.e. signals from the corporate citizenship elements of the CSR policy were picked up by potential applicants as ‘they treat the local community well, so they must treat employees well’ and 'if they treat there employees well, I will apply to this organization'.

The third and fourth papers, however, provided even better insights into how we can conceive strategic human resource management.  A presentation by Lisa Hisae Nishii outlined a process theory of SHRM. The main contribution of process theory lies in explaining how the success of HRM is very much down to the implementation of policies, especially in meeting the valued expectations of employees, i.e. meeting psychological contract expectations. We provided a similar explanation in 2001 in a paper entitled ‘Transforming multinational enterprises: towards a process model of strategic human resource management change’ in the International Journal of Human Resource Management, but it will take someone of the stature of Pat Wright to get this idea into practice. The final and probably best paper was presented by Robert Kaše from Ljubljana. His was an attempt to map out the relationship between HRM and organizational outcomes using a social network perspective. Robert’s ideas would be the most difficult to put into practice because they highlighted the complex and multiple relationships inside and outside of organizations which have to be understood before we can predict with any certainty the impact of HRM policies. However, to get an accurate picture of HRM in organizations, such complex understandings are needed. One of the few examples I have seen of this kind of social network mapping is IBM’s attempt to capture the informal communications patterns which only become evident through tracking online social network communications. Such an activity is only made possible because the company has access to the IP addresses of all users of the company’s social networking software and can trace their communications. The patterns that emerged showed the importance of ‘mavens’ and ‘connectors’ who were critical to knowledge creation and sharing in the organization, so allowing IBM to create organizational structures which built on the bottom-up informal organization structures rather than on the top down formal structures.

If  anyone is interested in these papers, which are unlikely to be published for a year or two, the authors may be willing to share their work with you if you email them.  Most can be found using a Google search.

However, no matter how many times I attend the AOM conference – I’ve been going for a dozen or so years – I’m always amazed by the differences between business and management and HR on this side of the pond from what goes on in the USA. One example that rammed this point home to me this year was the statement by one of the leaders of the new strategic human capital interest group that I began this post with. He proposed a ‘revolutionary’ idea that US scholars and practitioners took the shareholder value perspective as given, arguing that this assumption needed to be questioned for the field to move on. Quelle surprise! I felt obliged to point out to the largely US audience that shareholder value was not a given outside of the USA, especially in some parts of Europe and Asia, and that we had recently written a 'not so revolutionary' paper on four configurations relating different corporate governance assumptions (shareholder value, stewardship theory, stakeholder theory and context-bound theory) to different sets of ethical and strategic assumptions, and through these to particular strategic HR policies. I also felt obliged that this notion was not even revolutionary among scholars in the USA. In a manner reminiscent of the love affair with Japanese management in the 1980s and 1990s, Peter Cappelli from the Wharton School and his Indian colleagues have just produced a piece of research in the Academy of Management Perspectives extolling the virtues of an Indian approach to management and what US firms can learn from them. The single most important feature they found of corporate governance among Indian companies was the ‘determination to balance the interests of the firm’s diverse stakeholders’. Being a representative of shareholders came only fourth on a list of priorities for business leaders. First was acting as a guardian for the mission driven strategy, which embodied social as well as economic goals, second was as guardians of the firm’s culture, and third was as acting as guide or teacher for employees.

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