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Alternative HRM models

Based on Human Resource Management, 4th edition, by Alan Price

The terminology used in academic human resource literature is problematic because some authors distinguish between 'the HRM model' as distinct from 'the Personnel model' (e.g. Bratton and Gould, 1999: 17) while others identify a number of different HRM models (including Bratton and Gould, a paragraph later).

Keenoy (1999) compares HRM with a hologram:

"As with a hologram, HRM changes its appearance as we move around its image. Each shift of stance reveals another facet, a darker depth, a different contour. As a fluid entity of apparently multiple identities and forms, it is not surprising that every time we look at it, it is slightly different. This is why, conceptually, HRMism appears to be a moving target, and why, empirically, it has no fixed (fixable) forms."

Not surprisingly, you will find a multiplicity of interpretations, some in the shape of formal models. The two most influential are the Harvard and Michigan models from the 1980s. More recently, 'best practice' approaches have featured of which the most significant have been by Pfeffer and Ulrich.

Pfeffer argues - in a series of books - that the greatest competitive advantage is to be obtained from people rather than technology. He contends that investment in technology is not enough, because that technology is (or soon will be) available to competitors. And the more complex the technology - the more it requires people skills anyway. Instead we need that variant of HRM described as 'high-performance management' (US) or 'high-commitment management' (elsewhere).

Where do HRM models come from?

For the purposes of this discussion, we accept that there are numerous models and at least as many ways of classifying them - for example, 'hard and soft', 'normative and prescriptive'. Legge has produced a four-way classification, dividing models into the following types:

  • Normative
  • Descriptive-functional
  • Descriptive-behavioural
  • Critical evaluative

Tyson, on the other hand, has a three-way breakdown: normative, descriptive and analytical. Unfortunately, even these terms have contested meanings so that the Harvard model, for example, can be viewed as analyitcal or prescriptive - or a mixture of both.

Taking our analysis to its most basic level, we can consider HRM models from two fundamental perspectives:

  • What are the similarities between them?
  • Conversely, how do they differ?

Bratton and Gould (1999: 17) argue that: "Many of the key elements of the HRM model are drawn from organizational behaviour theories, such as motivation, team building and leadership." They go on to cite Legge (1989) as a reference for the assertion that 'most normative HRM models, whether US or British, assert that the organization's 'human resources' are valued assets, not a variable cost, and emphasise the commitment of employees as a source of competitive advantage.' They identify the classic theories of Maslow (1954) and Herzberg (1966) as being at the root of assumptions about the nature and exploitation of human potential while McGregor's Theory Y underpins notions of commitment and trust.

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