For those of you who aren’t aware, I run a module for students in the final year of their undergraduate degree called Employee Resourcing and Development. In order to differentiate the module, as well as building on the student’s knowledge from their first two years of study, I have been developing a more critical (as opposed to mainstream) focus.
The students returned last week and so far I’ve delivered two lectures; an introduction to the module, including a reminder about critical reading, writing and thinking. If I want my students to come away with one thing from my module, it’s to improve these skills. This will support them not only in their dissertations but will hopefully also help them find (or refine) their own perspectives so they can question the empty rhetoric we are all constantly bombarded with. So with the importance of questioning in mind, I asked them to use these questions to analyse an extract of this article in Harvard Business Review. On the basis of what we are presented with can we believe what the author is telling us?
At the end of the first lecture I tasked the students to think about, and answer the question What is HRM? This was also the title of my second lecture. At the start of this lecture I asked my students to anonymously write their answers on post-it notes (as many as they wanted to fill) and stick them on the whiteboard. I was clear to them that I would be drawing their ideas together on the blog and asked those who didn’t agree to put their post-it notes in a separate area. I provided the students with four underpinning questions to help them if they were a bit stuck with the broader question, which were; what is the purpose of HR? What does HR do? Is HR important and why? And What is HRM trying to achieve?
Obviously this isn’t an academic study, but a classroom exercise to support the students in their thinking outside the classroom. However, I think their ideas and opinions are an interesting barometer. I hope the students themselves might use this forum to consider their thoughts, and also that we might be able to engage some practitioners or external HR thinkers in our discussion.
There were a number of key themes, some of which were at least guided by the sub-questions, although there was one in particular which I was quite surprised at, which I will save until last.
Theme: HRM is the link between employer and employees
There were around 12 post-it notes that mentioned HRM’s role as smoothing the relationship between an employer (or organisation/management) and the employees. This is illustrated by thoughts such as,
“HRM is the vital link between managers and employees and looks out for the rights of employees.”
“HRM is how to make the relationship between the organisation and the employee as good as possible.”
Some went further towards the employee side of this;
“HRM is the function of the business that takes care of the employees.”
This is certainly in line with some scholars who we discussed in the lecture that followed, although the critical view is that HR should represent the rights of the employees (and may often be the only place in the organisation that does so) but that it has lost (or ‘sold out’) on this potential in order to legitimate it’s own existance and gain a seat at the strategic table (e.g. Wilcox, 2013).
Theme: HRM as a function
The second largest category, with 21 post-its (bearing in mind that some comments had relevance to more than one category) was HRM as a function. These are largely in answer, I suspect, to the question of what does HR do, although some students referred to the ‘purpose’ of HRM being to undertake these functions on their post-its. Training and development was widely mentioned as a function of HR, as was recruitment/staffing. Performance and pay/benefits also received a few mentions.
Theme: HRM provides strategic direction
Around 8 post-it notes focussed on HRM as a strategic focus. We’re not covering strategic HRM via the lectures until this week, but some students clearly already have a grounding in this area;
“HRM provides strategic sense of direction for any organisation. Typically in the past HRM was seen as a [sic] Admin type role now it helps support the overall direction.”
“Assists the organisation in achieving it’s strategic business plan, by recruiting, retaining and developing the best people.”
A few also made the link between high level strategic goals and employee behaviour in achieving these;
“HRM – the strategic management of employees to help achieve business goals and aid overall performance.”
Theme: HRM manages/directs employees
I felt the highest number of post-it notes (26) fell into this category. Some of the these were fairly simply stated;
“People Management” and “Managing personnel”
It was this category that was a surprise to me as I had never considered HRM as ‘managing’ employees; this being really down to line managers. However many comments alluded to HRM having a large degree of control, such as;
“The process of managing people in organisations – in a structured manner.”
“It manages people within companies.”
“HRM is the governance of an organisation’s employees.”
I would be interested to if students took a more critical view on this following the lecture in which I outlined mainsteam HR’s tendency to assume that people act in a logical, rational and predictable manner.
Closing thoughts: holistic view
There were a few post-its that took what I would call a more holistic view of HRM. Three or four of these referred to the importance of HR (one of the questions) and/or, of the organisation’s people, such as;
“HRM is the life and blood of any business.”
“Human: most valuable and necessary resource – special treatment.”
And I’m going to finish with this one:
“[HRM has] Many alternative meaning, depends on internal and external factors and the different theoretical perspectives.”
I would like to thank the students for their involvement in the teaching session and for allowing me to discuss their ideas on the blog.