Hard and Soft Models of Human Resource Management

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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 American literature, and the debates surrounding them have taken place exclusively in a British context (Hendry and Pettigrew 1990). Guest (1987) and Storey (1992) in their definitions of soft and hard models of HRM view the key distinction as being whether the emphasis is placed on the human or the resource. Soft HRM is associated with the human relations movement, the utilization of individual talents, and McGregor's (1960) Theory Y perspective on individuals (developmental humanism). This has been equated with the concept of a 'high commitment work system' (Walton 1985b), 'which is aimed at eliciting a commitment so that behaviour is primarily self-regulated rather than controlled by sanctions and pressures external to the individual and relations within the organization are based on high levels of trust' (Wood 1996: 41). Soft HRM is also associated with the goals of flexibility and adaptability (which themselves are problematic concepts, as we shall see in more detail later), and implies that communication plays a central role in management (Storey and Sisson 1993). Hard HRM, on the other hand, stresses 'the quantitative, calculative and business-strategic aspects of managing the "headcount resource" in as "rational" a way as for any other factor of production', as associated with a utilitarian-instrumentalist approach (Storey 1992: 29; see also Legge 1995 b). Hard HRM focuses on the importance of 'strategic fit', where human resource policies and practices are closely linked to the strategic objectives of the organization (external fit), and are coherent among themselves (internal fit) (Baird and Meshoulam 1988; Hendry and Pettigrew 1986), with the ultimate aim being increased competitive advantage (Alpander and Botter 1981; Devanna et al. 1984; Lengnick-Hall and Lengnick-Hall 1990; Miles and Snow 1984; Storey and Sisson 1993; Tichy et al. 1982; Tyson and Fell 1986). These two perspectives on human resource management are viewed as opposing: 'what is striking...
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