HRM - Does it work and how can we know?

Steve Fleetwood, Emertius Professor of ER & HRM, UWE and Dr Ganess Dirpal, Lecturer in HRM, University of Mauritius share some of the outcomes of their qualitative research into HRM practices and discuss why this type of research could be the key to understanding why HRM works when it does work and, perhaps more importantly, how and why it fails when it does fail. 

Until recently virtually all research into HRM made use of statistical theory and statistical techniques to try and establish quantifiable, predictable, and regular or law-like associations between the introduction of various HR practices and increased organizational performance.

The evidence has been inconclusive. As one group of respected researchers put it: “Despite this extensive effort the goal of establishing a clear link between HR practices and performance still seems some way off” (Purcell et al 2009: 3).

In addition, this research has a blind-spot. Even evidence appearing to suggest the existence of an association between HRM practices and performance, does not explain the link. While the evidence may appear to support the hypothesis that “the introduction of team-working is associated with increased performance”, this kind of research cannot explain this hypothesis. Unfortunately, this means that our conceptions of HRM are reduced to a ‘black box’ - i.e. incomes go in and outcomes go out, but no one knows how or why the incomes become outcomes.

Moreover, problems arise because we are not dealing with phenomena that manifest themselves as quantifiable, predictable, and regular or law-like associations, but with un-quantifiable and unpredictable phenomena that manifest themselves as tendencies.

We would suggest, therefore, that the solution is to use qualitative research techniques and qualitative evidence to ascertain how and why HRM `works´ when it does – and when it doesn’t.

Working as a supervisor and doctoral student team, the authors adopted qualitative research techniques to investigate an area which is commonly considered to be the domain of quantitative research (Dirpal 2015).

Using in-depth unstructured, or unscripted interviews, Dirpal carried out empirical research on the relation between six HRM practices - team-working, performance appraisal, work-life balance, inculcation of corporate culture, empowerment and reward management - and organisational performance. This research was the first of its kind and aimed to show how qualitative research into HRM practices and performance could be undertaken.

The research was specifically designed to reveal how each of these HRM practices exerted a causal influence on organisational performance. It did this by asking employees if their performance had increased or decreased following the introduction of each of these HRM practices, and then asked them to explain what, if anything, they were doing differently. In most instances, employees were able to indicate whether an HRM practice exerted a strong or weak causal influence on their activities, and whether their performance had increased a little or a lot.

The overall result was that team-working, performance appraisal, and work-life balance tended to increase organisational performance; whereas inculcation of corporate culture, empowerment and rewards tended to have a neutral effect.

The entire findings of the research cannot be present here, but let’s focus one of the six practices, team-working, then select one of its sub-practice, inter-team competition´ as an example. 

Evidence suggests that inter-team competition causes a tendency to increase performance, but how does it do this?  Inter-team competition acts as a motivator to increase the performance of Customer Service Representatives (CSR). Each CSR is made responsible for following each other’s targets and meeting them.

This allows them to motivate each other and to keep a close watch on each other.  It acts as a form of lateral control. There is a recognition at team level that while hard work is required to achieve results, this effort is worth it in order to achieve pole position. The following snippets are evidence of this:

“The extra effort that’s put is not wasted at all. What we have to do beside our tasks are: to keep our eyes on the targets, to keep pushing each other, to keep the team motivated, to help each other out even if we have other things to do.”

“This requires a lot of determination e.g. not taking time off, helping each other out, training new staff and pressuring others to pull their weight.”

If more areas of HRM where investigated with similar qualitative research techniques then the qualitative evidence would put us in a better position to know how and why HRM works when it does work and, perhaps more importantly, how and why it fails when it does fail. 

References and further reading

  • Dirpal, G. (2015) `Human Resource Management Practices and Performance Link: Applying Critical Realist Meta-Theory, University of the West of England.

  • Fleetwood, S. Hesketh, A. (2010) Explaining the Performance of Human Resource Management, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

  • Purcell, J. Kinnie, N. Swart, J. Rayton, B.Hutchinson, S. (2009) People Management and Performance, London: Routledge.