Bruce Spencer, Athabasca University, Canada
The link between human resource management (HRM) and workplace learning is more often as not ignored if not assumed in the work and learning and adult education literature. The purpose of this paper is to critically examine this nexus and look again at HR perspectives and supporting arguments; to review issues of post-industrial society, globalization and organizational culture and to draw some tentative conclusions for our work.
To reveal the link between HRM and workplace learning and expose it to examination sometimes feels like “breaking the spell” cast over the wonderment of “learning at work.” Perhaps the fear is that this exposure will reveal (as in the renowned western fable about the king’s new suit of clothes) that there really are no new clothes after all – what we have is not so much a new semi-autonomous phenomena of workplace learning but a new variant on an old theme of workplace social relations: boss and worker; employer and employee; supervisor and supervised; human resource manager and human resources; workplace coaches or leaders and workplace learners.
To explore this argument a little further I want to discuss this topic with occasional reference to an HRM approach to work and learning as revealed in a typical HRM textbook. The most popular text in Canada at present is Canadian Human Resource Management: A Strategic Approach, by Schwind, Das, and Wagar; its popularity is probably due to the fact that all authors are Canadian (it is not a Canadian version of a US text) and it is very current in its content. In many ways this textbook is comprehensive and wide-ranging, and draws extensively on Canadian material. The introduction to the text discusses the strategic importance of HRM and human resource planning and it serves as a useful introduction to the field and to the way it is viewed today. However, similar to most introductory textbooks (in most developed countries) authors Schwind, Das and Wagar are not particularly reflective about the context of HRM or critical of its purpose – their perspective represents the dominant corporate view of economy and society. The authors discuss the importance of HRM and why HRM has come to play such a central role in private- and public-sector organizations. The thrust of the book is that HRM and workplace learning is not only a necessary managerial function it is also vital for organization success. A critical “workplace learners” perspective on HRM is not offered in the textbook.
HRM as a field of study has attracted some criticism. While it might generally be agreed that organizations should, for example, observe basic employment equity and health and safety legislation, some critics argue that the HRM function is too often used to ensure only minimum compliance. A more severe criticism could relate to the company’s products (e.g., cigarettes) or use of natural resources (e.g., clear–cut forestry), and might argue that all HRM does is ensure workers’ compliance in these “harmful” company activities.
The recent development of HRM as a central plank in company policy, designed to give companies the “cutting edge” vis à vis the competition by involving workers more in company activities, has heightened another criticism. HRM has always been concerned with maximizing the output from employees, and recent attempts to increase the involvement of workers in some aspects of company decision-making are designed ultimately to maximize company output and profit. Therefore, this application of HRM is essentially consensual in its method of operation: it assumes that there are common interests between employers and employees (a unitarist view), and denies that sometimes there might be divergent interests (a pluralist view), or that employees in one company might have common interests (some would say “class” interests) with...