Academic journal article Management Revue

Personnel Departmental Power: Realities from the UK Higher Education Sector**

Academic journal article Management Revue

Personnel Departmental Power: Realities from the UK Higher Education Sector**

Article excerpt

The status of the Personnel function is subject to an ongoing debate in which attention has largely shifted from department to individual practitioner level. There remains, however, significant functional power in organisational structures, particularly in more institutionalised contexts. Aimed at the departmental level, the higher education state funding council for England (HEFCE) introduced an initiative to improve Personnel departments in Higher Education. However, survey evidence confirms the continuation of the low power position of the department. An exploration of the empirical data highlights why: the routine rigidity of power in organisational structures, the fragmentation of departmental power, and Personnel role ambiguity.

Key words: higher education, personnel department, power

1. Introduction

The Personnel (or Human Resources - HR) occupation continues to be plagued by "tensions between competing role demands, ever-increasing managerial expectations of performance and new challenges to professional expertise'' (Caldwell 2003: 983). It is constantly struggling to achieve status and legitimacy, yet is consistently identified as a weak occupational group with inherent role ambiguities (Guest/King 2004; Legge 1978). This debate surrounding Personnel department power was particularly lively in the 1980s when the industrial relations role of the department was in decline, and Human Resource Management (HRM) was in ascendancy. The department was seen as prepared to reinvent itself to exploit new potential sources of power (Legge 1995). The focus in the literature since has consequently shifted more towards the strategic involvement of the department (e.g. Budhwar 2000; Wright et al. 1998), and the added-value of HRM to firm performance (e.g. Paauwe 2004). However, studies by Caldwell (2003) and Guest and King (2004) of the changing and conflicting roles of Personnel have highlighted the reality that the power debate in both the literature and in practice particularly at this departmental level has not yet been resolved.

At the same time, there have also been shifts in focus in the organisational power literature. Debates which started from structuralist discussions have broadened to include more behavioural dimensions of power. In doing so, research has acknowledged that these are not divergent but complementary views (Cendon/Jarvenpaa 2001). Likewise, attention has shifted in general to more complex theories, for example from sovereign power to network power models (Munro 2000), but more specifically also from departmental power to individual power dynamics (Welbourne /Trevor 2000). However, there is a case to be made for continuance of the study of power at the departmental level (albeit taking a critical perspective on previous frameworks). Arguably, this latter perspective rediscovers and reminds us of the more embedded, structural sources of power inherent within organisations, whilst individual level power studies focus more on behavioural dynamics. The study presented here looks primarily to structuralist theories of departmental power, and a critique hereof, and specifically considers Personnel department strategies for gaining power, particularly through increased strategic input and income generation.

The chosen context for the study is that of Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) in the UK. Against the backdrop of the idealised role of 'strategic partnership' prescribed by Ulrich (1997), and as a result of enquiries into HRM practices across the HE sector, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) provided significant additional funding to Personnel departments in HEIs to encourage them to become more strategically focused: the Rewarding and Developing Staff (RDS) initiative. There is now increased awareness of the department's activities, but whether this strategic focus has actually led to an improvement in the credibility and power of Personnel in the sector is explored further here. …

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