The concept of human resource management (HRM) has received focussed attention for around 20 years, with the catalyst being that “many US companies found they were being rivalled and in some instances overtaken, in markets they had dominated” (Ehrlich, 1994, p. 492). As Lodge (1985, p. 319) observes:
By the early 1980s there was still little disagreement that US corporate managers, employees and trade unions would have to change their ways in order to compete successfully for markets in America and abroad.
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Harvard university academics introduced a new compulsory component of HRM into their MBA syllabus and reinforced this so-called “Harvard Model” with influential books and articles (Beer et al., 1984; Walton, 1985b; Walton and Lawrence, 1985). While there would surely have been a genuine desire to help US business, US society, and even US employees, there was also “a long-term effort to ensure that the Harvard Business School faculty provided leadership in human resource management” (Walton and Lawrence, 1985, p. xx).
The Harvard concept stresses that HRM should lead to employee commitment – not simply as a means to employer objectives of improved productivity and profits, but because “the fulfilment of many employee needs is taken as a goal rather than merely a means to an end” (Walton, 1985a, p. 49).
At about the same time as the Harvard concept was being developed another viewpoint was being promulgated by academics who supported a “strategic” concept of HRM, with the major work edited by Fombrun et al. (1984). This work emphasises that the “four generic human resource activities of all organisations:
need to be strategically aligned with the organisation’s overall strategic objectives.
British writers have focused on the differences between the Harvard “commitment” concept of HRM and the strategic HRM concept. Keenoy (1990, p. 368) sees the Harvard concept as “philosophically grounded in the recognition of multiple stakeholders and the belief that the practice and benefits of HRM can be achieved through neo-pluralist mechanisms”, while the strategic concept is ” almost uniformly unitarist in orientation and displays a quite singular endorsement of managerial values”. The former is frequently referred to as “soft” HRM, while the latter is “hard” HRM.
In theory, soft HRM fulfils employee needs as an end in itself, and the favourable attitudes generated from the use of “appropriate” HRM practices (Guest, 1997) together with “communication, motivation and leadership” (Storey, 1987,
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