Unitarism, Pluralism, and Human Resource Management in Germany

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Introduction

This paper discusses the convergence thesis using the example of human resource management in Germany. Convergence theories dominated social sciences in the 1950s and 1960s. Arguably the most influential contribution to this discussion was Kerr et al's "Industrialism and Industrial Man" (1960). They suggested that technology will, over an extended period, lead to the development of similar economic, political, social and organizational aspects in all industrialized societies. It assumed that there is a link between the development stage of an economy and its dominant managerial practices. Kerr et al. saw technology as the driving force behind convergence. Today competition and globalization are more often given as the main reasons for a convergence of managerial practices (Mueller 1994).

Over the last two decades the concept of HRM (Human Resource Management) has emerged as one of the most important prescriptions for a world-wide convergence of managerial practices. Like most other management concepts it originated in the US. However, HRM (1) not only offers a range of modern management techniques in much the same way as lean production and re-engineering, but is also about values. "More than any of the other innovations, it impacts directly on culturally specific ways of doing things buttressed by national institutions and values systems" (Hendry 1991, p. 416). The values of HRM are essentially unitarist and individualistic. The philosophy underlying HRM becomes apparent, if one has a closer look at the case studies that form the empirical basis of the American HRM literature. Most of the successful and innovative companies which have been studied as HRM models in the USA are non-union and use sophisticated human resource management techniques targeting the individual employee (Foulkes 1980). They do not recognize trade unions and employee relations are determined unilaterally by management. It has been questioned whether US type HRM prescriptions should be imported to Europe, because the values of HRM run counter to European traditions of pluralism and collectivism as well as a stronger regulated environment for companies (Brewster 1995, Ferner/Hyman 1992, Guest 1994, Kirkbride 1994, Muller 1999b).

A particularly interesting case for a convergence towards HRM is Germany. In contrast to the free market US economy, companies in Germany have to operate in an elaborate institutional environment (Ebster-Grosz/Pugh 1996, Lane 1992, Warner 1998, Wever 1995). The three main German labor market institutions of co-determination, collective bargaining and initial vocational training, in particular, restrict managerial autonomy and therefore might hinder the application of a unitarist type of HRM. To be more precise, companies in Germany usually have a works council. This body has extensive co-determination rights and plays a crucial role whenever there are organizational changes affecting the workforce. In addition more than 80 per cent of German employees are still covered by multi-employer collective bargaining. This means that their salaries and conditions of employment are standardized to a high degree (for a more detailed overview of the German system of industrial relations see Baethge/Wolf 1995, IDE 1993, Jacobi/Keller/Muller-Jentsch 1998, Muller 1997, Streeck 1993, Visser/Ruysseveldt 1996). Furthermore, about five per cent of the German workforce take part in an initial vocational training. This training is governed and regulated by a tripartite system that involves the state, employers' organizations and trade unions and therefore also reduces organizational autonomy (for recent descriptions of the German system of initial vocational training see Gehin/Mehaut 1995, Steedman 1993). Given this strong institutional environment one could imagine that it exerts pressures for a convergence of human resource practices towards a German model.

The next section will present the context of the research conducted to examine the above issues. …