The HR/IR Theory-Reality "Lag"--An Exploration.

AuthorJoseph, Jerome
PositionHuman resources and industrial relations


The Human Resource Management function in contemporary organizations has marginalized the industrial relations function and in the same vein human resource management "theories" have overrun industrial relations theorizing. Meanwhile, while the tussle between the two streams of theory and practice has been going on, today's "reality" is at variance with prevailing HRM and IR constructions which are purportedly "representing" reality and with HRM and IR practices which are proffered as best suited to "managing" reality.

The problem is not one of disconnect between theory and practice nor of disconnect of theory from practice, but the alienation of reality itself from both theory as well as practice as disseminated through management education and executive development processes. Theories are meant to help in interpreting and explaining practices while observations of practices are expected to provide a laboratory for grounded theorizing. The discourse is unfortunately between theory and practice when it should be with ongoing reality. But when reality is disconnected from theory, it is time to take a critical look at the theory-reality lag.

The practice of HRM, packaging variations apart (the latest being "talent" management), revolves around themes like recruitment and selection, learning and development, performance assessment, compensation and benefits, recognition, employee "engagement" and career development. Central to HRM practice is the performance management function with which every other HRM sub function is configured and by which the entire HRM function is wired to strategic corporate objectives read as results and returns. The HRM function is then projected as a "business" partner and the view which is promulgated is that HR has nothing to do with "people" and has everything to do with "aligning" with strategic "business" imperatives.

The practice of industrial relations traditionally was expected to focus on labor law compliance, negotiating with unions (if any), collective bargaining, statutory benefits compliance, discipline management, grievance redressal and statutory or non-statutory employee consultative mechanisms, and litigation management. The minimum expectation from the industrial relations function and practice in a "free market" democracy is a commitment to "professional" independence in dealing with industrial relations problems, "impartial" deployment of industrial relations mechanisms and processes in addressing issues and an aspiration for nurturing "mutually beneficial" relationships among industrial relations stakeholders even in situations of contested volatility. The industrial relations role is not that of a closely aligned "business partner" but as a "mediator-negotiator" balancing congruent as well as divergent interests of stakeholders in engagement with each other with a certain relational ethos underlying these practices, around which there may be adherents as well as critics.

Broadly HRM theories can be categorized into behavioral and functional constructions. Behavioral approaches focus on "humanist" theories and their normative standards as frames for designing HRM practice. Maslow's Theory of Hierarchical Needs (Maslow, 1943:370-96), Herzberg's Motivation Hygiene Theory (Herzberg et al, 1959), McGregor's Theory X and Theory Y (McGregor, 1960) and Likert's Four Systems Theory (Likert, 1967), and McClelland's Achievement Theory (McClelland, 1961), Vroom's (1964) Expectancy Theory and Adams (1963) Equity Theory with the alternate world views of the task oriented Taylor (1911) and the human relations slanted Mayo (1946;1949) hovering in the background constitute the behavioral underpinnings of the crafting of HRM policies and practices, systems and processes as depicted in teaching-training-learning engagements. The question however is to what extent do such theories of human needs relate to the direct producer of goods and services in a world which in the past three decades has been driven by globalization and a context in which garments production, for instance, is dispersed across the globe in the hands of "low cost" national suppliers while the outcomes and gains are garnered by international brands which "own" the products and services? Who do these theories resonate with the direct producers (workers of suppliers) scattered across the world or the appropriators of gains (the brands) in what is euphemistically referred to as the "global supply chain"?

Functional Theories

There are a few dominant functional HR theories which find a place in teaching-learning processes in course and program offerings in management schools. Beer et al (1984) came up with a conceptual framework in which HRM is a function of stakeholder interests, situational factors, HR policies, outcomes and long-term benefits. About the same time, Fombrun et al (1984) conceptualized strategic HRM as a function of selection, performance, appraisal, rewards and development. Walton (1985) proffered the "control versus commitment" practice choices for crafting the human resource management function. Pfeiffer (1994) proposed the "sixteen specific practices" profile of "high performance" HRM--employment security, selectivity in recruiting, high wages, incentive pay, employee ownership, information sharing, participation and empowerment, teams and job-redesign, training and skills development, cross-utilization and cross-training, symbolic egalitarianism, wage compression, promotion from within, long-term perspective, measurement of practices, overarching philosophy. Huselid (1995) empirically established the link between high performance HR practices and both intermediate employee related outcomes and corporate financial performance.

Again, the question arises as to where do we locate the relevance of these theories and their applications to national suppliers of HRM practice in the global supply chain? What is their relevance in the lived experiences of direct producers in national supplier organizations? Or is it implied that the dominant behavioral and functional theories of HRM are relevant for the organizations of "brands" who own the output and the gains accruing from the products and services? Then in that case, is the implication to be drawn that HRM theories are of relevance for the more "sophisticated" organizations of product owning brands whereas for the direct producers in "less" sophisticated supplier organizations IR theories would suffice and would be more relevant?

Turning then to industrial relations, there are a few "theories" which find a place in whatever is "leftover" in terms of space in teaching-training-learning processes in management education after HRM has had its say. Dunlop (1958) has his place with his view that IR is about rules and rule-making. Flanders (1970) has put forward the view that IR revolves around stakeholder institutions. Fox...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT