The Strategic Roles of Human Resource Development

By Torraco, Richard J.; Swanson, Richard A. | Human Resource Planning, December 1995 | Go to article overview

The Strategic Roles of Human Resource Development


Torraco, Richard J., Swanson, Richard A., Human Resource Planning


Human resource development (HRD) has served the needs of organizations to provide employees with up-to-date expertise. Advances in HRD models and processes have kept pace with the increasingly sophisticated information and production technologies that continue to diffuse throughout our nation's most vital industries (Swanson and Torraco, 1994). During this period of rapid technological development, the HRD function could be relied upon to support a broad range of business initiatives that required a competent workforce. Critical business issues, from new marketing strategies to innovations in production technology, were based on, among other factors, the performance capabilities of those expected to use these new work systems. As a factor integral to business success, employee expertise itself has been expanded through effective programs of employee development. Expertise is defined as the optimal level at which a person is able and/or expected to perform within a specialized realm of human activity (Swanson, 1994). In short, the development of workplace expertise through HRD has been vital to optimal business performance.

Yet today's business environment requires that HRD not only support the business strategies of organizations, but that it assume a pivotal role in the shaping of business strategy. Business success increasingly hinges on an organization's ability to use employee expertise as a factor in the shaping of business strategy. This article examines the strategic roles of HRD. As a primary means of sustaining an organization's competitive edge, HRD serves a strategic role by assuring the competence of employees to meet the organization's present performance demands. Along with meeting present organizational needs, HRD also serves a vital role in shaping strategy and enabling organizations to take full advantage of emergent business strategies. Both the strategy supporting and strategy shaping roles of HRD have distinctive features that are evident in the business practices of successful companies. This article examines the origins and distinctive features of the strategic roles of HRD, and illustrates these roles with examples from today's most innovative organizations.

HRD to Support Business Objectives

The HRD function has long been relied upon to support a broad range of business objectives that require competent employees. Business objectives themselves are almost as diverse in nature as the wide range of organizations that articulate them. Business objectives can span long- and short-term time frames, and can focus on broad business issues (e.g., diversification in the defense industry in the post-cold war era) and more specific issues (e.g., reduction of employee turnover in company field offices). The rationale for using HRD interventions to support business objectives is quite straightforward: Enhancing employee expertise through HRD increases the likelihood that business objectives will be achieved (Jacobs and Jones, 1995; Swanson, 1994).

There are numerous examples of how HRD is used to support business objectives. Indeed, most HRD programs referred to as somehow having "strategic" value assume roles that are supportive of a given business strategy. The education and training used to support business objectives at Motorola is typical of the challenges and opportunities faced by many organizations in today's business environment. What Motorola discovered earlier than most organizations that began introducing new sophisticated technologies into the workplace was that their employees did not have the skills to make full use of the technologies (Agrawal, 1994). Companies that compete in the fast-paced communications market where customers are particularly innovation-conscious must deliver high-quality, reliable products despite short product development cycles. Motorola sought production advantages through both the integration of new technology and the development of employee expertise. …

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