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Literature review on contemporary HRD Essay

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Critically discuss and evaluate current perspectives on the changing role and nature of training and learning in organisations and human resource development. This should include a critical appraisal of key theoretical perspectives on the strategic role of HRD within contemporary organisational contexts

Within this submission, I have illustrated the changing role and nature of training and learning within context of a learning organisation.

Training and learning in organisations.

So what do we mean by training and learning within an organisation? One view is that it is about developing a learning organisation, an ‘organization that is continually expanding its capacity to create its future. For such an organization, it is not enough merely to survive, ‘Survival learning’ what is more often termed ‘adaptive learning’ is important, indeed it is necessary.

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But for a learning organization, ‘adaptive learning’ must be joined by ‘generative learning,’ learning that enhances our capacity to create’. Senge (1999:14) Further support for this ‘generative’ view is seen in Wick and Westley (1996) who take the perspective that a learning organisation should be seen against the backdrop of its culture. Arguing values, beliefs, feelings, artefacts, myths, symbols, metaphors’ form part of any approach taken by a learning organisation. It arguably impossible to clinically define what a learning organisation consists of in a generic form. By creating a learning organisation you create a learning climate, thus hopefully a training and learning culture.

Senge takes the view that, what fundamentally will distinguish learning organizations from traditional authoritarian “controlling organizations” will be the ‘mastery of certain basic disciplines. That is why the “disciplines of the learning organization” are vital’. Senge (1999: 5). However, it is to be noted that Senge uses the word discipline to mean a set of practices rather than a rigid system of rules, which is often inferred understood in the modern use of the word. Going on to comment, ‘To practice a discipline is to be a lifelong learner.

You never arrive; you spend your life mastering disciplines’. Senge (1999: 11) Futher confirming the view that, this area of management study is far from being a science, but he does present offer a few guiding principles in his best selling book, The Fifth Discipline, ‘Have realistic goals, challenge your assumptions, commit to a shared vision and that teamworking is good for you. We see here the dualistic approach of both the need for the organisation and the individual to become intrinsically involved in the concept.

Although a popular view, others have felt that organisation learn in there own right, almost biologically. Schon for example sees organisations as, ‘repositories of knowledge’ independent of their members (Schon, 1983:242).

There is a wide school of thought that learning organisations develop and are not imposed, ‘…as cultures develop and alter their expectations, (an example of which would include the demise of unions and the capitalist ideology of the Thatcher years) so must organisations change that employ within that culture.’ (Schon, 1983). Further cultural identities in terms of sector, product or organisations must also be taken into account, highlighted by the work of both Argyris (1960) and Hofstede (1994).

One mistaken view is that the term a ‘learning organisation’ is a new concept. It is certainly true that as the world changes new approaches must be investigated to maintain both personal and organisational survival. However, the idea that organisations have only recently had to deal with changing situations, both operationally and strategically, is clearly absurd. Only the pace and scope of change in the last 50 years has brought the spotlight on organisations managing its human resource in a more effective manner. It remains a truism that it is not an argument about leaning and development, after all we have all learnt and development within any organisation we have been in contact with either consciously or subconsciously. The argument must surely be how we identify, focus and deliver that learning in an organisational context to produce value to the individual and therefore hopefully the organization. A view highlighted by Argyris and Schon (1974)

Historically this point is confirmed, ‘We trained hard… but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up in teams we would be reorganised. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganising…’ Caius Petronius, AD 65. However, the key element of a learning

organisation is that it is about people and how they learn, develop and ultimately (or hopefully) contribute to the organisation. The link with HRD is therefore both binding and key in determining how T&D takes place in an organisation.

Yet we still come back to what is a learning organisation. One simple view that will form the basis of my assignment is, ‘A learning organisation can, in plain terms, be described as an organisation which anticipates changes in its environment by learning on a strategic level; deliberately aims at improving its ability for learning and which, in order to learn on a strategic level, makes use of the learning of all employees, therefore this employee learning is enhanced at all hierarchical levels. (Sambrook and Stewart, IDPM Paper 1999). Therefore, it can be argued that the development of a learning organisation the most important factor in the changing role of T&D within organisations.

Human Resource Development (HRD)

Having settled on a broad view of what a learning organisation is, fitting it within a HRD context can only be achieved if we understand what we mean by HRD. In a learning context, HRD has been described as, ‘Organised learning experiences in a definite time period to increase the possibility of improving job performance growth’. (Nadler and Nadler, 1990:1.3). However, HRD covers a much wider field, ‘HRD is the integrated use of training and development, career development, and organisation development to improve individual and organisational effectiveness. (McLagan and Suhadolnik, 1989:10). A further view, ‘HRD is a process of developing and/or unleashing human expertise through organisation development (OD) and personnel training and development (T&D) for the purpose of improving performance. Swanson (1998) confirms this view that HRD is about the relationship of individuals with the organisation in a learning environment.

But surely, HRD can be defined more accurately? Presently there is no universal view or agreement on the theory or multiple theories that support HRD as a discipline. On one hand some have called for systems theory to serve as a unifying theory for HRD to access all useful theories as required (Gradous, (1989) and on the other hand many have proposed sets of principles in the forms of comparative lists of added value, products, processes, and expertise (Brethower, 1995).

The alterative to having a sound theoretical and disciplinary base for the HRD profession is the present state of ‘rudderless random activity aggressively sponsored by a theoretical professional associations and greedy consultants’ (Micklethwait & Wooldridge, 1996; Swanson, 1997). This view, it is argued, is a short-term sell of perceived success without having a deep understanding of the key components of the concept. ‘For this reason, a discrete and logical set of theories as the foundation of HRD is proposed. It is comprised of psychological theory, economic theory, and systems theory’ (Passmore, 1997; Swanson, 1995, 1999).

Economic theory is recognised as the primary force at the organisational level with the systems theory recognising the importance of direction, politics and purpose that could affect any organisational system. Psychological theory acknowledges human beings as a resource, whilst trying to understand the behavioural patterns that must be taken into account, opening the HRD function up to new ideas and concepts such as NLP and EQ. It is believed by Passmore, Swanson et al. that these three theories, more than any others, make up the modern view of HRD.

Development of HRD

Early incarnations of HRD concerned themselves with a personal management function, ‘Personal management function at an administrative level, independent of commercial realities, into a concept that has become central to the strategic and commercial success of the organisation.’ (Huczynski and Buchanan, 2001: 668)

However, as organisations adapted to change and new ways of thinking so did its human resource function:

1964-70 – systematic approach to diagnosis of training

1968-75 – standardization training for job categories by industry. (Such as motor, construction and social work) Thorough off-job basic education for skilled occupations

1970-75 – systematic planning of training for all categories of employee

1974-80 – company contribution to training for young people and long-term unemployed to meet national needs

1979-90 – business-orientated training directed at improving organizational effectiveness (value added)

1988 – present – personal development with individualized plans for which each employee and their boss take responsibility.

Sambrook & Stewart IDPM Paper (1999)

The last of these observations highlights a move away from organisational directed learning, as it sees the individual start to take more control of their own development needs. Due to the differences in organisational needs, cultural context organisational structure and resources available, the concept of the individual taking more responsibility for their development is a significant shift away from earlier ideas.

Additionally, there has been a shift in the last decade from organisations training to meet competence voids, towards a more learning environment that relies on experiential learning and self direction. It is argued, such an approached, does not limit itself to training, ‘…but stretched to facilitating and supporting learning processes within the organisation, with the aim to contribute to meaningful organisational learning processes. Sambrook & Stewart IDPM Paper (1999)

This clearly has an impact on the concept of HRD and any approach it may take within an organisation. (cf. case study research by Tjepkema & Wognum, 1995). Once again, it can therefore be argued, that a key role of HRD is to create and/or maintain a learning organisational environment as the foundation to any training and learning within an organisation.

Yet even with this backdrop, many commentators still take the view that HRD should be subject to tight quantitive justification, that HRD needs to demonstrate that their activities add value to the organisation which is their paymaster. (Walton 1999: 1). However, Walton falls short of believing that value is the only issue in developing a learning organisation through a HRD function. Yet there remains a broad body of support that does lean towards this view. Swanson and Arnold (1997) consider that HRD in an organisational context has no meaning unless the connection is made to performance. A point echoed, Welsh 1998 who contends, ‘An employer doesn’t teach for the sake of learning … What are the rewards?’ (Welch, 1998). With Mayo adding softness to the argument by involving a learning process to the HRD list of ingredients, ‘there needs to be a systematic method of linking business goals with the learning process. Mayo 2001: 82

However, there remains a danger that the HRD function, however defined, becomes over indulgent, becoming the end rather than the means to add some value to the sponsoring organisation. Maybe it is this fear, which when added to high-level managerial naivety of modern HRD approaches, which has seen many a HRD organisation become the first casualty of any downsizing.

But why has the evolution of HRD been necessary? Quite simply the world of people and the environments in which they work has changed. A decade ago, Peter Drucker anticipated this change when he said in The Age of Discontinuity. ‘Businessmen will have to learn to build and manage innovative organizations.’ Others continue to see change. Ansoff, a long-time student of business strategy, adds as he envisages organisations reducing its reliance on structure: ‘… Structure will become a dynamic enabler of both change and unchange, the ultimate model of ‘organised chaos’. (Peters and Waterman Jr, 1995: 111) Thus asking the question, can HRD stand still in a world of chaos or will is need to develop further new strategies to protect its value to a given organisation? The world is changing and as long as the interpretation and subsequent management of the change is influenced by human organisations the HRD function, however loosely defined, will need to continually adapt if it is to both manage and influence organisational direction if it is find a place in this ever changing ‘chaos’.

Strategic HRD

With a change in the type of work being undertaken in the western economy over the last 50 years, less

‘dominated by labour-intensive, low-tech industries with semi-skilled operatives, to high-tech industries reliant on highly skilled knowledge workers in relatively short supply, individuals are now seen as the single most significant source of sustainable competitive advantage.’ Walton (1999: 85)

The role of HRD has therefore needed to change to provide the level of support required from its parent organisation. The management, retention and developing of this organisational resource, ‘knowledge workers’,(Wilson 1999) has taken on greater importance at higher managerial levels. A reflection of this is the fact HRD/HRM in many large organisations plays a much more important role at boardroom level, contributing to the overall organisational strategy.

But does a HRD manager sitting on the Board make HRD strategic? Walton (1999) argues that for HRD to become strategic is needs to be HRD with a holistic, long-term approach, that may or may not develop a strategic awareness of company goals. He defines the term as one, ‘undertaken with full strategic intent, with an understanding how the initiative being undertaken adds to the coherence of the SHRD effort, congruent with an explicit learning philosophy incorporated into the overall organisation mission’

In short, for it to be strategic the HRD function needs to be holistic with a function to integrate and develop into the overall strategic management system.

A little clarification comes from Burgoyne 1988, ‘…strategic approach has to be conscious and reflective; unplanned, interpersonal and functional experiences cannot be classified as strategic in organisational terms unless explicitly linked to implementation of corporate policy.’

However, Burgoyne does takes the view that such an approach should be linked to the hard systems of HRD such as planning, recruitment and selection strategies, feeling that a more objective approach is better implemented and quantified within an organisation. As Harrison (1997) points out, ‘despite the hype that surrounds a number of organisations where the planned development of people has made a notable contribution to the achievement of business goals…research has failed to reveal any significant connection between HRD and business strategy across the UK.’

An example of a SHRD approach was for many organisations the move toward individual responsibility for there own learning, ‘At the beginning of the decade the strategic attention was focused on self-managed learning, continuous personal development, learning organisation and the people messages associated with Total Quality Management (TQM). Walton (1999: 85). Nearly 15 years later many organisations are still working at getting this message across to a workforce that has not fully grasped the concept. The debate about turning strategy into practice remains an issue that continues to find its way into many Board rooms and commented on by many and varied management writers.

However, because SHRD has taken a holistic view, fully integrated into the organisational management strategy, is that all that is needed for HRD to become SHRD. Wilson (1999) argues that HRD will deal with detail whilst modern SHRD should do no more than provide a framework for guidance, a point touched on by Mayo, ‘ …the task for HQ…is to determine the frameworks of best practice which will enable diverse and locally owned implementation, and to provide consultant help built round the local need,’ putting the view that organisations operate better when decentralised and given there own accountability and responsibly. It is clear in this scenario that anything other than a SHRD framework would be difficult to implement. An example of such a framework maybe, ‘a successful learning climate’ Walton (1999: 11)


Over the last decade, the role of HRD has both, found a niche and come under fire in organisations trying to compete in an ever changing political, economic and cultural environment. Add globalisation, demographic changes and the ever changing world of information technology (IT) and not surprisingly, HRD has had to both adapt and show direction in its approach and function in modern organisations. Balancing between both an art and a science it has had to prove its value to organisations in what ironically is the very environment it should be showing its main worth – managing the human resource in a world of constant change in compressed markets.

The struggle of organisations to produce strategy in Tom Peters world of innovation and creativity, often results in the crisis, tactical, and short term approach taken by many organisations that often goes on to see HRD as the first enemy target of this struggle. The need for definition and justification for a HRD component remains more real today than at any time if it is not to been see as a luxury component in a volatile world that, arguably under pressure, relies more on economic stability than a humanistic resource development approach that often produces results beyond a strategic planning horizon. However, HRD is not a science, and as such will continue to change, develop and find new roles in the adapting, fast moving world of the modern working environment.

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