Human Resource Management: The Need for Theory and Diversity

By Weber, Wolfgang; Kabst, Rudiger | Management Revue, January 1, 2004 | Go to article overview
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Human Resource Management: The Need for Theory and Diversity


Weber, Wolfgang, Kabst, Rudiger, Management Revue


Human Resource Management as an academic discipline needs to be theoretically grounded, i.e. it requires support through theories, theory-driven empirical research and critiques. In doing so, different theoretical perspectives are addressed suggesting a problem-orientated theory selection which leads inevitably to theoretical diversity.

Key words: Human Resource Management, Systems Theory, Work and Organizational Psychology, Behavioral Approach, Personnel Economics, Political Economy, Rational Choice

1. The need for theory

Human Resource Management (FIRM) is concerned with the design of the human resource function in organizations. It has to provide explanations for the mechanisms of human resource practices and for the application of those practices in certain constellations. This means that HRM as an academic discipline needs to be theoretically grounded.

Theoretical substantiation contains two dimensions: (1.) theoretical explanation in the narrower sense, i.e., the statements are based on proven and generally applicable theories, (2.) theoretically driven critique, i.e. it is scrutinized if and to what extent the scope of an explanation holds up in the confrontation with general theories. Following Nienhuser (1996), the theoretical strength of a discipline depends on the extent to which statements are based on general and informative theories that have been supported empirically, as well as being corroborated by critical evaluation.

Efforts towards developing a theoretical basis of a field like HRM first of all focus on laws and basic theories. Proven empirical effects and their generalizations as well as theoretical approaches, concepts, frameworks and models can be included (Bunge 1998; Martin 2001).

The objectives of science are theoretical descriptions and explanations of reality, as well as pragmatic predictions. This requires the creation of mental preconditions for the modification of reality. Accordingly, the functions of science are both "Aufklarung" (cognitive goal) and "Steuerung" (pragmatic goal) (Albert 1972; Albert 1985).

The practical application of theoretical knowledge starts with prediction. Criticism and control of empirical procedures, as well as the development of technologies are central aspects of the pragmatic goal of science (Popper 1972; Nienhuser 1989). However, making overly high demands is risky: Theories do not necessarily have a direct reference to action. Nevertheless, grounded rules of applied science exist in various forms. Martin (2001) refers to technological rules, theoretically grounded maxims, action outlines, application models, blueprints and the conceptual framework. Technological rules prescribe how to proceed in order to achieve a predetermined goal. The theoretically grounded maxim implies principles which should be considered in actions - leadership principles or guidelines for organizational design fall into this category. Action outlines mirror reality at least in its contours. Application models encompass a few variables considered to be of high relevance. Blueprints are equivalents to construction plans for designing procedures. Conceptual frameworks tend to include all important aspects of a situation relevant to an action so that the theory is basically superposed on detailed categorizations. This position of critical rationalism still characterizes the basic understanding of many HRM researchers, however, it is only one of several epistemological approaches.

2. Subjects of and approaches to explanations

Subjects central to the field of HRM are the deployment of employees in line with organizational goals, as well as controlling of employees' behavior, In more detail, HRM includes recruitment and selection, employee development, compensation, structural and personal leadership as well as the management of industrial relations. A theoretical substantiation is supposed to address all these fields of action.

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