Performance management, the only HR component that counts?

We have Drucker being sadly out of date about labour hire companies, a couple of papers advocating the dehumanisation of people as a legitimate HR practice, a couple more specifically focused on IT, the inevitable bullshit library and information studies (LIS) flight of fancy, but one really well-structured and informative paper on Australian HR. That one was almost worth wading through the dross that was the others. I have to wonder sometimes who comes up with these reading lists, and whether they actually read these papers themselves.

INN331 – Management Issues for Information Professionals

WEEK TEN: HR’s missing premiss.

This week’s compulsory and suggested reading list was extensive, and, as usual, completely ignored by most students, probably because they have learnt that the tutor never challenges them to explain their thinking on any part of the literature, and it certainly doesn’t form the backbone of silly LIS-focused assignments.

We have Drucker being sadly out of date about labour hire companies, a couple of papers advocating the dehumanisation of people as a legitimate HR practice, a couple more specifically focused on IT, the inevitable bullshit library and information studies (LIS) flight of fancy, but one really well-structured and informative paper on Australian HR. That one was almost worth wading through the dross that was the others. I have to wonder sometimes who comes up with these reading lists, and whether they actually read these papers themselves.

Visionary Drucker sadly outdated this time

The old man of management literature, Peter Drucker (2002) appeared like a beacon in the reading list, but his article, detailing the rise of labour hire firms, which he calls professional employee organization (PEO) is no longer quite what he described.

Drucker’s theme was how PEOs free up managers from legal and regulatory paperwork to actually manage people for organisational purposes.

However, an increasingly dehumanising accent in particularly but not only American management practice means PEOs now function chiefly to cheat their employees out of entitlements and conditions, and to make them expendable at a moment’s notice. Australian examples like Manpower have made an art of treating all of its notional ‘clients’ as just disposable productivity agents. The goal is to profit from the difference between fair pay for the workers and the Dickensian pittance they actually pay them.

Drucker’s concern is still relevant: the complexity and cost of complying with ever-mounting legal and regulatory requirements for employment conditions and entitlements is an incentive to outsource this to a specialist firm. The real problem is thus unaddressed: a massive failure by unions to focus on better managing and representing employees rather than playing politics and pursuing corrupt advantage; and an equally massive failure by governments and senior bureaucrats to simplify and reduce the complexity of employment legislation and regulation.

Alas, Drucker’s paper is well and truly superseded by greed and a loss of humanism in management theory and practice.

People as robots

The paper by Wirtz, Heracleous and Pangarker (2008) is a nauseating panegyric to turning people into robots. It details the dehumanisation of applicants and employees of Singapore Airlines to achieve profit. Whether this is an excellent HR strategy depends entirely on perceptions about the ethics and humanity of requiring people to sublimate their humanity and personalities for corporate gains. Whether service quality can be achieved without the dehumanisation of employees seems to be an unmentioned aspect of HR strategy in the literature.

I suppose this must be read in conjunction with an understanding that Singapore itself is a police state in which citizens’ private conduct is so tightly regulated that mention of it as a democracy is purely a nominal courtesy.

However, since Singapore Airlines regularly receives many more applications than it requires, it must be acknowledged that personal choice plays some part in its HR strategy, no matter how abhorrent I regard it.

Unfortunately the dehumanising sentiments are echoed in Smith’s (2008) paper about Australian academic library HR practices. Smith uses all the acceptable euphemisms, including an ambit claim to be representing boldness, but his formulaic prescriptions for recruitment, performance management, training and development, and organisational change management are little more than the usual public service arse-covering manoeuvers: develop a formula that appears to cover all required bases and sit back, knowing that any failure can be flick-passed beyond anyone’s responsibility because, after all, there are ticks against all the boxes.

I can agree with Smith in only one regard: the people responsible for managing libraries should be bold. What they have done in the past 30 years to make dead-end jobs out of library work is uninspiring. Being bold, though, means taking responsibility and having the courage to drive a vision for which individuals can be held accountable. That doesn’t really seem to lie within the province of HR theory or practice.

I suppose the Smith paper’s utility lies in offering some of the library and information science (LIS) dullards a formula to follow if they should ever need to deal with HR issues. It is a shame, though, that even the not so dull LIS students will probably never be granted the latitude to apply their own insights and understandings about managing people effectively and with integrity.

In the same vein, the Aguinis, Joo, and Gottfredson (2011) paper is another American attempt at formularising the dehumanisation of people to faciliatate profit as the only recognised goal for business. Since that assertion is only an assertion, the paper reads rather like a Wall Street-funded propaganda piece on squeezing the little guy as the only legitimate pursuit of organisations. I could find no redeeming virtues in this paper at all – not even a decent reductionist formula prescription.

Is managing IT workers really that different?

In sharp contrast with the automaton approach, the paper byMajor, Davis, Germano, Fletcher, Sanchez-Hucles, and Mann (2007) on HR in IT environments is off to a promising start by describing the complexity of task-based dimensions and human concerns, including work-life balance. It seems entirely more rational to factor into a management equation that employees are human beings first, and organisational productivity agents second.

In some senses, though, the temptation to formularise all they covered in the paper, Major et al succumbed to the disease of suggesting that all aspects of HR management in an IT environment could be reduced to a checklist (see table 11 from their paper below).

What’s missing in this equation is that not all aspects mentioned can or should be addressed in every case, and that managers are never exempt from exercising judgement based on personal experience, and even ‘gut feel’. Not all employees have the same needs and desires, and ‘fairness’ does not mean that all employees should receive the same latitude or rewards. Judgement should determine that outcome.

Source: Major et al, (2007), p. 414.
Source: Major et al, (2007), p. 414.

The Kaplan and Lerouge (2007) article is really just an introduction to a collection of papers focused on HR practice in IT teams. The thrust of it seems to be that inexperienced HR practitioners could or should cut their teeth on IT lab rats. I say: ‘Bollocks to that’. The emerging theme in all these readings is the drive to eliminate judgement and formularise management processes to a degree that makes them useless in real situations, dealing with real people rather than malleable objects that will respond as predicted. As such, the Kaplan and Lerouge paper probably reflects more of the INN331 syllabus designer’s ignorance of IT workers than constructive HR advice. Ironically Kaplan and Lerouge even caution against stereotyping IT workers.

Another LIS flight of fancy

With the Castiglione (2008) paper we return to the core and repetitive failing of QUT’s LIS syllabus groupies, who uncritically repeat all sorts of nonsense about creativity in libraries that they should know from experience has no foundation in fact.

To be fair to Castiglione, he calls his paper a literature review, which is just an academic masturbation exercise that adds to the number of citations other authors can put on their résumés. However, QUT’s school of information systems has no excuse for participating in these bullshit expeditions by failing to stress the pre-requisites to any chance at creativity: an understanding of public sector management, budget decision-making, and strategies to influence both. Yet there is never any reading about these fundamental pre-requisites to the LIS flights of fancy about change, flexibility, creativity, and employee engagement in decision-making processes.

Australian HR

The Brown, Metz, Cregan, and Kulik (2009) paper was a breath of fresh air. Focused on Australian HR practice, it presented not only a history of the profession, but an explicit focus on the fundamental flavour of HR methodology infused by political economy, and how this differs across cultures even as closely aligned as the US and Australia.

Brown et al make the assertion that HR practitioners in Australia are in fact strategic business partners because of the different development of business priorities in Australia when compared to the US. These priorities are seen to be driven not just by profit and competition, but by social, political and cultural factors as well.

My experience of HR in Australia doesn’t bear out the seniority and influence of HR managers attributed to them in the paper, but I find the approach, and the empirical research rather more persuasive than other papers in this list.

Brown et al should be read by everyone in the course for its pertinent focus on not only other literature, but some pulling together of the fundamental factors that influence a profession within an organisation that exists in a discrete society at a particular point in history, and that is therefore subject to particular cultural, social, political, and economic factors all working together to create a particular flavour or paradigm of professional practice and perceptions of it.

I suppose this paper also highlighted the nonsense that is the claim of academic neutrality in avoiding political economy and its vital influence on every organisation, commercial endeavour, profession, and ethical perceptions of all of them.

What Brown et al did well in their analysis escaped the rather more personal and undisciplined assessment of American HR by Hammonds (2005), who completely ignored questions of political economy and found that American HR managers are nowhere close to being the strategic business partners they are claimed to be in Australia.

Instead Hammonds was polite about calling most of them failed professionals not good enough to do well in other areas. A sentiment that bears out my own observations of Australian HR managers. Nevertheless, Hammonds’ evidence for his conclusions is less convincing than Brown et al’s.

Some tentative conclusions

My inclination is to agree that paperwork should be delegated or outsourced so line managers can actually manage people, but most of the people management side of HR cannot and must not be delegated.

In effect this means that performance management, which used to be a euphemism for driving people out of organisations, should be a function of line management to set clear expectations, facilitate meeting targets and employee development, and a full range of other human aspects of empowering people to excel.

In that context, managers who cannot do this aren’t fit to manage anything. HR managers who seek to do this in isolation from responsibility and accountability for the results are not fit to be trusted to manage a tea trolley.

Academics who talk nonsense about theory with no consideration of fundamental determinants of organisational cultures, practices, or historical development have no business writing long and boring papers about such matters.
 


References

Aguinis, H., Joo, H., & Gottfredson (2011). Why we hate performance management — and why we should love it. Business Horizons, 54(6), 503-507.

Brown, M., Metz, I., Cregan, C., & Kulik, C. T. (2012). Irreconcilable differences? Strategic human resource management and employee well-being. Asia Pacific Journal of Human Resources, 47(3), 270–294. doi: 10.1177/1038411109106859

Castiglione, J. (2008). Facilitating employee creativity in the library environment: An important managerial concern for library administrators. Library Management, 29(3), 159-172. doi: 10.1108/01435120810855296

Drucker, P. F. (2002). They’re not employees, They’re people. Harvard Business Review, 80(2), 70-77.

Hammonds, K. H. (2005, August 1). Why we hate HR. Fast Company. Retrieved on 6 May 2014, from http://www.fastcompany.com/53319/why-we-hate-hr

Kaplan, D. M., & Lerouge, C. (2007). Managing on the edge of change: Human resource management of information technology employees. Human Resource Management, 46(3), 325-330. doi: 10.1002/hrm.20166

Major, D. A., Davis, D. D., Germano, L. M., Fletcher, T. D., Sanchez-Hucles, J., & Mann, J. (2007). Managing human resources in information technology: Best practices of high performing supervisors. Human Resource Management, 46(3), 411-427. doi: 10.1002/hrm.20171

Smith, A. (2008). People management – be bold! Library Management, 29(1/2), 18-28. doi: 10.1108/01435120810844612

Wirtz, J., Heracleous, L., & Pangarkar, N. (2008). Managing human resources for service excellence and cost effectiveness at Singapore Airlines. Managing Service Quality, 18(1), 4-19. doi: 10.1108/09604520810842812

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