Thursday, August 13, 2015

Book Review: The Development of Human Resource Management Across Nations

My friend Bruce Kaufman has produced yet another stimulating and important book. It is easy to think that good human resource management (HRM) practices are universal. Shouldn’t all workers be carefully selected into jobs that are a good fit, provided with feedback and opportunities for development, treated with respect, and rewarded for performance? But too much emphasis on universal best practices can lead to an ethnocentric mindset in which the historical, cultural, and institution-specific aspects of HRM are under-valued and overlooked, if not dismissed and rejected. Indeed, unlike many volumes of labor history and a variety of books comparing industrial relations systems across countries, very little has been written about the history of HRM and its comparative patterns. Into this void steps Kaufman with an ambitious effort to bring together experts to trace the development of HRM up to the present in 17 diverse countries.

The Development of Human Resource Management Across Nations: Unity and Diversity (Bruce E. Kaufman, ed., Edward Elgar Publishing, 2014) follows a one-country-per-chapter structure along with a comprehensive introduction by Kaufman that sets an appetizing table by presenting the multiple contribution of this unique edited volume. I strongly applaud the diverse set of countries included. The roster goes beyond the usual Anglo and European suspects to also include Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Israel, Japan, Korea, Russia, South Africa, and Turkey. Moreover, Kaufman intentionally relied on natives of each country to lessen American ethnocentric perspectives and ensure access to materials written in original languages. The result is impressive, including some chapters that represent the first time that a country’s development of HRM has been published, not only in English but in any language.

Some of the details are fascinating. You don’t want to miss influential incidents or phenomena like the Revolta das Panelas, the human capital stock system, “Pali! Pali!,” the Marcia dei quarantamilia, or the Stakhanov movement. More substantively, you shouldn’t miss the commonalities (all organizations manage people in one way or another), but even more so, the unique political, cultural, and historical factors involved in the evolution of HRM across this stimulating group of countries. In none of these countries is HRM a new phenomenon—again, all organizations manage people in one way or another—and nowhere is HRM immune to larger trends like globalization, world wars, and technological change. And I particularly appreciate the extent to which the chapters show that the development of HRM everywhere is inextricably linked to industrial relations and labor movements; HRM is not something distinct and unrelated.

But unique trajectories within the countries really force one to stop and think about the influences on HRM. And while all of this is undoubtedly interesting for those who like history, the importance goes much deeper because all of today’s HRM system are a product of their own development. The successes, failures, and constraints revealed by each historical record has a lot to tell us about today’s strategies, and tomorrow’s possibilities and challenges. This should be very stimulating for researchers and professionals alike. And on a narrower basis, for scholars interested in comparative research or professionals facing assignments in a specific country, this volume can also be tremendously beneficial by providing the institutional background for deeper excursions and successful ventures relating to specific countries.

Kaufman’s introductory chapter to the volume sets the stage for a theme of convergence v. divergence that runs throughout the country-specific chapters. This is important. What’s not made as clear is that the country experiences also all reflect the changing influence of different frames of reference on the employment relationship which translates into different preferred approaches for managing human resources. Neoliberalism, pluralism, unitarism, and in some countries, even Marxist revolutionary thought, all dominate at different times and yield specific HRM patterns and practices. Moreover, a related-yet-unstated theme is that the evolution of different HRM patterns and practices can be understood as the struggle of employment relationship actors to achieve the key objectives of the employment relationship—especially efficiency, equity, and voice—against a backdrop of a particular set of cultural, historical, institutional, political, and competitive factors that prioritize certain objectives while also pointing toward specific strategies for their achievement. In other words, not only do all organizations throughout time have to manage employees one way or another, but they do so, implicitly or explicitly, with certain goals and assumptions in mind and in the face of various constraints. I've written about this in various blog posts (one example, another example), and this volume provides a fascinating breadth of contexts in which we can see these challenges evolve.

In closing, this is an important and interesting book that should be of value to HRM professionals and researchers from diverse fields. The motivation for the volume is compelling, and the execution is well-done. Today’s debates over best practices, strategic HRM, and the determinants of HR practices have finally been given their historical foundations in a diverse set of countries, and scholars and managers should embrace this opportunity to understand the evolution of HRM practices and the implications for today’s research and practice. I would like to see two things, however. First, the publisher should price the book lower to make the volume more accessible, especially to students and to readers worldwide. Two, it would be fascinating to see a second volume that further diversifies the coverage of this volume, especially into Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, Central America, and Africa beyond South Africa. But this isn’t meant to take anything away from what Kaufman and his team of authors have produced. I highly recommend The Development of Human Resource Management Across Nations as you will be stimulated by the unity and diversity of the development of HRM—broadly defined to include employment relations and public policy—from many corners of the globe.

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