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Hard and Soft Models of Human Resource Management

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Hard and Soft Models of Human Resource Management

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  • Jan. 17, 2012
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Human resource management has frequently been described as a concept with two distinct forms: soft and hard. These are diametrically opposed along a number of dimensions, and they have been used by many commentators as devices to categorize approaches to managing people according to developmental-humanist or utilitarian-instrumentalist principles (Legge 1995 b). The terms have gained some currency although, from a theoretical point of view, the underlying conflicts and tensions contained within the models have not been sufficiently explored and, from a practical perspective, available empirical evidence would suggest that neither model accurately represents what is happening within organizations (Storey 1992; Wood 1995). This leads us to question the value of these dimensions for defining normative forms of human resource management. In this chapter, we first analyze the conflicts and tensions both between and within the soft and hard models, and then report on the findings of an in-depth empirical study which will enable us to review and challenge the theoretical foundations upon which the soft and hard models are based. The soft-hard dichotomy in HRM exists primarily within normative, or prescriptive, models of human resource management, rather than in what Legge (1995 b) terms the descriptive-functional or critical-evaluative traditions. The earliest examples where this terminology is used are in the work of Guest (1987) and Storey (1987; 1992). Guest (1987), in seeking to define HRM, identifies two dimensions, soft-hard and loose-tight. Similarly, Storey (1992) plots existing interpretations of HRM along the two dimensions of soft-hard and weak-strong. Although these two commentators draw heavily on the work of American HRM academics in drawing a distinction between the two forms-the Harvard model for the soft version (Beer et al, 1985) and the Michigan model for the hard version (Fombrun et al. 1984)--the terms 'soft' and 'hard' have not been used in the...