Why judging successful HR management against pre-defined benchmarks may not necessarily provide an accurate picture of progress

This article is based on research by Jordi Trullén

Human resource management affects firms of all sizes, yet there is little literature discussing its implementation in any detail. The actions required within HR management – those necessary to deliver strategic goals, innovate and manage change – are extensively addressed.

However, despite successful HR management implementation being essential for business performance, its meaning as a standalone concept is vague.

To address this gap, Jordi Trullén, Associate Professor in Esade's Department of People Management and Organisation, and co-authors Anna Bos-Nehles (University of Twente) and Mireia Valverde (Rovira i Virgili University) conducted an academic study into the process of HR management implementation. Together, they have provided a definition and a measure of effectiveness that could provide clarity on the practice and form a solid basis for future research.

From the boardroom to the front line

Implementation is a dynamic process across many disciplines. When a strategic goal is decided upon, the leader of every department within a firm must filter down those goals, translate them into actions and develop them into outcomes for individual employees. Underpinning this business-wide process is HR management implementation.

Yet, despite businesses broadly adopting similar HR management policies and practices, results very vary wildly. This suggests that it is not the practices that are implemented which have an impact but rather how they are delivered.

Policies can be created in a boardroom by qualified practitioners, but if line managers with less knowledge apply them incorrectly (or not at all), they will have little value.

Effective HR management
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This is where the importance of implementation comes sharply into focus: how will those policies be received and acted upon by the very people they are designed to govern and protect? What specific roles, goals and outcomes will need to be generated, developed and executed by every HR professional, senior manager, line manager and frontline employee?

Implementation in practice

Implementation has been variously described as a conceptual process, a fixed end result, part of a design process, or a set of specific actions by line managers. An "implemented" HR management practice is often simply equated to a "successfully implemented" or "effectively implemented" HR management practice, with no focus on the process that led to the end result.

HR management practices can change throughout the lifecycle of the process of delivering the goals of a business strategy. As line managers and employees negotiate the actions required for their own individual outcomes, issues may arise requiring adjustment of practice.

HR management implementation is a dynamic process across many disciplines and departments

Defining HR management implementation as simply being successfully or unsuccessfully achieved ignores the possibility that several obstacles may have been identified and addressed with positive results.

This necessary fluidity means that judging successful HR management implementation against pre-defined benchmarks may not necessarily provide an accurate picture of progress or achievements. Instead, in order to judge the effectiveness – or failure – of an HR management implementation process, we need to identify the elements within it.

Defining HR management implementation

HR management implementation is a dynamic process that starts with the decision to introduce a new (or significantly change an existing) HR management policy or practice. During this introduction, relevant HR management actors – such as line managers, HR specialists, user employees – engage with the policy or practice, interacting among themselves and attempting to shape it to fit their requirements and needs, until it becomes routinised.

HR management
A successful HR management implementation involves active help from several departments (Photo: @andreeas/Twenty20)

This definition includes five core functions:

  1. A dynamic process. HR management processes that evolve during implementation, being modified and refined so they can be used more effectively.
  2. From adoption to routinisation. When implementation takes place, beginning when the decision to introduce a policy or practice is made and ending when it’s used in a routine fashion.
  3. A new policy or practice. A policy or practice that is new to the unit implementing it, even if it’s been adopted by others elsewhere, or that it has been significantly modified and reintroduced.
  4. A focus on multiple actors. All organisational stakeholders who may directly or indirectly engage with the new practice at any level, including line managers, HR professionals, frontline workers and external people such as outsource vendors, consultants, or trade union officials.
  5. Interactions among actors. How each individual collectively comes together to deliver the policy or practice.

With a definition of HR management implementation, effectiveness can be measured as occurring when the relevant organisational actors use an HR management policy or practice consistently, skilfully, and in ways that are congruent with its original purpose, even if the policy or practice has been modified during the implementation process.

Again, several considerations are needed to better understand this proposed definition.

  • Distinguishing process from outcome. The outcome of implementation can only be evaluated once the implementation process is over; when the policy or practice has become routine, or when it is abandoned and considered a failed implementation.
  • Consistent and skilful use. The extent to which individuals use the practice, and how well.
  • Congruent with its original purpose. How the implemented practice differs from the one originally designed. Modification of the practice may be part of the implementation process, but effective implementation cannot involve the loss of one or more core features of the practice or idea being implemented.

Perhaps because implementation seems to be intuitively understood as the process of putting an idea or plan into effect, or because it is often dismissed as a practitioner problem, work in this area remains underdeveloped. This definition provides a basis for both researchers and practitioners to build on and define successful HR management implementation.

Original research publication: Trullen J, Bos-Nehles A & Valverde M. From intended to actual and beyond: a cross-disciplinary view of human resource management implementation. International Journal of Management Reviews, 22, 150-176 (2020)

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