The theoretical development of HRM as a field since the early 1980s has focussed on its importance as a strategic area of management. One of the most influential presentations of the new field, that associated with the Harvard Business School proposed that HRM should be given a ‘General Managers’ perspective” (Beer et. al, 1986). In general the field has been presented as providing a break from tradition of personnel management by introducing the importance of a strategic link between HR activities and business policies (see discussion in Story (ed) 1995). As a consequence the role of the HR Department has itself come under scrutiny. Storey (2000) points out one of the important characteristics of HRM are that line managers should accept responsibility for making operational decisions about HRM and for driving the HR policy.
In his 1992 book Storey described the possible roles of HR Departments in terms of two main dimensions. The first of these was the degree to which the HR Department intervened in the way managers at all levels undertook decisions on personnel related matters. The other dimension relates to whether their actions were related to the overall Strategic direction of the company or whether they were concerned with more tactical adjustments in staffing arrangements. The diagram below illustrates the way these two dimensions intersect. We will examine each of these dimensions in turn before considering the way in which they influence the overall approach to the HRM function.
Degree of Intervention in HR decisions
Strategic approaches to HRM suggest that there needs to be active choice made by managers in relation to human resource policy and practice (Beer et. al. 1986). In the original conception of this idea Beer et. al saw this as a ‘General Managers responsibility’. In practice HR specialists are increasingly expected to contribute to this role. An interventionist HR group might therefore be involved in the active determination of workforce policies such as recruitment, career management and performance management.
They might be expected to pursue changes which positively build new cultures. To do this HR specialists might need to exercise skills in organisational change and development. They might advise and even determine the overall approach to people management. At the other end of this spectrum a less interventionist HR group would act in response to initiatives by line managers. Their reactive role might be to assist (be a handmaiden) or simply advise on options available to line managers. Their role would be as a specialist unit available for use by the real decision makers.
Strategy vs. Tactics
In strategic management theories it is assumed that HR specialist would act to align HR practices with business objectives. The more strategic actions suggest a policy oriented approach in which HR managers take either direct responsibility or at least offer strategic advice to those undertaking the vital role of strategic alignment. For HR specialist less strategically connected the role might be more about how to adjust existing behaviour to standards already determined. This is classically the area of activity seen to be typical of older style personnel managers where a concern for compliance with processes and rule is important or where the HR specialist is simply assisting other line managers’ deal with day to day issues.
The diagram illustrates the way the interaction between these two dimensions produces 4 typical approaches to the HRM function as indicated in the following diagram (Storey, 1992).
This approach to the function is one in which HR specialists take the front line in aligning and developing human resource practices likely to produce strategic business outcomes. This is an active and leading role in organisational development
In contrast this interventionist role is more concerned with the application of existing rules to the management of people. It is a role in which standardisation of approaches, a tactical response to external challenges, is considered appropriate.
Advisors are strategically oriented specialists who help others undertake change rather than take responsibility for it. Their role is that of the internal consultant dealing. They will exhibit a close understanding of business objectives and of the sometimes unpleasant implication of those business needs for people management, but will offer fearless advice to line managers.
In this quadrant the HR specialist assists line managers to deal with everyday issues. The Specialist takes little responsibility for decisions and is a function dedicated to providing advice on options available to line managers. The advice is not necessarily focussed on business outcomes but may be concerned to avoid ‘trouble’ with external regulators, or follow industry standards rather then any independent direction.
Beer, M., Spector, B., Mills, D.Q. and Walton, R.E. 1985. Human Resource Management: A General Manager’s Perspective. Glencoe: Free Press.
Storey, J. 1992. New Developments in the Management of Human Resources. Oxford: Blackwell.
Storey J. and Sissons K. (1993) Managing Human Resources and Industrial Relations, OU Press.
Storey, J. 1995. ‘Human Resource management: A critical text’. London: