Investigating the nature of ‘professionalism’ in human resource management

Dr Ian Roper Middlesex UniversityAssociate Professor Ian Roper (pictured) and Dr Sophie Gamwell – both at Middlesex University – together with Dr Paul Higgins at City University, Hong Kong, recently hosted an event at Middlesex showcasing some of the findings from their two-year research project co-funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and the Hong Kong Research Grants Committee. This is a snapshot from the UK section of the project.

The project aims to find out what constitutes ‘professionalism’ in the function of human resource management (HRM) in organisations. The decision-making position of HRM has long been identified as being an ambiguous one: the knowledge and skills base of HRM is a prerequisite in all organisations that employ people, but the key HR decisions taken in organisations are predominantly done by non-HR managers (appointing, promoting and dismissing staff; managing performance, dealing with conflict). So there is a mismatch in the location of knowledge and hierarchical authority. In addition, the bundles of activities HR practice themselves change over time and are subject to the influence of external forces (technology, globalisation, regulatory interventions). This project aims to identify the balance of activities being done by HR practitioners and how HR practitioners interact with others within their organisations. It adds to this the dimension of an East-West comparison: how influenced is UK practice by the so-called ‘turbo-HR’ practices of the East? Conversely how influenced is Hong Kong practice influenced by colonial legacy and the considerable resources wielded by the UK’s internationally high profile professional body?

The answers are not all in yet, but some interesting themes are emerging nevertheless.

Hong Kong Sunset - Mike Behnken

Hong Kong Sunset – Photo by Mike Behnken (Creative Commons 2.0)

The study involved first interviewing national-level stakeholders about what the role of HR is thought to be, and what it should be. This was followed up by two paired national surveys of HR practitioners – about the balance of activities being done; about the level of knowledge and professional ‘behaviour’ being applied in their daily work; and about their relationships with other managerial colleagues. Finally, the study was completed with a series of case-study interviews, situated in organisational contexts, with HR practitioners and non-HR managerial colleagues, about what aspects of HR are most valued and why.

Emerging themes

National-level interviews inevitably highlighted some common priorities: organisational development; conflict resolution; promoting good people-management practice, though this was often reflected differently according to certain sectional interests. Thus, HR either had “an unwelcome focus on regulatory compliance” or its role was “welcomed for its role in promoting equality issues”.

HRM Survey

The survey revealed a lot of information about what HR practitioners are doing, day-to-day; how knowledge and behaviours are deployed and how they interact with other organisational colleagues. More detailed analysis is ongoing, but some highlights include the revelations that, while there is a healthy match between what HR practitioners are doing and what they know, there was an uncomfortable gap in some areas, including:

•  Employment law = 13%
•  Union negotiation = 12.5%
•  Equal opportunities = 11%
•  Redundancy = 10%

Finally, the case study interviews are also now undergoing detailed analysis. But initial themes emerging is revealing that an apparently under-emphasised area of HR practice in much of the professional discourse is the high level of importance placed on HR expertise in the area of conflict resolution (variously referred to in interviews under such terms as ‘casework’, ’employee relations’ and ‘regulatory compliance’).

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