HRM as a field has come at the cross-road between toward two different (and opposite) evolutionary paths.
On one side, it aims at becoming a ‘science’ (see Boudreau & Ramsted; Fitz-enz; Cascio) by adopting an evidence based approach (Davenport). This direction leads HRM toward the development of new competencies in the area commonly referred to as HR Analytics. Such competencies range over domains like statistics, research methods, quantitative analysis, finance, etc. This direction is greatly favored by advocates of business orientation who think HRM must make the case for its usefulness to managers, in pretty much the same way as other core functions, like for example finance or marketing. A great drive in this direction is commanded by talent management and in fact Boudreau & Ramsted assign the name of talentship to this ‘new science’. This path is what I call the ‘Objectification path’. HRM has a role because it has a direct, and measurable impact on business results.
On the other side, it recognizes the complexity of issues related to the alignment of external environment, organization, and people and it accepts the impossibility of any optimization approach. The complexity of decisions related to human capital originating from the different time horizons of human development and business development, the interdependence among dimensions, the external uncertainty of events, all sum up to the recognition of HRM as a function that keeps weaving a narrative that keeps everything together, accepting permanent misalignment and struggling to convey sense to people in order to maintain essential levels of engagement. HRM becomes a ‘bricoleur’, which aims at co-creating sense among the different constituencies of an organization and uses different strategies. HR competencies differ largely from those of the previous path and emphasize the ability to create ex-post, cognitive connections between events, the ability to promote dialogue and different narratives, the use of an extreme range of communication codes (qualitative and quantitative), the flexibility in defining paths for sensemaking open to very different ex-post interpretations, the detachment from absolute beliefs, and an overall disenchantment. This path is what I term the ‘Subjectification path’. HRM has a role because it helps connecting two separate and radically departed realms: the abstract world of business and technology and the world of human beings.
At the same time, HRM is moving into another dilemma relating to the key constituency that it needs to target.
On one side, HRM is recognizing the need to target individuals. In this perspective, the analysis of society and the evolution of the needs society in more detail lead to emphasizing heterogeneity among human resources within organizations. Systems aim at conveying value to every single individual, on the basis of her/his highly specific needs, and allowing for changes in time related to generational dynamics. It is the so called workforce of one approach. Common ideas behind this framework can be traced back to the introduction of total reward approaches, or individual performance appraisal and development plans. The individual is the cornerstone of any intervention, and practices evolve toward being personalized and at times practically left to the individual choice (think about coaching, self-service compensation packages, etc.)
On the other side, though, the diminishing texture of society is pushing people toward a search for novel ways of partnering up and creating that sense of community which is still a value to human beings. The extraordinary emergence of social media and their diffusion is an example of such everlasting values. Community lays at the basis of reciprocity, and is therefore needed within organization to trigger collaboration and citizenship behaviors, ever more important in an uncertain context. In this perspective HRM becomes the architect of collaboration, by fueling the creation of a sense of commonality among participants and fostering the establishment and diffusion of communities of practice, but also of intent and meaning. The organization is not considered a marketplace where individuals ‘shop’ by exchanging their performance with the goods they prefer (coach, incentives, etc.), but a place were people collectively assign sense to individual actions relating them to the collective endeavor they are at.
It might be interesting and provocative at this point to cross these two dimensions, even though they might somehow be correlated. I try to do that at a very preliminary level with this matrix: