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An Introduction to Human Resource Management. Second Edition - Leadership and Management for HR Professionals. Second Edition - Strategic Human Resource Management - Human Resource Management - The Workforce Scorecard
February 24, 2006

Controversies in the meaning, scope and approaches to human resource management (HRM) are acutely evident in comparing these five books. Three are textbooks; one, edited by three authors, is a "reader"; while The Workforce Scorecard is an airport "cookbook" urging management to measure everything to do with the workforce.

One of these controversies is the long-running debate on quite what HRM is all about. Is it a generic term covering all aspects and types of workforce management - "the good, the bad and the ugly", to quote David Guest - or is it, as John Storey argues, "a distinctive approach to employment management which seeks to achieve competitive advantage through the strategic deployment of a highly committed and capable workforce using an array of cultural, structural and personnel techniques"?

Given that less than 20 per cent of companies in the UK and US adopt a majority of the practices required to achieve high-performance work systems or high-commitment management, this restrictive focus leaves students wondering what the other organisations do and whether it is wise to exclude them from study. The justification for a focus on this distinctive approach to employment management is that it is the dominant issue that marks the difference between HRM and its predecessor, personnel management (a debate that Karen Legge suggests is now fruitless). It also pushes management, and thus analysts, into new territory where organisation policies and cultures are designed to try to inhabit the minds and souls of employees as a means of seeking commitment. Commitment, the new buzzword, is not calculative reciprocity on the part of the employee but has a moral, emotive base.

Thus, Legge's central proposition that management must achieve both control and consent becomes, as she says, a search for commitment beyond mere acceptance of authority. If some of this mind-and-soul stuff sounds far-fetched I would urge reading the extract by Madeline Bunting in Strategic Human Resource Management concerning the winners of The Sunday Times 's Top 100 Companies to Work For: Microsoft and Asda. This seemingly value-free description of life in these two "excellent" companies is either chilling or inspiring depending on your value system. It shows, too, how a top-class journalist is worth a hundred academics.

Whatever the definition of HRM adopted, a second controversy concerns how we urge students to approach the subject. Should they adopt a critical management stance or a more policy-oriented perspective? Textbooks that seek to meet the standards and syllabi set by the accreditation body for HR professionals, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, normally lean towards the latter approach.

An Introduction to Human Resource Management provides a workmanlike coverage of the main aspects of HRM. However, Leadership and Management for HR Professionals meets the institute's very broad standards for leadership and management, confronting wider areas of leadership, performance management and analysis of strategic business contexts. Both are introductory texts with vignette case examples and tell students what ought to happen in the best-run organisations. This they do well, but the contrast between what ought to happen and the student's experiences at work is likely to be profound and deserves attention. This can be found in abundance in Human Resource Management and in some sections of Strategic Human Resource Management . Not for nothing is the subtitle of Legge's book "Rhetorics and Realities".

When HRM came to Europe from the US some 20 years ago it was criticised for its assumptions about the managerial prerogative and exclusive concern with maximising shareholder value via the adoption of what were seen as manipulative techniques. UKpublishers were nervous of books that took a critical stance since they doubted there was a market for them beyond a few left-wing academics. Such fears were unfounded. Legge and Storey produced books that sold well. Legge's book is a classic bestseller and will remain so for many years.

This is not a revised edition but a reprint of the original with a 40-page "preview and postscript" at the front (although it should really be read last as it requires substantial knowledge to make sense of the debates she alludes to). The European approach is neatly summarised by Graeme Salaman et al in their opening chapter. "Strategic (HRM) can best be understood in relation to the wider political, economic and social movements; in relation to major shifts in ideas and their underlying cultural contexts; and in relation to daily experimentation by managers and workers as they try out the theories of 'professional theorists' and of 'practitioner-theorists'."

None of this is evident in the purely American book, The Workforce Scorecard . Here the audit society has reached its ultimate elaboration with measures for everything and not a word about the transactional costs of collecting and analysing the (often highly dubious) data. The key proposition here is the need to differentiate the workforce into A, B and C jobs and players. C jobs are to be eliminated and C players "exited". In "strategic workforce customization", A jobs and players delivering core value are to be heavily incentivised. Legge's acerbic faculties would soon deconstruct all this.

All of the books reviewed are second editions. With the exception of the The Workforce Scorecard , which merely elaborates on the previous edition, all the titles touch on key debates in recent years. Most notable is the search for the so-called "HR Holy Grail", the link between HRM and organisational performance. The two introductory textbooks do this with some difficulty in the opening (new) chapters since there is no clear dominant model or approach and students can find the debate confusing. John Stredwick recognises this in his consideration of best fit, best practice and the resource-based view of organisations. Other emerging themes are globalisation (or international HRM) and ethics. Legge is particularly good on the latter in her new chapter, while Salaman's work has a useful extract on "debunking five business ethics myths".

These controversies in HRM make choosing a textbook difficult. Tutors must be clear on the scope of the subject they want the students to tackle and how far to go into areas such as the management of change, managerial behaviour and worker psychology. A second choice is whether to focus on managerial techniques, amply covered by Stredwick especially, or take the critical route preferred by Legge and Salaman et al . This choice will be influenced by the level of the students, who need to have a grasp of techniques before they begin to deconstruct them with critical management approaches.

These five books are only a few of the many HRM textbooks available and do not typify the field. With so many textbooks on the market, it is worth getting inspection copies to help inform choice once the teaching team has debated what they think HRM is and how it should be taught. There is no one best approach and no end in sight to resolving the controversies that confuse the subject.

John Purcell is professor of human resource management, Bath University.

An Introduction to Human Resource Management. Second Edition

Author - John Stredwick
Publisher - Elsevier Butterworth Heinemann
Pages - 481
Price - £24.99
ISBN - 0 7506 6534 3

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