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Academy of Management Perspectives May

Strategic Human Resource Management in Context:
A Historical and Global Perspective
by Janet H. Marier

Executive Overview
This symposium provides a new perspective for strategic human resource management (SHRM) scholarship
by expanding the contexts in which this scholarship has typically been framed. In the first paper, Kaufman
evaluates SHRM scholarship within the United States from a historical and cross-disciplinary context. The
second paper, by Festing, discusses the concept and practice of SHRM in Germany, a dominant economic
power among developed nations and Europe. Liang, Marier, and Cui focus on China and examine how
strategic human resource management is unfolding in a turbulent but hugely influential emerging economy.
In describing strategic human resource management practices across these broader macro contexts, the
papers in this symposium provide new directions for future theoretical and empirical research on SHRM.

he academic literature on SHRM published in source practices and firm performance (Lengnick-
the last 25 years has heen written primarily hy Hall, Lengnick-Hall, Andrade, & Drake, 2009;
researchers in the United States. Most were Lepak & Shaw, 2008; Snell et al, 2001).
attempting to describe and support U.S. companies' The purpose of this symposium is to present
experimentation with new production technology new perspectives on this literature by examining
and employment systems to remain globally compet- strategic human resource management in a
itive in the face of enormous technological change, broader global economic and temporal context.
increasing educational levels of the labor force,
greater economic volatility, industry deregulation,
and increased global competition in the manufac- Strategic HRM in the United States:
turing sector, particularly from Japan and Ger- Modes of Theorizing

many (Appelbaum &. Batt, 1994; Cappelli, 1999; trategic human resource management research
Dyer & Boudreau, 1999; Kaufman, 2007; Kochan rests on cross-disciplinary foundations from in-
& Osterman, 1994; Schler, 1992; Snell, Shadur, dustrial relations, institutional economics, la-
& Wright, 2001). As the field of strategic human bor economics, human resources, industrial orga-
resource management continues to grow, it has nizational economics, organizational theory, and
attracted international scholars and researchers in strategic management. Although the discipline is
other disciplinary domains. Considered the macro still evolving, SHRM researchers draw from one of
domain of the human resource management dis- four dominant theoretical perspectives. The first
cipline, strategic human resource management is three perspectivesthe universalist perspective,
mainly focused on firm-level human resource phe- the configurational perspective, and the contin-
nomena and the relationship between human re- gency perspectiveemerged in the U.S. SHRM
Janet H. Marier ( is Associate Professor in the School of Business at the University at AlbanyState University of
New York.

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2012 Marier

literature in the last quarter of the 20th century ment among multiple HRM practices. This perspec-
(Delery & Doty, 1996; Lepak & Shaw, 2008). The tive suggests that a configuration of a set of inter-
fourth perspective, the contextual perspective, nally aligned HRM practices will have a much
greater ability to explain variation in organizational
was first introduced by scholars outside the
performance than single HRM practices taken in
United States (Martin-Alcazar, Romero-Fernan- isolation (Delery, 1998).
dez, &. Gardey, 2005). Different academic fields
tend to gravitate to specific perspectives. For ex- The third SHRM theoretical framework is
ample, industrial relations and labor economics based on classical contingency theory. The choice
scholars generally adhere to a universalist and of HRM practices and the relationship these prac-
configurational perspective in explaining how sys- tices have with organizational performance de-
tems of human resource management practices are pends on external environmental factors as well as
related to organizational performance. Those from on organizational factors, primarily the strategies
the field of business policy and strategic manage- the organization formulates and deploys to suc-
ment generally take a contingency perspective. cessfully adapt to a changing external environ-
Scholars in the fields of comparative and interna- ment (Galbraith, 1973; Lawrence & Lorsch, 1967;
tional human resources, sociology, and political Scott, 1995).
economics are a disparate group, although they The fourth SHRM theoretical mode of theo-
tend to adopt a contextualist perspective. rizing is the contextualist perspective. Unlike the
Delery and Doty (1996) first formally identified other three modes, this perspective encompasses
the universalist mode of theorizing in the early stra- the particularities of geographic and industrial
tegic human resource literature. As they noted: contexts and macroeconomic and social factors
such as business systems (Tempel & Walgenbach,
Universalistic arguments are the simplest form of the- 2007), varieties of capitalism (Edwards &.
oretical statement in the SHRM literature because Kuravilla, 2005), historical path dependence, in-
they imply that the relationship between a given in- stitutional environments (Powell & DiMaggio,
dependent variable and a dependent variable is uni- 1991), and resistance to change (Festing & Saha-
versal across the population of organizations. Devel-
oping universalistic predictions requires two steps.
kiants, 2010). International SHRM scholars ap-
First, important strategic HR practices must be iden- plying this theoretical framework identify and de-
tified. Second, arguments that relate the individual scribe how these various macro-social factors
practices to organizational performance must be pre- affect the relationship between HRM practice and
sented, (p. 805) organizational performance (Martin-Alcazar et
al., 2005). This last theoretical perspective has
The statement suggesting that the relationship had limited application in U.S. strategic human
between HRM practice and organizational perfor- resource management scholarship to date.
mance occurs, no matter the context in which an
organization operates, is what separates this mode
of theorizing in SHRM from the others. Strategic HRM, High-Involvement Work
The second SHRM theoretical framework, the Practices, and High-Commitment and High-
configurational perspective, explains how systems, Perfformance Work Systems
clusters, or bundles of human resource manage-

he notion of high-performance work systems
ment practices interact with each other to have (HPWSs) is based on taking a configurational
synergistic outcomes at the organizational level. perspective in that it assumes there is a system
As Lepak and Shaw (2008, p. 1488) explained: of work practices characterized by a cluster of HR
practices that have synergistic effects that lead to
Researchers focusing on this perspective have used
superior organizational performance (Boxall &
a vatiety of terms such as "horizontal fit," "internal
fit," "complementarity," or "bundling" (Baird & Macky, 2009). It also falls into the universalist
Mesboulam, 1988; Delery & Doty, 1996; Wright & perspective in that there is an underlying assump-
McMahan, 1992) to emphasize the focus on align- tion that all firms that adopt an HPWS configu-
Academy of Management Perspectives May

ration, regardless of context, will have superior American context, the more socio-cultural variations
organizational performance. The actual cluster of in HPWS practices have to be accommodated. For
HRM practices is debated. High-involvement example, a practice such as an employee grievance
procedure, which Huselid (1995) considers a high-
clusters focus on HRM practices that involve how performance indicator in the US, is simply a legal
the work is organized (e.g., teams) to encourage requirement in countries such as the UK and therefore
employee participation and decision-making dis- is hardly something that differentiates superior per-
cretion (Boxall &. Macky, 2009). The high com- formers. As has been pointed out by Boselie et al.
mitment comes from a set of employment prac- (2001), some practices considered high performing in
the US are wired into the institutional requirements
tices that nurture positive employee attitudes and
elsewhere: they are "table stakes" in these contexts,
relevant skills. When both high-involvement not a source of high performance (Boxall & Purcell,
work practices and high-commitment employ- 2008). Legal differences are the more straightforward
ment practices are combined, the result is an aspects of socio-cultural variation. Underpinning cul-
HPWS, a system or configuration of high-perfor- tural assumptions are much more challenging: some
mance work practices (HPWPs) that support practices which may work well in the Anglo-Ameri-
can world are understood quite differently, and much
achieving superior performance across differing less positively, (p. 6)
contexts (Boxall & Macky, 2009; Delery & Doty,
1996; Lepak & Shaw, 2008; Pfeffer & Veiga, The debate concerning what constitutes an
1999). As Lepak and Shaw (2008, p. 1487) noted: HPWS has not yet been fully resolved in the
SHRM literature, nor has a related question: Is an
Perhaps the most well known universalistic perspec- HPWS set of HRM practices universally applica-
tive is provided by Pfeffer (1995). Based on a review ble or are there boundary conditions, contingent
of what successful companies do with regard to
on context? International HRM researchers are at
HRM practices, he concluded that certain practices
should be more universally effective than others, the forefront of studying these questions.
including employment security, selectivity in re-
cruiting, high wages, incentive pay, employee own-
ership, information sharing, participation and em- Strategic HRM: International HRM and a
powerment, self-managed teams, training and skill Contextual Perspective

development, cross-utilization and cross-training, eginning in the early 1990s, there has been an
symbolic equalitatianism, wage compression, and accumulating international SHRM literature
finally promotion from within. Although Pfeffer's
along both micro- and macro-level fronts. At
(1995) elaboration is based more on interpretation
than solid empirical evidence, it does describe the the macro level two predominant research streams
universalistic approach rather well. have emerged: HRM in multinational corpora-
tions (MNCs) and comparative HRM. In a well-
Boxall and Macky (2009) argued, however, cited early article on the practice of strategic
that high performance is achieved through com- HRM in MNCs, Taylor, Beechler, and Napier
plementarity not just among practices but also (1996) adopted a primarily contingent theoretical
with a firm's production technology and other framework in which they integrated a resource-
strategic changes taking place that reflect the ex- based view of strategic HRM with international
ternal environment in which the firm operates. strategy and then proposed how several external
To reinforce this view, Boxall and Macky (2009) environmental factors that vary across national
pointed to the academic debate concerning what boundaries affect which strategic HRM model is
HRM practices constitute an HPWS. Across the adopted.
five most cited HPWS studies, there is no one In the comparative HRM literature, several
practice that is common to all five studies. As they HRM models have been proposed. Early models
further noted: focused on comparing Anglo-Saxon contexts such
as Australia and the United Kingdom (Brewster,
On top of this kind of theoretical dispute, there is the 2004; Hendry, 2003), European contexts such as
fact that the further one moves from a focus on the France and Germany (Eesting & Barzantny,
2012 Marier

2008), and the European Union (Brewster, ences, we should see divergence and variance from
Croucher, Wood, &. Brookes, 2007). In Asia, the a universally applicable HPWS.
early comparisons were with Japan (MacDuffie,
1995) and more recently with Korea, Taiwan, and
China (Burton, Butler, & Mowday, 2003; Kim, The U.S. Context

Wright, & Su, 2010; Liang, Xie, & Cui, 2010). n the first paper, Bruce Kaufman provides a
These comparative HRM models examine to historical perspective on HPWSs, which he ar-
what extent there is a convergence toward a U.S.- gues date back a hundred years (not 25), but
based strategic model in the context of a diver- prefaces this historical review with a highly criti-
gent/distinctive local context that differs along cal assessment of current U.S.-based SHRM em-
several dimensions. Two major theoretical per- pirical scholarship. Claiming that many of the
spectives explain why convergence to a universal- problems with U.S. SHRM "arise from overem-
istic strategic HRM model can be expected. The phasis on knowledge areas and ideas relating to
first is based on a largely neoclassical economic the internal dimension of organizations and man-
perspective in which productivity is maximized agement (e.g., strategy, I-O psychology, organiza-
through the selection of best HRM practices tional behavior) and too little attention to those
(Kaufman & Miller, 2011). The second is based relating to the external dimension (e.g., econom-
on variations of a new institutionalism perspective ics, industrial/employment relations, the macro
in which social forces in the form of normative side of sociology)" (p. 26), Kaufman gives SHRM
pressure, coercion, and imitation homogenize orga- research a failing grade. Although the evidence
nizational practices (Powell &. DiMaggio, 1991). Kaufman provides to support his negative assess-
The divergence perspective provides a con- ment might be highly criticized by others, his call
trasting argument: Firms must comply with local for more actionable research and for applying neo-
labor laws, political climates, religions, values and classical economic frameworks that might "ex-
attitudes, stages of economic and technological plain the lack of congruence between what the
advancement, and labor force demographics, all theory predicts and what the data show" (p. 22)
of which are significantly different across na- offers further cross-disciplinary avenues for SHRM
tional boundaries (Brewster, 2004; MuUer, scholarship.
1997; Pudelko, 2005). While SHRM researchers are well aware of the
theoretical and empirical challenges still to be
overcome (Boxall & Macky, 2009; Lepak &
Symposium Papers Shaw, 2008; Waldman, 2009), Kaufman expands

his symposium reviews the state of knowledge the list in a provocative way by asking questions
concerning how strategic human resource economists would raise about the current distribu-
management is practiced across national con- tion of HRM practices across companies. The
texts and examines whether there is evidence for current distribution suggests that the average prof-
a convergence toward an economically optimal it-maximizing firm in the United States uses only
and therefore universally applicable HPWS bun- a few HPWS practices, not the complete system. If
dle of human resource practices. The hypothesis is using more HPWS practices translates to higher
that a universalist configuration of HRM practices organizational performance, why are firms not
(i.e., HPWS) should be evident or be emergent maximizing profits? Are these practitioner failures,
across national contexts, because if the universal- or is the failure a result of inadequate theory? Are
ist SHRM perspective holds, diffusion and con- there determinants of choice of HRM practices
vergence should be evident. Alternatively, if there that have been neglected in the mainstream U.S.-
are boundary conditions and SHRM is contingent based SHRM theories? The latter question pro-
on not just industry, size, and business strategy but vides a segue to the next two papers, both of
also on more macro conditions such as legal re- which focus on macrodeterminants of HPWS
gimes, political regimes, and sociocultural influ- practices.
10 Academy af Management Perspectives May

The German Context Conclusion

n the second paper, Marion Eesting reviews the hese wide-ranging papers demonstrate that the
literature for divergence, convergence, and macro context in which firms operate seems to
crossvergence, and in the German context ap- matter in terms of which HRM practices they
plies a more advanced contextualist perspective. choose to implement to achieve organizational
Eesting describes how Germany's regulatory, cor- objectives. In some macro contexts, choice is con-
porate governance, capital market, and educa- strained because the political regime mandates
tional institutions affect how strategic human re- what HRM practices are possible (e.g., Germany
source management is practiced. Eor example, and China). In other contexts, where the eco-
many strategic human resource management prac- nomic environment is highly turbulent and cul-
tices characteristic of the HPWS (job security, tural values differ, the costs of adopting HPWS
extensive training, and employee participation) practices also differ, as is evident in China. Ei-
are nationally legislated in Germany, and are nally, choices of SHRM practices might vary over
therefore not strategic differentiators that can be time depending on political, social, and economic
related to variance in firm performance. Other contexts. In examining strategic human resource
HPWS practices, such as selective hiring and management practices across significantly differ-
profit sharing, although not legislated, are wide- ent macro contexts, the papers in this symposium
spread and appear to have evolved as effective aim to open new directions for future SHRM
additional practices. It is interesting to see the theory and empirical research.
diffusion of characteristically U.S.-based HRM
practices, such as individually based pay for per- References
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2012 Marier

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