Len Holmes, The Business School, University of North London (at time of presentation)
Presented to Conference on
'The Strategic Direction of HRM: Practice Meets Academe: Dialogue or Disillusion?'
Nottingham Business School, 10th and 11th December 1997
This element is vital for all with or seeking responsibility for general management and for those who need to understand the organisation within which they work in order to exercise influence." (IPD, 1997a: 8)
This quotation is from the document by the Institute of Personnel and Development, detailing the current 'Professional Standards' which entrants to the Institute are required to meet. 'Core Management' is one of three 'fields' of 'professional standards' which must be met (i.e. knowledge, understanding and competence must be demonstrated), and is described as constituting 33% of the overall Professional Qualifications Scheme. The 'Core Management' field itself comprises mainly a fairly conventional management studies syllabus and is represented as being broadly equivalent to NVQ4 in management. The message of this seems to be clear: the professional practice of personnel and development is to a large extent an aspect of organisational management.
Such a view will presumably seem common-sense to many, particularly to those
within the professional body who were responsible for drafting the syllabus
or 'standards'. The 1997 Annual Report of the IPD asserts that 'IPD membership
is the guarantee of quality in the management and development of people'. It
* are proficient in business management and deliver effective people strategies [...]
* can apply and adapt techniques for people management and development to fit the needs of organisations and the people who work in them [...]"
(IPD 1997b: 1; emphasis added)
Further in the report, in a section headed 'The future', this emphasis upon the role of the 'professional practitioner' as contributing to organisational management is reiterated:
"Whether our members work as directors, managers or specialists inside an organisation; or whether they work as consultants, trainers or educators to many organisations, they need a professional Institute that equips them with the leading-edge skills and intelligence continually to raise their contribution."
(op cit., p.5; emphasis added)
In the section of the IPD Code of Professional Conduct and Disciplinary Procedures, under the section headed 'Standards of professional conduct', members must, inter alia,
"within their own or any client organisation and in whatever capacity they are working, seek to adopt in the most appropriate way, the most appropriate people management processes and structures to enable the organisation to best achieve its present and future objectives."
(IPD, undated, section 4.1.5)
Of course, such emphasis on organisational goals is qualified by the notion that this is for the good of society. Thus the two-fold 'Objects' of the Institute, 'to promote and develop the science and practice of the management of people' and 'to establish, promote and monitor standards of competence, good practice, conduct and ethics', are both presented as being 'for the public benefit'.
In this paper, I wish to examine this unequivocal privileging of organisational functioning as the primary nature of what we might take as a professional occupation concerned with people and employment. I will consider the nature of the 'personnel and development profession' as a profession, particularly in respect of the way that its practice is constructed as being primarily concerned with promoting organisational goals. This, I shall argue, is not something given 'in the order of things' but as emergent from a set of social processes within a highly contested arena. The particular construction that currently dominates is not necessarily the only one that could be adopted; nor is it necessarily the case that a unitary construction be adopted. Moreover, I shall argue, we should have severe reservations about the extent to which the current, dominant representation of the profession is likely to enhance its legitimacy and longevity. Indeed, arguably it will lead to a diminution of the profession's legitimacy and so a withering of the profession itself. I will explore alternative directions for the profession which are, arguably, possible in the current social and political context.
PERSONNEL AND DEVELOPMENT AS A PROFESSION
In presenting itself as a 'professional institute', the IPD is clearly presenting
the area of work of its members as a profession. Such work is, in general understanding,
well described by the report of the Hayes Committee, established by the Department
of Employment in the early 1970s to make recommendations on 'training for the
management of human resources':
"Work done by a 'professional' is usually distinguished by its reference to a framework of fundamental concepts linked with experience rather than impromptu reaction to events or the application of rigid laid down procedures. The hallmark of a professional person is seen as the possession of a high level of distinctive competence reflecting the skilful application of specialised knowledge, which is:
1. accompanied by a sense of responsibility and an acceptance of recognised standards,
2. acquired by a process of specialised education, training and experience over a number of years."
(HMSO, 1973: 12)
This formulation of professional work in general, and of 'human resource management
profession', reflects that generally adopted within traditional approaches to
the study of the professions:
"The many volumes written about professions seem to agree on the kinds of traits that professions need to have in order to distinguish them from the non-professions. These traits which include a theoretically based skill, an ideal of service, an ideal of service, an adherence to the professional code of ethics, and so on [...]"
(Dunkerley, 1975: 54)
Certainly the 'official' representation by IPD of the personnel profession would seem to match this traditional view. The Institute's two-fold 'Objects' referred to above match this formulation, with the notion of a 'science' relating to a 'practice' in a particular field, and of 'standards' of conduct and ethics (but where these are mentioned after reference to 'competence' and 'good practice'). The development of credentialisation and the involvement of academia, for research and for teaching, together with attempts to promote the possession of credentials as requirements for entry to the arena of practice (albeit that the credentials have not achieved the status of a 'licence to practice') comprise key elements in what has been taken to be the process of professionalisation.
Standard descriptions of the profession's history trace it from its origins from the welfare movement (roughly up to World War I), through the development and application of industrial psychology (initially dealing with notions of 'fatigue' etc.), responding to the post-World War II industrial relations scene (in the context of economic growth and labour shortages), to the development of 'human resource management' as a contribution to corporate strategy. This period coincides with the development of the social sciences, particularly key areas within psychology. The period also coincides with the development of management theory and organisation theory. Such a narrative fits well with structuralist and functionalist conceptualisations of the nature of professions. It is a narrative of progressive development, of practice in relation to the 'needs' of society and of a body of scientific knowledge to underpin such practice.
ALTERNATIVE VIEWS ON THE PROFESSIONS
The structuralist/ functionalist perspectives on the professions has, of course, been subjected to considerable critique, especially in terms of the 'new sociology of the professions' in the 1960s and 1970s (e.g. Johnson, 1967; Friedson, 1970; Rothstein, 1972; Larson, 1977). This body of work focused on issues of status, power and exclusion. Professions develop through the processes by which an occupational grouping develops ways of gaining control over a particular set of social issues or problems, including the framework of abstract knowledge upon which techniques for dealing with such issues and problems.
More recently, Abbott (1988) has developed an approach for analysing the development
of professions in terms of the link between a particular profession and the
nature of work undertaken by that profession, within a system or ecology of
professions. He uses the term jurisdiction to denote the link between a profession
and the tasks which constitute the work undertaken:
"The central phenomenon of professional life is thus the link between a profession and its work, a link I shall call jurisdiction. To analyse professional development is to analyse how this link is created in work, how it is anchored by formal and informal social structure, and how the interplay of jurisdictional links between professions determine the history of the individual professions themselves."
(Abbott, 1988: 20)
Rather than assuming some common sequential pattern for the development of professions, 'professionalisation', Abbott argues for a theoretical scheme that examines how professions develop jurisdictional control. For any particular profession, this happens in relation to other professions:
"Professions develop when jurisdictions become vacant, which may happen because they are newly created or because an earlier tenant has left them altogether or lost a firm grip on them."
(op. cit., p.3)
The historical sequence is, then, contingent rather than deterministic, and there is no reason to believe that the process of 'professionalisation' will follow a particular pattern. An occupational grouping may fail in its attempts to gain jurisdictional control, or may lose its jurisdictional control. Abbott cites a number of examples of nascent professions that 'died out', and of contests between professions to wrest control resulting in one or other gaining dominance, or arenas where contestation continues without resolution.
Abbott examines the nature of professional work in terms of 'human problems amenable to expert service' (p.35); these may be problems for individuals or for groups. The extent to which expert service is required will vary, from problem to problem, society to society, and at different times. A problem may have objective features and subjective (or cultural) features. Thus, for example, the effects of alcohol are objective, in so far as heavy and continued consumption (alcoholism) affects the central nervous system; but the subjective perception of this may be varied:
"Alcoholism has been a biological disease, a nervous and mental disease,
a personal problem, a moral delict, a sin. It has even been a 'scourge of society'
- problem caused by poverty and injustice and hence not an individual's problem
(op. cit., p.38)
Likewise, the central tasks of a profession have both objective and subjective qualities, according to Abbott. Changes in the objective aspects will make a profession vulnerable. So also will changes affecting the subjective qualities; however these come about differently, through challenges to the way that the profession seeks to construct the problem. Abbott examines this in terms of the 'mechanisms of professional work'.
Theoretically, argues Abbott, there are three 'acts of professional practice', relating to three parts of the jurisdictional claims that construct the subjective qualities of problems:
Diagnosis involves the transformation of presented problems into problems which
are amenable to analysis in accordance with the professional knowledge system.
This necessarily involves the selection of particular items of information from
a much larger set, to reduce the complexity of presented problems; other information
is excluded from the diagnosis. However, this may affect the extent to which
the profession is open to competition from other professions' jurisdictional
claims which may attempt to define and construct the problem differently.
"To the extent that a profession restricts the relevant information or specifies the admissible types of evidence it risks competition from other groups whose standards are less restrictive."
(op. cit., p.44)
Treatment also poses possible difficulties for a profession. There is a need for a system of classification of problems, i.e. diagnosis, and one for treatment. However, if there appears to be a a simple isomorphic matching of diagnosis with prescription for treatment, there is the possibility that outsiders will be able to comprehend the work of the profession, and so that it will be easily downgraded, i.e. deprofessionalised. In addition, if the effectiveness of treatment is easily measured, this will enable others outside the profession to ensure effectiveness and so the profession may lose control. On the other hand, if measurement of effectiveness is very difficult, it becomes difficult for the profession to show that one treatment is better than another, thus weakening its hold over the problem area (op. cit., p.46).
Inference is the key linking task between diagnosis and treatment, where the connection between these is obscure. Abbott identifies two types of inference: by exclusion and by construction. Inference by exclusion involves trying one treatment then substituting another if the first fails to be effective; medicine tends to work by this approach. This can only be used where there is a second chance. Inference by construction involves developing plans and considering their likely impact under different anticipated responses. A classic example is military strategy, constructing a plan with 'as many winning scenarios as possible' (p.49). Long chains of logical steps in inference give rise to the possibility of intervention by outsiders, challenging jurisdiction. However, where a profession places too little emphasis on inference, it will find it difficult to maintain the claim of being professional.
THE JURISDICTION OF THE PERSONNEL PROFESSION
Having briefly sketched some key elements in Abbott's analysis of the 'system of professions', we might now examine how the personnel profession has attempted to gain jurisdictional control of the area of human activity with which it is concerned. We have seen how the professional body, the Institute of Personnel and Development, represents the profession in terms of 'people management and development to fit the needs of organisations and the people who work in them' (IPD, 1997b: 1, cited above). This notion of meeting the needs of both organisations and people who work in them is presented as being essentially unproblematic. That is, although it may not necessarily be easy, it is possible to meet the needs of both parties. However, it is clear that, according to the Code of Professional Conduct, the needs of the organisation are paramount, as members must work 'to enable the organisation to best achieve its present and future objectives'. So here we have either a contradiction or an implicit assumption that, in meeting organisational needs, the needs of employees will ipso facto also be met. Of course, the whole question of the conceptual validity of attributing needs to a social entity such as an organisation is not addressed, nor is the issue of how such 'needs' are determined.
The developing nature of the jurisdictional claim of the profession can be seen in the historical development from the welfare movement through the post-war employment context of relatively full employment and organised labour, and the industrial relations context, to the human resource management orientation of recent years. But there is another part of the story that is of relevance, particularly in relation to the merger of the Institute of Personnel Management with the Institute of Training and Development. The origins of the latter lie with the emergence of industrial training as a major issue for employing organisations and for public policy, in the 1960s. The perceived failure of the market to ensure high levels of skills training, deemed to be essential for economic growth and competitiveness, resulted in state intervention in 1964, in the form of the then Conservative Government's Industrial Training Act. The implementation of this by the incoming Labour Government, with its rhetorical emphasis on the 'white heat of technological revolution', took the form of the establishment of statutory industry training boards in over twenty sectors, with levy-raising and grant-awarding powers. The boards were tri-partite, with equal numbers of trade union and employer members as well as (a smaller number of) educationists. There was a rapid growth of the training and development profession; this included over two thousand training advisory staff of the ITBs, formally accountable to these tri-partite boards, whose responsibilities included that of inspection of employers' training practices and of policy formulation for the industrial sector. That is to say, the jurisdiction of the emerging training profession lay, in part, in terms of wider societal concerns.
Of course, we should not overstate the degree to which ITBs were able to promote their role as a promoter of training in the interests of society (and the economy) as a whole, particularly in the context of the political changes leading to the 1973 Employment and Training Act. Nor should we simply attribute to the staff of ITBs professional self-identifications 'read off' from their formal status as statutory, tri-partite bodies; no doubt many such staff saw their roles very much as advisors and consultants to employing organisations, particularly to senior management of these organisations. But we can connect this possible alternative jurisdictional claim with the fact that there are many roles involved in issues about people and employment. These include the staff in the Department for Education and Employment, staff of TECs, local authority staff engaged in employment development, the staff of ACAS, and staff involved in employment matters in the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality. They also include trade union officers, whose roles would not easily fit with the current description of what members of IPD do! Looking back historically, we can see in the area of contract compliance by a number of local authorities, most notably the Greater London Council under a Labour administration, the emergence albeit temporarily of what we might call a proto-profession, with jurisdictional claims relating to the personnel profession's. All this demonstrates that the jurisdiction of the personnel profession, as currently espoused by IPD, is not fixed by 'the order of things' but constructed; certainly this takes place in particular circumstances but it is also an active process on the part of the profession itself.
We might therefore examine the currently constructed jurisdictional claim, in order to consider the extent to which this is likely to be sustainable. The emphasis on the personnel profession as part of organisational management, particular in respect of making a strategic contribution as 'human resource management', immediately rules out the types of problems which would be part of the alternative jurisdictional claims suggested above. It also places the diagnostic task in a relatively weak position with regard to other jurisdictional claimants. In particular, we may understand the long-standing questioning by operational managers of the value of the personnel function within organisations. Since the problems, for which the personnel profession claims to have expertise, concern 'people' and since managers in general may claim to understand 'people' then, ask such managers, what extra contribution can the personnel specialist make? Moreover, the specialist understanding of people in general is always susceptible to the claim by any manager that 'my people' are different. Where the personnel profession attempts to bolster its claim to be a part of organisational management through asserting that all managers have people management responsibilities, this may serve simply to downgrade the claim to specialist expertise. The subjective qualities of the problems with which the management-oriented focus of personnel professional practice claims to be able to deal are not constructed with sufficient distinctiveness to enable the profession to maintain jurisdictional control in respect of diagnosis.
Similarly, in terms of treatment, using Abbott's terminology, we can see how the current jurisdictional claims by the personnel profession leave it vulnerable. The 'splitting up' into 'sub-specialisms' (Tyson and Fell, 1995) and the 'balkanisation' and 'fragmentation' (Sisson, 1994) of personnel practice may be seen as the consequence of too clear an isomorphism of diagnosis and treatment classifications (Abbott, 1988: 45) leading to a downgrading of its professional status. Moreover, attempts at developing clear forms of measurement of effectiveness will tend to make it easier for outsiders (other specialist and general managers) to evaluate the work of personnel practitioners, and so for the profession to lose control. Here we must remember Abbott's distinction between objective and subjective aspects of problems, particularly the latter. It is the way that problems are culturally defined by a profession, and so the way that effectiveness of treatment is also culturally defined, that will significantly determine the ease of evaluation. One example of this is the way that 'training needs' have increasingly been constructed by the personnel profession as issues of measurable 'competence' (Holmes, 1994, 1995). Even the 'strategic' approach of HRM presents problems of maintaining jurisdictional control, because of the long time period involved in implementing 'treatment', with the possibility of outsider intervention before this has been fully achieved.
The conventional knowledge base on which the personnel profession bases inference also presents problems. The profession has developed concurrently with the growth of social science over the past century. However, this is mainly restricted to positivistic approaches within psychology; even the use of developments in social psychology tends to be restricted. Under such approaches, 'people' are constructed as 'human resources', productive contributors to organisational functioning (c.f. Rose, 1990; Townley, 1994; Casey, 1995). They are employees within organisations, and other ways of considering human actors are either ignored or treated as potential sources of interference to effective organisational functioning and therefore in need of control. Of course, much of the purported knowledge base of personnel practice has been produced by organisational consultants; some of these have achieved 'guru' status, others are mere transient interpreters and simplifiers of scholarship. We have only to look at the poor state of motivation theory to see how highly complex analyses by people like Maslow have been reduced to simple diagrammatic models and easy nostrums. Even the very idea of 'motivation' as a causal explanation of human behaviour is taken for granted; the warning by C Wright Mills (1940), predating by three years the first publication of Maslow's theory, that we should rather seek understanding in terms not of causal 'motives' but of 'vocabularies of motive' in relation to 'situated action', has gone unheeded. More recent developments in the social sciences, particularly arising from the 'discursive turn', are noticeable by their absence from mainstream personnel literature and, crucially, from the 'Professional Standards' on which approved professional education is based. No wonder, then, that the profession has difficulty in presenting its 'body of knowledge' as much more than 'common-sense'.
AN ALTERNATIVE JURISDICTIONAL CLAIM?
We might conclude then, from an examination of the current formulation of the
personnel profession's jurisdictional claim, that the profession is highly vulnerable.
This concurs with the conclusion reached by Murton and Stenning (1995), that
'current trajectories for the personnel profession are unlikely to be sustainable
in the longer term'. They undertook an examination of personnel from a political
economy perspective, particularly focusing on the position of the personnel
function as an intermediary between external and internal labour markets. With
the waning of political and economic factors which largely gave rise to the
prominence of 'HRM' during the 1980s and early 1990s, there are indeed alternatives:
"In this changing political climate the possibilities of an alternative way forward which avoids the dysfunctions of unfettered market capitalism in a new 'social democratic' settlement may well provide the foundations for a revitalised role for personnel."
(op. cit., p 12)
In particular, they point to the 'European tradition', which emphasises 'partnership, participation, social democracy and concerns regarding wider stakeholder interests' (p.13).
However, we might go further than Murton and Stenning, who mainly focus on personnel practice within employing organisations. As indicated above, there is a much wider set of roles and practitioners engaged in matters concerning people and work. People are not merely employees; many people are not employees. Many people wish to be employees but are not; indeed, many have been made non-employees, and many others have never been employees. Conventional notions of the personnel profession have little concern for these. However, they are the concerns of the state, particularly in terms of a perceived link between problems over employment (and unemployment) and problems in respect of social security expenditure (and so taxation levels), crime, disorder, and so on. Crucially, the fact that people are not merely employees or non-employees is of major significance to the state; people are voters and so, in principle, able to change government and the nature of the state.
State intervention on employment matters is, of course, not restricted to left and centre-left governments. Indeed, arguably, it has been Conservative Governments in the UK that have enacted most employment legislation; certainly it has been mostly Conservative Governments that have tried to use 'special measures' to deal with problems of high levels of unemployment over the past two and half decades. The incumbent Labour Government has high ambitions to tackle unemployment, especially amongst key groups such as the under-25s and single parents. However, the record of such special measures is not one of significant success. As one scheme or initiative replaces another there is little evidence of clearly founded diagnosis, inference and prescription of treatment. The staff engaged in formulating policy, and developing and delivering various schemes do not form a coherent grouping whereby a sound body of knowledge may be developed and transmitted. In short, there is a vacant area of professional jurisdiction.
In addition to the proposal by Murton and Stenning, we might therefore propose that the personnel and development profession should lay claim to a broader jurisdiction than the management and development of employees within organisations. The broader jurisdiction might be formulated as being concerned with ensuring effective patterns of employment, and development for and in employment, in the interests of society. This would include the effective management and development of employees for organisational functioning, where this is regarded as being beneficial to society. The idea that the success of an organisation is in itself always and necessarily beneficial to society is, of course, unsustainable given the footloose nature of transnational capital. The prospects for attempts, by national governments and inter-government alliances and unions, at increased regulation of commercial enterprise, would enhance the role of the personnel profession with a wider jurisdictional claim. Even non-legislative actions by government and government agencies might be increasingly focused on employment issues; at the very minimum, the purchasing power of the public sector gives it scope for influencing the employment practices of organisations. This may not take the form of contract compliance as practised in the 1980s, but might utilise schemes such as Investors in People (appropriately strengthened) or Codes of Practice (e.g. in respect of equal opportunities, employee participation etc.) as the basis for deciding between suppliers of products and providers of services. Other areas such as pension schemes, access for people with disabilities, relocations, and so on provide opportunities for state intervention whereby expertise in employment matters give rise to potential for strengthening jurisdictional claims.
IMPLICATIONS FOR PROFESSIONAL EDUCATION
An important element in such a reframing of the jurisdictional claim of the
profession is that of professional education and certification. The current
Professional Qualifications Scheme for the IPD is, in some ways, well-placed
for promoting the alternative jurisdiction. This lies in respect of accreditation
of prior learning, whereby established practitioners can seek admission to the
Institute on the basis of past experience and achievement rather than being
required to go through a defined pattern of education and assessment. The non-sequential
nature of the three fields enable partial accreditation ('licentiateship') for
different people with different backgrounds. However, the content
of the Standards does present difficulties.
A major difficulty lies with the 'core management' field. Whilst this may be an appropriate area for demonstration of professional competence for those engaged in, or seeking posts as practitioners of, personnel and development within employing organisations, it is less so for those engaged in wider employment related work. In such cases, it would be more important to have understanding of, and related skills in, broader social science and policy studies. Paradoxically, this reflects the very area of study of stage 1 of the IPM's educational scheme displaced in 1989 by the Professional Management Foundation Scheme. One consequence of this is that it is now possible for colleges and universities running IPD approved and accredited courses to give exemption (for 'core management') for individuals with, for example, a BA Business Studies, but not for someone with a degree in political science, economics or social administration. Yet such students might be better placed for a career in the employment field in which they achieve a position of considerable influence.
The IPD might, therefore, fruitfully review this area of the Professional Standards. One way forward might be the creation of alternative modes of entry, a 'management route' and a 'policy studies route'. There may be areas that are 'core' to both, or it may be that the two routes are very different. Employers recruiting IPD Graduates would not be disadvantaged for they can specify which route they require or prefer candidates to have taken (as long as they engage in 'good practice'!). Of course, employers in the wider arena of employment matters would have a specific qualification as a basis for recruitment and professional education of their staff.
The 'Core Personnel and Development' field in the Professional Standards also presents problems with its current emphasis reflecting the 'traditional' jurisdiction. It would probably make sense to change the specification for this field, either by expanding it or substituting content. Either way, all candidates would need to study broader areas concerning employment (or show they have met the standards). The Electives field provides considerable scope for introducing new sets of standards, and relevant programmes of study and assessment, relevant to the broader area of employment affairs. Moreover some existing electives, e.g. 'Vocational Education and Training', might be well-served by revisions which reflect the broader orientation.
Overall, we might expect that such a reframing of both the jurisdictional claim and professional education to lead to new developments in the scholarship that leads to developments of the body of knowledge deemed to underpin professional practice. As the theoretical perspectives relevant to the wider public policy issues with regard to employment encounter those which have been used for conventional framing of personnel practice, there will be tensions that will generate debate and new scholarship. With increased variety in educational provision, there will be greater scope for academic institutions and staff to develop greater links between scholarship and teaching. In this way, there will be enhanced scope for enhanced approaches, for diagnosing employment related problems arising in the emerging economic and political scene and developing actions as 'treatment'.
The argument in this paper has been that the personnel profession should seek
a reframing of its 'jurisdictional claims', using Abbott's framework for analysing
the system of professions. The currently dominant managerialist orientation
can be shown, using this analysis, to place the profession in a vulnerable position
likely to lead to its withering or decline. Such an orientation is not given
'in the order of things', but is socially constructed and so open to change.
Indeed, the history of industrial training indicates alternative trajectory
that might have been taken. Given the importance of employment to wider public
policy and state intervention, there is an arena constituting a jurisdictional
vacancy to which the personnel profession may fruitfully lay claim. Moreover,
as Murton and Stenning (1995) have argued, the changing political climate yields
an alternative trajectory for personnel work within employing organisations.
A combination of these two provides for, arguably, a more sustainable future
for the profession and the professional body. The changes required for professional
education and certification do not pose major difficulties for the current arrangements.
The remaining question is whether the profession, through the Institute, will
engage in a thorough debate on the question: 'whither the profession?'
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