Academic journal article Management Revue

Social Systems Theory as Theoretical Framework for Human Resource Management - Benediction or Curse?

Academic journal article Management Revue

Social Systems Theory as Theoretical Framework for Human Resource Management - Benediction or Curse?

Article excerpt

Social Systems Theory as Theoretical Framework for Human Resource Management - Benediction or Curse? **

Social systems theory as developed by Niklas Luhmann is an option for the theoretical foundation of Human Resource Management (HRM). After clarifying the advantages of using a grand (social) theory as the basic theoretical perspective, the roots of this social systems theory - the deterministic view of systems as machines, the open systems approach and non-linear systems theory - are addressed. Based on the view of social systems as autopoietically closed systems, five major contributions to a theoretical foundation of HRM are identified: (1) the conceptualisation of organising and managing human resources as social processes, thus overcoming an individualistic angle; (2) the new importance of individuals as essential element in the system's environment; (3) the abstention form far reaching or highly unrealistic assumptions about the 'nature' of human beings; (4) the interaction between various levels and units of analysis built into the theory which is essential for comprehensive and in-depth analyses of HR phenomena and (5) the openness for additional theories for which social systems theory provides the overall framework.

Key words: Systems Theory, Human Resource Management, Organisation Theory

1. Introduction: Why using a grand theory? Critics frequently diagnose a lack of comprehensive theoretical frameworks for human resource management (HRM; see, e.g., Drumm 1995). In recent times, however, things slowly seem to change (see, e.g., the overview in Weber 1996). Within these efforts, a number of 'grand' and less grand theories like behavioural theory (Schanz 2000; Martin 2001) or economic theory (Backes-Gellner 2001) are used as basic perspective for HRM. Looking at HRM from a 'grand' and unified theoretical perspective has a number of advantages for theory building as well as organisational practice.

From a theoretical viewpoint, borrowing from established grand theories supports a better understanding of HR phenomena. With its historical roots in practices and tools, HRM has to rely on other sciences for a theoretical foundation. Thus, it enriches the HRM-discussion if well established concepts from a different scientific field are applied to HRM. In addition, such an approach contributes to the integration of HR research into the organisational theory discussion. This not only helps HR theory, but also strengthens the theoretical link to the general organisational theory debate, thus underscoring the vital role HR plays in an overall view of organisations. Looking at HRM from a unified theoretical perspective also allows to discuss the great variety of HR aspects with a single theoretical language. Thus, new ways of reconstructing and making sense of these phenomena can be developed because the categories of the framework can be used to reconstruct organisational reality in a different way than using classic organisational and HR theory categories: It establishes similarities and differences between phenomena and actors that otherwise are regarded as conceptually and socially disperse (see Karpik 1978: 46, for a similar argument in organisation theory). Informal meetings of employees, working group processes or organisations as a whole can be analysed by focusing on the crucial elements of organising without getting distracted by highly visible, but not very powerful surface phenomena. Of course, it depends on the chosen theoretical framework which elements of organising are regarded as crucial. Ideally, theory building does not only support theoretical advancement. It should also be related to better practice - at least this would be a widely shared view of business administration being a practical-normative science and thus also responsible for better practice. A grand theory helps building practical decisions on sound assumptions about crucial elements within the myriad of practical elements that practitioners face. …

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