Sunday, 8 February 2009

Human Resource Development – Essay by Mia Dragostin


Diversity and controversy in HRD’s theory and practice

about Mia Dragostin

In HRD literature there is a large debate regarding its content and underlying theories. The debate reflects the increasing interest toward this emerging domain of human development, in an organizational context. This paper presents in the first part some of the theories that generated controversy among academics, and between HRD theorists and practitioners. Further, in the second part, I try to identify the implications of the current debates for HRD’s domain. The main conclusion I could draw is that for developing human’s performance in organizations HRD is required close co-operation between the two apparently separated worlds of theorists and practitioners. In the third part of the paper a case study will be analyzed from HRD perspective.


1. Evolutions and controversies regarding content, theories and practice of HRD

1.1. Content Evolution in HRD

The content of HRD has developed continuously since 1960, when Nadler first coined the term of Human Resource Development (HRD) (Dilworth, 2003).

Swanson (2001) sees HRD concerned with learning and with the help provided to people and organizations for improving performance.

Mankin (2001) finds as main components of HRD those exposed by Thomas and Mabey (1994, cited in Mankin, 2001): organizational development, career development and the department of training and development, within the last component noticing a shift from training and development to learning [as per Nadler and Nadler, (1989), cited in Mankin, 2001]. In the same spirit with Mankin’s opinion, who thinks that the evolutionary characteristic offered by learning to HRD is the one that gives HRD true identity, Kessel (2001) considers that HRD has the purpose of developing the human capability and the productivity of knowledge, and increasing these developments’ transfer into practice.

1.2. Theories controversies in HRD

Core theories give a distinguishing theoretical base for the discipline (Swanson, 2001)

But to the claim that HRD has as basis the system and anthropological theories, Swanson replies that the theories reciprocally exclude each other: the system theory is about understanding the system and trying to improve it, in contradiction with the anthropological view on HRD (as anthropology does not change the system it studies) (Swanson, 2001). Thus, is illogical to keep both theories at the base of HRD.

Swanson (2001) notes other attempts of providing HRD with a core theory: in 1989 Gradous advocates the system theory to be the unifying one for all useful theories required. Also Watkins (1989, cited in Mankin, 2001) requests the addition of other theories: intervention theory, the work design theory, critical theory and human capital theory.

Despite the efforts, in 2001 Swanson finds that the lack of unitary theoretical view generated the present state activity, which is characterized by being random, short-term orientated, no deep understanding; the reduced ability to replicate the success is seen as the result of the above characteristics.

Without a ground theory, Swanson (2001) argues that practitioners are doomed to build their strategies from scratch, or, as alternative, to choose a trial and error mode.

Swanson’s (2001) proposes the “Three-legged stool theory” has as base the psychological, economic and systems theory. These are the three legs and the platform represents their integration in the theory HRD (figure 1).


Figure 1 Theoretical foundations of HRD according to Swanson (Swanson, 2001, p.306)

Unlike Swanson, who perceives the lack of unitary theoretical view as impediment for sustainable results, Mankin (2001) advocates for embracing HRD as an ambiguous concept, by both academicals and professionals. He argues that only a fluid, evolving concept of HRD is able to sustain the process that has as main purpose to facilitate change. Furthermore, Mankin emphasizes that using its own request for the supervised learners to challenge the values and beliefs in the learning process, HRD itself has to undergo the same process of questioning own values and beliefs. This fact can only take HRD, according to Mankin (2001) to be understood as process more than in functions.

Mankin’s (2001) model (figure 2) finds HRD as being the central part of convergence of three factors: strategy and structure, HRM, and culture.


Figure 2 The HRD model according to Mankin (Mankin, 2001, p.79)

Similarly, Lee (2001) supports the idea that HRD should not be defined on “philosophical, theoretical and practical grounds”, because the dynamic and ambiguous features of HRD’s content. Lee considers the tendency of trying to identify a good practice- generally valuable, with no context specificity (context of nation, culture, even type of industry) - as a dangerous because it might end into an inflexible rules book. For her standardization of practice noticed inside professional bodies, the “one method good for all situations”, is seen similar to a political action, imposed to its constituents. Standardization approach is considered “unrealistic” due to HRD’s large variety of situations.

Clearly, Lee advocates a Heraclitean approach to defining HRD, approach that allows the concepts of meaning and boundary to be negotiable, fluid, placed under “becoming”, rather than “being”. Thus she implies an irreconcilable tension between academicals and professional bodies and practitioners.

1.3. HRD practices

“You cannot force people to be smart”

Kessel (2001, p. 385)

Similarly to Lee, Kessels (2001) sees HRD as an actor part of a greater play which is knowledge revolution. Practitioners and academicals who concentrate on performance improvement through technology, are seen by Kessel as professionals who use for a new situation (knowledge revolution), the tools used for the previous revolution (productivity revolution).

In industrial age, the employees were selling their loyalty and obedience in return for salary and the employers were administrators of employees’ performance. Handy (1995) calls this type of workplace as a “prison for the human soul”. This orientation towards being compliant with existing ways of being and thinking is reinforcement for the resistance to change.

In my understanding, the “old way”, where workers are required to obey and the process of learning (where learning has a developmental, innovative meaning), are irreconcilable.

Learning needs flexible adaptation.

There is a huge difference between compliance and flexible adaptation. Compliant is an individual who restrains himself in order to be “no more”. Flexible adaptive is an individual who expands himself in order to be “more”. And if companies are in search of the second type of individual when looking for employees (because this one could give them competitive advantage), then companies need to rethink their expectations and reshape their demands and offers with the employees.

Indeed, in knowledge age, the employees are mainly expected to contribute with creativity, innovation and passion, and the employers are expected to allow them to be part of organization’s ambitions. A greater emphasis, believes Kessel (2001), should be placed on relations and passion: the relations between employer and employees, the relations between employees and the passion towards what they are doing. HRD should contain this new orientation towards integrating human dimension of emotions, relations and communication. Gardiner & Whiting (1997) find as well at the basis of learning organization’s success the relationship of trust built between management and employees,

And, similarly to Lee (2001), Kessel (2001) advocates a non-standardized approach to HRD, which considers the context of the existing culture. As example, the authors presents Netherlands, where the long habit of collaboration and negotiation shaped a view on HRD somehow opposed to the one “imported” via USA, which emphasizes the performance improvement based on technology. Kessel sees practice of HRD responsible for offering a territory for human mind expansion, as opposed to establishing learning objectives and producing learning strategies. Freedom and interest for a topic should be the criteria for each employee when choosing the learning direction, believes Kessel (2001)

In the same spirit, Leitch et al.(1996, quoted in Gardiner & Whiting , 1997) stress that the learning organization is not an activity, but rather an orientation, and the authors recommend use of a scale in measuring the process, and not the sharp realization of an established goal.

The above tensions between the performance improvement approach and a more flexible and contextual development approach is observed as well by Ruona & Lynham (2004), who claim that the different views in HRD practices, have roots in different underlying philosophies.

In the framework presented, Ruona & Lynham see that Research and Practice are only complementary processes integrated in a much bigger cycle of thinking (figure 3).


Figure 3 Ruona and Lyhnham’s philosophical framework for thought and practice (Ruona & Lynham, 2004, p. 155)

The authors reveal that how the world is seen, how the knowledge about world is acquired and how should be acted in inquiry and practice, all are articulated using systems theory into a framework that could guide HRD interventions in a holistic manner. The HRD interventions become part of a larger vision, and we can deduct that any change in vision, could generate a change in the design of interventions.

I find this interconnectedness to represent the core of double loop learning as defined by Argyris, and the consequence of this fact is that HRD not only should, but as well could be an efficient self-learner. My conclusion is that an HRD practitioner who is aware of the philosophical framework as presented by Ruona and Lynham (2004), is permanently aware of the options it has when designing the interventions, and constantly could be reflective on own actions and own thinking. This awareness can help practitioners understand that resting interventions only on measures is not enough, in the same degree in which resting interventions only on ideas is not enough as well.

As ancients said, the success is based in balance, and Ruona & Lynham’s (2004) framework give practitioners and researchers alike, the signposts for inquiry and reflection. The signposts could help HRD people to avoid exaggerations and know that they are not allowed to play with people’s minds and souls, their only job being to facilitate, not to impose, not to manipulate.

Kessel (2001) expresses a similar view regarding the ultimate role of HRD, by acknowledging that employers (and by this I understand HRD people) could only contribute to facilitate capability development of each individual.


2. Implications of HRD’s intense debate regarding content, theory and practice

The intense debate existing inside HRD is generated by serious concerns regarding the professional standards of HRD and regarding the efficiency evaluations generated by standards.

First concern would be synthesized in a few words simply by: science vs. pseudo-science

With the existing low barriers of entry in HRD professional field, Woodall (2001) expresses her concerns that practitioners may lack a strong theoretical base of the field. The question following this fact is: how do we make a difference between a viable HRD intervention and a pseudo-viable one?

Should we trust an HRD intervention’s future result judging by the underlying theory of the intervention? Or the authorization that guarantees the expertise of the HRD person is safe-proofing the future result? Is it results measuring showing that HRD intervention was successful? And if measuring is a way of proving HRD efficiency, when is wise to have these answers? Literature shows that some interventions need several years for implementation and results. For instance, Schaeffler UK (Anonymous, 2007) needed 5 years for HRD intervention to achieve desired results. Could any measurement prior to 5 years proved that the approach is wrong?

The many questions that are generated by HRD could, in the end, be resumed to only one: how does a company know that learning has an effect and worth the money invested?

This question leads us to identify some of the problems related to HRD’s efficiency.

We keep asking how can the results of HRD’s interventions can be measured, or evaluated. But I think that first it should be found the answer to another question: is performance evaluation possible in HRD? Is it any realistic method to evaluate in numbers how efficient is a new drive, attitude, a new atmosphere? How can be measured the immeasurable: people’s feelings and attitudes? Is this – performance appraisal - a proper method to evaluate if learning takes place?

How can one use the same measure for different contexts? I think that this impossibility to treat different contexts with the same approach makes so difficult the evaluation. Theorists are trying to find a common ground, basic principles by which to judge learning and change.

It might be found an answer in the assumption that results are directly linked with attitude, so by comparing the results post HRD intervention with the results preceding intervention, from the difference could be demonstrated HRD intervention’s value.

This assumption would take the discussion towards new questions.

First: if at the post intervention moment of measurement, there is no significant difference, as the process of learning and change is not completed yet, is not too hasty to conclude that the intervention was not efficient?

And the second question is: how can one be sure that the resistance to change, that might impede on learning timing, does not come from the fact that indeed the intervention did not took into consideration the proper combination of factors and methods when approaching the change process?

In both situation, I find a great degree of uncertainty when attempting to formulate a generalized answer, and there is needed a great degree of flexibility, understanding and reflexivity to analyze the interconnection of factors in the change context.

More questions follow.

When is learning integrated? After how long is learning manifesting its results: after one week, or one month? The actual implementation in daily work of learning depends on topic or depends on individual; or work setting (structure and culture) is influencing in the same degree the results?

To answer these questions requires us to understand learning, to understand humankind development. The principles are the same, whether we think about humans as workers or as part of their species.

The experience of Gravells (2006), a life-long practitioner of managing change for others, confesses the psychologically dramatic features of the process when confronted personally with change. Gravells acknowledges his failure in supporting change with a mindset which had principles based in linear, programmatic processes. This experience reveals that change is not targeted on a specific part of human being, but is total. Gravells’ insights are important for HRD.

Among them:

  • change can be enacted and not controlled;
  • managers should be aware that measuring learning progress does not always have the same meaning as when measuring a distance between two points on land, for instance.
  • organization could support the flexibility to adapt to change by enabling people to acquire the habit of learning and of being reflexive
  • the most influential action to enhance the ability to change was, as experienced by Gravells, learning to learn


I can conclude with certainty that HRD is a challenging domain in a century where a shift in main theoretical assumptions for organizational development occurs. The rate of change, technological, demographical, socio-cultural requires new organizational approaches and different views and theories existing in HRD reflects both the diversity of change phenomenon. HRD approaches have as main belief that learning is a way of mastering change, and learning is seen as an asset for both individuals and organizations, which could lead the quest for a better life.

Evolution in HRD requires reconciliation between academicals and practitioners. The holistic view of the world proves that in the same way a dichotomy body/mind is no longer valid, a dichotomy academicals/practitioners brings no benefit to any of parts. I think that the efforts should be directed not towards showing where each other fails, but towards finding similarities and common grounds.


Case study

Prestige HR Services

I have presented our case study in Annex 1.

From our case study results that the main goal of the change desired by CE is for him to undertake a more strategic role, while the team of directors to undertake increased responsibilities for day-to day operations.

I propose to use Ruona & Lynham’s philosophical framework to analyze the situation and determine future HRD developments. We will try to find some answers to the following questions:

How is the world seen? Is the reality structured into “there” and “here”?

How do they know the world? What are the standards?


In past (and up to present), we are told the CE is the main source of company’s success, which is mainly achieved through his energy.

In present the CE is still involved in the daily running of the company.

The CE’s future expectation is that directors take new responsibilities.

The non-executive director observes that CE is frustrated that directors’ team does not seem able to improve their performance and thus is required his intervention to solve the problems. On the other hand, the directors are fearful and hide things from him. The main concern of the external observer is that such a behavior could lead to a culture of dependency and fear.

My analyze starts with understanding the meaning of IIP, as Prestige HR Services is accredited Investor in People (IIP).

According to Investor in People UK Standard (Anonymous, 2004), an IIP is developing effective strategies with the aim of improving through people the performance of the organization. The IIP principles are:

1. “A strategy for improving the performance of the organization is clearly defined and understood;

2. Learning and development is planned to achieve the organization’s objectives

3. Strategies for managing people are designed to promote equality of opportunity in the development of the organization’s people.

4. The capabilities managers need to lead, manage and develop people effectively are clearly defined and understood

5. Managers are effective in leading, managing and developing people.

6. People's contribution to the organization is recognized and valued

7. People are encouraged to take ownership and responsibility by being involved in decision making.

8. People learn and develop effectively

9. Investment in people improves the performance of the organization

10. Improvements are continually made to the way people are managed and developed” (Anonymous, 2004, p. 2)

I must note that this whole effective strategies developing is done at Prestige HR in absence of HR or HRD function.

As previously the company was able to be awarded IIP, this means that in the existing context, the strategies applied gave results that were considered successful.

But the powerful clash of emotions at top-management level shows us something else: the main problem here concerns the leadership.

The symptoms presented by the study case indicate the presence of a hierarchical structure which developed an authoritarian leadership style. More, we identify the workplace structured as “me and them”, in a way little conducive for co-operation.

The CE is involving in day-to-day running of the company, and this uncovers his managerial mentality: he must intervene in order to supplement directors’ faulty actions. This is a signal for us that CE believes that without his close supervision the work cannot be properly done. More, it seems that CE is the only owner of strategy orientation: with no department to guard the development of strategies and their implementation, we could only suppose this role is assumed by CE. So we could understand his desire to pass his daily tasks for running the company to his directors, which would release him to think about strategy.

The CE sees strategy at an operational level, as something that is built, pressed on the button and then operates instantly.

In conclusion, the IIP awards witness the fact that top-management is interested in applying new principles of good HR practice, but the leadership present state reveal that these principles are not completely understood, or are achieved in a distorted manner. Trying to describe the world of CE, we could think that CE is not aware that his understanding of leadership is not benefiting of reflexivity. CE seems not to be aware that his style and present view of workplace world is unsuitable for the performance and teamwork environment he desires.

CE faces communication problems which come from his authoritarian style.

CE is controlling, and does not trust his directors. The most dangerous fact is that from fear, people hide things. There is nothing worse for top managers than to misuse the informational channels. This generates distortion, and when decisions are made, is possible that important, relevant information is not taken into account; this generates wrong decisions, unfitted to real situation. Maybe this is one of the reasons why problems seem to come out of blue - how else can we understand CE’s frustration?

Here we should discuss a problem with the, what CE calls team of directors: his aim to free himself of daily tasks and instead increase directors’ responsibilities, is nothing else than delegation of tasks. He wants to get rid of short-term tasks in order to have time for strategy.

But the question is: can ever strategy belong to just one person? Could the CE think about himself as a team player, as long as he is not able to have a dialogue with his directors?

It is discussable CE’s understanding of strategy and vision. He is expecting his directors to act independently, but he keeps them under a strict control, as long as the company tends to be described as a blame culture one. And the way he wants to involve in company’s strategy is much closer to Moses going to the Mountain, and came back with the Laws. CE seems to see his strategy as a list of rules to be obeyed, not a vision to be shared.

The performance HRD cannot help us too much in this regard. As an IIP, it looks like the company took whatever could be measured under scrutiny and developed.

But the actual problems prove that this measurement is not the real denominator of achievement.

If we listen carefully to Lee, Kessel and Gravells, we could have another point of view of the real problems.

First, it seems that the professional skill levels is not a problem in company, but looks like the company needs to change the entire organizational culture. This has to start with CE himself. He should let go his own perception about himself, which tells us that “without me, nothing is working”. His first step could be to start considering himself as becoming part of directors’ team. In this moment CE is in the phase of “me and them”. When he can become part of their team, only from that moment on he could hope for something to improve in the day-to-day running of the company.

Second, he should be aware that strategy is not something that it just happens; strategy is like a fire: someone has to take actively care of it, from development, to implementation, to being realistic and adaptive to new environmental challenges. And even more, strategy has to be shared and followed. By other people. And as people cannot be just told “do as I say”, and expect to be high-performing, in order to achieve new goals in the next five years, CE needs to gain people’s benevolence and involvement.

Maybe Prestige HR started from one person’s effort. But it can develop only if the goal for next years is shared and desired by all employees. At this stage the company does no longer belong to only one person. In a much too complex environment, one person’s leading and control is not the source of the desired performance. Even more, if the type of business requires from employees more than routine activity, and asks for creativity and innovation, the CE’s approach to people similar to mechanistic approach in industrial era, is inappropriate.

Recommendations for HR Prestige

Our recommendations regard implementation of a new culture, encouraged from top-down, and this includes both CE and the team of directors.

First, the CE needs to revise his own understanding of strategy and even should critically be reflexive on his managerial style and approach.

After clarifying these aspects, the communication should be encouraged. The open communication after a long time of blame culture has to start with fostering trust: by allowing errors, which have to be source for learning, and by rewarding and acknowledging the successes.

Employees would need to overcome the fear to speak up. For this, one important step for CE is to overcome the stage “they” and “me”, and begin to see directors as partners.

Then, teamwork has to be encouraged so that people discover the benefits of commitment and engagement from inside. More, the sharing of knowledge could increase company’s competitive advantage.

Finally, strategy will become a concern for everybody in the company.

With people’s engagement and free collaboration, the blame culture, the mistrust and the excessive need for control will disappear. New way to integrate strategy will lead to fostering a real organizational culture, unique and possibly, impossible to be duplicated at the same standards by competitors.

But this intervention will take time and a lot of effort.

Because, as Louis Gerstner put it, “[changing a culture] is not something that you do by writing memos. You’ve got to buy in with their hearts and their beliefs, not just the minds” (cited in Gardner, 1999, p.129).

Annex 1

Prestige HR Services

Prestige HR Services is a recruitment consultancy which was established five years ago and now has a turnover of £3m with a gross margin of around 45%. It employs 29 staff of consultants with a further 10 administration staff and a senior tea, which includes a Chief Executive (CE) and three Directors. The company is an accredited Investor in People but has no dedicated HR or HRD function.

This is an important period for the company and its core strategy is to increase turnover to £15m over the next five years. The CE perceives an opportunity for continued strong growth and has a clear vision to take the company forward to be a major player in the market. To this end, the CE has appointed a Non-Executive Director, essentially to provide strategic advice to the Board and direct input to the strategic development of the business.

The CE also recognizes that the company needs to change to achieve the growth over the next five years. He will need to take up a more strategic role while the other Directors will need to take on increased responsibilities for the day-to-day operation of the company. This will represent a substantial change for the senior management and the CE is not sure that they understand either his view for the future of the company or the implications for their role.

The incoming Non-Executive Director has also expressed his concern that until now the company's success has been achieved largely because of the energy and drive of the CE. The CE is a dynamic and bright individual, an excellent Sales person and very involved in the day-to-day running of the company. However, the CE is becoming increasingly frustrated by the performance of his team of Directors. He believes that they have not taken on responsibilities for the day-to-day running of the company as he would have expected and he feels he always has to pick up and deal with operational problems. He believes that without his continued operational input and leadership, the performance of the Directors will be consistent and will fall short of the required level.

In conversation with the Non-Executives Director, the CE has expressed strong views about the performance believing the Directors should be capable of “stepping up to the plate” and taking on the responsibilities for running the company but they seem unable to take on the challenge. The CE has also expressed concern that if he continues to deal with day-to-day operations and manage performance shortfalls he will never fully be released to take more strategic role. This has increased his level of frustration.

In Board meetings observers have frequently witnessed the CE’s frustration boil over and he becomes angry, confrontational and blaming. As a result, the Directors are increasingly fearful of the CE and frequently hide things from him. The Non-Executive Directors is concerned that if this behavior continues it will limit the ability of the company to grow successfully as it is creating a culture of dependency and fear that will ultimately restrict the performance of the Directors and staff.

In an in depth performance review the Non-Executive Director has raised these issues and found the CE very receptive and aware of the consequences of his current behavior. However, both were unsure of what to do, both for the CE and for the company.

The Change Navigators – developing strategies for managing culture change


Dilworth, L. (2003) – ‘Searching for the Future of HR’, in Advances in Developing Human Resource, vol.5, pp.241

Gardine, P., Whiting, P. (1997) – “Success factors in learning organizations: an empirical study” in Industrial and Commercial Training 29 (2), pp. 41–48

Gravells, J. (2006) – “The Myth of Change Management: A Reflection on Personal Change and Its Lessons for Leadership Development” in Human Resource Development International, 9(2), pp. 283 - 289

Handy, C. (1995), "Trust and the virtual organization", Harvard Business Review, Vol. 73 No.3, pp.40-50.

Gaedner, H. (1999) – “Intelligence reframed: multiple intelligences for the 21st century”, Basic Book, New York

Kessels, J. (2001) – “Joseph Kessels interviewed by Jane Woodall” in Human Resource Development International, 4 (3), pp. 383 - 390

Lee, M. (2001) – “A Refusal to Define HRD” in Human Resource Development International, 4 (3), pp. 327- 341

Mankin, D.P. (2001) – “A Model for Human Resource Development” in Human Resource Development International, 4(1), pp. 65 - 85

Ruona, W., Lynham, S. (2004) – “A philosophical framework for thought and practice in human resource development” in Human Resource Development International, 7(2), pp. 151 - 164

Swanson, R. (2001) – “Human Resource Development and its Underlying Theories” in Human Resource Development International, 4 (3), pp. 299- 312

Anonymous (2004) - Investor in People UK Standard, on [www],, accessed on 21st of December 2007

Anonymous (2007) – “Investment in people at Schaeffler (UK) Limited”, on [www],, accessed on 22nd of December 2007

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Human Resource Development de Mia Dragostin este licenţiat printr-o Licenţă Creative Commons Atribuire-Necomercial-Fără Opere Derivate 3.0 România.

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