Some companies are turning their backs on so-called ‘touchy-feely’ HR initiatives such as culture change programs. Instead they are focusing on performance-measurement processes and increasing technical skills through targeted development as a means to reduce cost and ensuring greater value from staff.
In this new environment employees must ‘prove their value to the company’ in ways that can be measured. These pressures have forced the human resource management (HRM) function to undergo a radical transformation by justifying its role and existence. Given this context, a relatively underdeveloped area of research in HR has been its relationship with line management. The role of line managers has always been central to the concept of HRM. However, the roles of the HR manager and line managers as part of the HR function role are often not clearly thought through.
An AHRI and Australian Research Council-sponsored project – Human Resource Managers’ Contribution to Workplace Performance – involved interviews with 93 line managers and 51 HR managers from 10 organisations. In addition, a survey of nearly 1500 employees was carried out, which was designed to assess employee perceptions and evaluations of management and HR practices in their organisation.
The companies covered a wide range of work and organisational complexity across key industries.
This research suggests that while the HR function is likely to change, it is not playing a diminishing role in organisational decision-making. It appears to have acquired a degree of influence in providing the balance between behaviours and performance. In particular, HR managers believe they and the HR function add value to the organisation, and a majority of HR managers believe they and the HR function can also be ‘influential’ in operational and strategic decisions.
The majority of senior HR managers see their role as a strategic partner, although junior HR managers see their roles in terms of a functional expert; employee retention and the employee relationship are seen by HR managers as central to their role. A real challenge for the HR function is the lack of resources.
Second, HR managers indicated that HR was good at strategy, understanding the business, retention and employee development; they saw room for improvement in addressing retention issues, and communication and engagement with line managers and through the organisation. HR managers still saw their main priority as providing administrative tasks and learning and development.
Our research suggests that HR professionals may in fact have dual identities as a means to satisfy their role, activities and values. When looking at the results produced from the line managers’ interviews, several issues were highlighted:
In terms of people management, communication, culture and retention were key issues. Line managers generally see HR goals in terms of operational terms or providing support rather than in terms of strategic goals. However, where HR undertakes a strategic approach, this is considered to be positive.
There were some positive and negative issues regarding operational responsibilities of the HR function. Where it is effective it greatly adds value to line management. However, where it is slow or administrative in delivery it creates concerns for line management. In regards to the employment relationship, a minority of line managers believe operation is not an HR responsibility. And finally, again, there was overwhelming support from line managers in terms of HR contribution to the future of their organisation. They were also positive about HR’s contribution to creating a more engaged and committed workforce.
It is clear that the HR function does have an important and central role in high-performing organisations. The use of sophisticated employee development and training programs to give workers opportunities not only with their employer but also in the future provide the necessary security in the brave new market-driven world.
Finally, for many employers ‘softer’ HR strategies would seem to have been replaced by greater focus on performance and technical skills. The challenge for HR is to step up to the mark and not only to embrace but also to fully integrate this new world of work. For HR managers, there are challenges, but the opportunities are there for those who recognise them.
Dr Paul Gollan is Professor of management, faculty of business and economics, Macquarie University, Sydney, This article is an edited version of a paper first published in the Asia Pacific Journal of Human Resources (July 2012 edition). AHRI members can read the full version with references on the AHRI website http://bit.ly/Jnnat9. The paper was based on a project funded by the Australian Research Council, AHRI, Australian School of Business and Macquarie University.