Introduction

With the modern day global economic environment being characterised by intense competition, spiralling inflation, low and high cost production centres, technological change and the emergence of new non-western markets, companies see the achievement of low cost and high quality operational competence as a key source of obtaining global competitive advantage. Competitive advantage comes about, not just from distinguishing products or services or in achieving cost and quality leadership, but also from the capability of exploiting the specific talents and central abilities of organisations and in speedily reacting to client requirements and customer initiatives (Burke & Cooper, 2004). Looked at in a larger perspective, competitive advantage arises from the ability of the management to synergise company wide capabilities and production skills into central competencies that enable and give power to organisations to adjust, adapt and fine-tune actions to take advantage of ever changing opportunities. (Burke & Cooper, 2004)

Managements in an increasing number of organisations now view effective marshalling of human resources to be critical to business strategy and the achievement of competitive advantage. In opposition to the traditional emphasis on technologically empowering and tangible resources, such as equipment, corporate seniors are increasingly recognising that organisations can gain distinctive competencies and capabilities through soft processes like strongly distinctive and employee empowering organisational cultures, work friendly management processes and systems, and highly developed employee skills (Francis & Keegan, 2006). Competitive advantage, experts feel, can be facilitated and improved with a superior skill employee force that empowers corporations to respond to market demands in areas of cost, quality, product features, product development, service quality and of course innovation (Francis & Keegan, 2006). With the Japanese making such working systems integral to their phenomenal global success, progressive organisations in the west are clearly looking to imaginative and strategic human resource management to power their operations in increasingly unpredictable and intensely competitive times.

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HR management theories as well as the new breed of HR managers are evolving to meet these significantly greater strategic demands and discarding their largely relational roles in corporate working. Traditional, largely passive, and inherently reactive work practices are being enhanced and modified in tune with changed realities for the better marshalling of organisational resources, strengthening of organisational human resource strengths, and the implementation of corporate strategies (Francis & Keegan, 2006). The Ulrich Model, which is being adopted by a significant percentage of UK business firms, calls for HR experts to assume the roles of strategic partners working closely with senior business leaders on strategy execution, particularly in designing HR systems and processes on strategic business issues. (CIPD, 2008)

New HR theories that call for all organisational managers to constantly assume HR functions have arisen from such new business energies. With HR managers (a) under constantly increasing work pressure and (b) often being faced with extremely complex challenges, managements are seriously looking at devolving a number of HR functions to line managers. With line managers being most closely involved with actual production and in workforce interaction, they are felt to be uniquely placed to assist in a number of HR functions and in the provisioning of valuable inputs (Thornhill & Others, 1998).

Commentary

Theoretical Underpinning of the Need of Line Managers in HR Functions

The evolution of HR management from a passive and reactive back office function, playing a largely supportive and inherently administrative role to that of a proactive and strategically important management activity has to a large extent gone hand in hand with the evolution of different models of HR management.

Whilst HR has moved a long way from the Fordist and Taylorist HR policies of the first half of the 20th century, it has for many years been dominated by hard HRM practices, where decision making capabilities essentially lie with few people and HR policies are guided by the perceived strategic needs of organisations and by cost minimisation imperatives.

Soft HR management styles, which evolved from the path breaking work of Maslow, Herzeberger, and Kohn, as well as from inputs from gurus like Peter Drucker, however view employees with much greater intrinsic regard and feel them to be critical for the achievement of performance excellence and competitive advantage. The 1980s saw the emergence of the Harvard and Michigan models, followed by work on hard and soft models by Guest and Storey in the second half of the 1980s. In 1989 Storey differentiated between the hard and soft models exemplified by the Michigan and Harvard models, arguing that hard HRM practices primarily concentrate on the “resources” feature of human resources, emphasising cost in terms of headcounts, and keeping control very strongly within the ambit of the management; who are required to match the workforce with the actual workforce requirements both in numbers and behaviours. (Hughes, 2002)

Recent years have seen intense debate on the respective merits and demerits of these two models. Whereas soft HRM models are still felt by many to be inapplicable in a number of business environments, particularly in low cost, high volume, contracted or owned operations in low cost production locations in the developing world, they are also increasingly being felt to be applicable in business environments that focus on quality, demand speedy responses and greater delegation, and where competitive advantage depends upon innovative ability. (Jackson & Schuler, 1999)

Whilst these 2 perspectives on HR management can be considered to be diametrically opposite, experts like Guest and Storey, (even whilst acknowledging such intrinsic differences between these models) have used elements of both in the construction of their own models.  Guest (1990) uses both soft and hard attributes in building his HRM theory, referring to four “policy goals” one of which, namely “strategic integration” is distinctly linked to his interpretation of the hard model, and the other, “commitment”, with his perspective of the soft model. Storey (1992) classifies his four main aspects of HRM theory by incorporating soft components such as commitment as well as hard components such as planned direction.

Strangely, despite HRM being such a controversial and discordant management discipline, a greater and widespread realisation is growing of the need for far greater involvement of line managers at all levels in HR management.

“This role is made clear by Storey (1992) when he refers to the key elements associated with the notion of HRM as a distinctive approach, rather than as just an alternative title for personnel management. It requires line managers to become aware of the link between the management of human resources and the strategic direction of the organization as outlined by its top managers, and to act accordingly in the way in which they manage people.” (Thornhill & Saunders, 1998)

Guest’s (1990) structure details the human resource and organisational results that should naturally follow from the embracing of an HR philosophy, namely “strategic integration, high commitment, high quality, and flexibility among employees”. With integration inherently being a multifaceted exercise comprising of various aspects, for example (a) HR policy being integrated with strategic planning, (b) HR policies with each other and with functions like marketing and production, (c) practices and approaches of line managers being integrated with HR policies and (d) employees being integrated with strategic organisational objectives, Guest’s model calls for a wide reaching change in organisational approach towards collaborative and integrated working.

David Ulrich, in his model, calls for HR to fulfil fur key functions, those of strategic partner, change agent, administrative expert, and employee champion. In the capacity of change agents and employee champions, their responsibilities incorporate the involvement of line managers in HR functions (CIPD, 2008).

Use of Line Managers in HR Functions

Line managers are uniquely placed not only to provide inputs to but also to assume HR responsibilities. Being closest to areas of production like assembly lines, machines, workshops, shop floors, and other production centres, line managers are critically placed to understand the qualities, attributes, experience, and skills required in members of the workforce for improving and optimising production. (Miller, 1998)

Their knowledge of managerial activities extends to knowledge of the product, the production process, working conditions, critical workplace functions, quality requirements, and safety factors. Many line managers, by way of their experience in production environments, also obtain first hand knowledge of worker psyches, as well as their motivators and demotivator, ambitions, aspirations and apprehensions (CIPD, 2008).

This enables them to contribute significantly to HR functions in jobs related to preparing and detailing job descriptions and job specifications, and building candidate profiles, as well as by actively participating in selection and recruitment processes. Line managers can be instrumental in new employee orientation and assimilation, as well as in training and retraining activities. (Miller, 1998) Critical HR actions like joint worker activity, team building, motivation, off work bonding through picnics and games, elimination of harassment and bullying, and cross-departmental and hierarchical communication can occur only with the active involvement of line staff (CIPD, 2008). Line managers can also provide critical inputs on the emotional status, loyalty and commitment of the workforce, their union affiliations and commitments, and contribute to managerial response by providing earlier alerts in times of dissatisfaction, strikes and work slowdowns (CIPD, 2008). With line managers always being in touch with the workforce, performance management and employee involvement can be substantially strengthened with their actual involvement, and the usage of their 2-way communication conduit between workforce and management (CIPD, 2008). By providing a number of vital inputs about performance and staffing needs, line managers can very well set up the stage for HR to assume a more effective role in strategic partnering. (Miller, 1998)

Despite such benefits HR managers are yet to make sustained efforts to involve line managers in participative HR oriented activity. Relations between the two departments have contrarily always been rather frosty with each group of managers being wary of the other and trying to guard their own turf. (Francis ; Keegan, 2006) With HR managers being loath to part with their selection, recruitment, and other personnel policymaking functions to line managers and line managers viewing most HR attempts to interact in greater measures with the workforce as unneeded and possibly harmful pampering and appeasement, most organisations have often seen frequent sparring matches between the two functions. A common complaint with line managers has been the appeasing attitude of HR executives towards the workforce and the inability of HR departments to speedily remove workers felt to be inefficient and undesirable (Renwick, 2003).

With such attitudes necessarily being outcomes of the traditional working ways of Anglo-American businesses, characterised by rigid departmentalisation, clear demarcation of line and staff functions, established and clearly delineated lines of control, attitudes of “them” and “us” between workers and management, strong union influence, command and control working approaches, and constant stress on cost minimisation and improving scales of production, the changing business scenario, the gradual adoption of neo liberal business ideals, the combined impact of many forces and pressures emerging from developments like the increasing technical competence and academic sophistication of the workforce, improving incomes and living standards, the decreasing influence of unions, and the emergent threat from the resurgence and economic flourish of China and India,  have made such attitudes and organisational characteristics largely passé; senior managers as well as line and staff executives realise the need for all parts of business firms to pull together and work in a participative, collaborative and cooperative manner for the achievement of business synergies and cost efficiencies and for the realisation of core competencies and competitive advantage. (Burke ; Cooper, 2004)

Despite the growing need for such collaborative action to take place and despite organisations realising the need to reduce the chances of role conflicts between line and HR executives, line managers remain largely disadvantaged in undertaking HR responsibilities because of their operational exigencies as well as personal inadequacies (Renwick, 2003).

In the normal course of events line managers are, in terms of physical work, the busiest people in the organisation. The organisational demands for constant production, the need to maintain quality, and the requirement to regularly manage a wide range of material, plant services and workforce variables and contingencies leave them physically exhausted and mentally unwilling to take on new responsibilities (Renwick, 2003).

Apart from the load of operational demand and exigencies, line managers are ill equipped to handle HR responsibilities because of their lack of education, skills, and training in the area (Renwick, 2003). Their training and education largely being technical and quantitative, most line managers still learn their HR skills on the job through contact and working with members of the workforce and remain largely unaware of the many theoretical, psychological and practical inputs that go into the evolution and development of effective HR managers; skills that make HR managers particularly suitable to handle functions like selection, recruitment and orientation of staff, participate in training, formulate remuneration and performance linked reward schemes, and compile HR manuals, frame and frame HR policies (Renwick, 2003). Whilst there is a big argument in favour of devolving HR functions on line managers and ensuring that some key HR decisions are taken as close as possible to the point where the decision will later be implemented, the competence and ability of the decision maker can play a key role in determining the quality of such decisions (Renwick, 2003).

It is widely accepted that the approach and response of line executives has the potential to impact the quality of workforce loyalty and commitment. Whilst organisational HRM policies need to ensure greater commitment of employees, (through the agency of line managers), by increasing their satisfaction, adaptability and productivity, a number of factors and developments could obviously impede or obstruct such results. In such circumstances the level of skills possessed by line managers in areas of leadership, employee involvement and motivation, enhancement of communication and management of change play important roles in the determination of the final outcome. (Thornhill ; Others, 1998)

Again whereas soft management styles may be better suited for developing employee commitment, such policies may well be against existing management practices or the proclivities of the concerned line managers. Prevailing managerial styles may thus well be instrumental in influencing the success of using line managers for enhancement of HR functions.

Line managers can also play a key role in the development of organisational flexibility, the third outcome of Guest’s HRM model. Whilst it is obviously the primary responsibility of senior managers to herald changes in policies designed to improve employee adaptability and commitment to organisational objectives, (thus bringing in Guest’s culture of flexibility), line managers are integral to the success of such change processes. With line managers gradually being empowered to assume critical roles in selection and recruitment of workforce, their contribution to quality of workforce is also likely to rise.  It also needs to be noted that whilst an analytical interpretation of Guest’s model strongly indicates the role of line managers in HR functions, the postulates of Guest’s model for success of line managers appear to be more in sync with the following of soft HR policies. (Thornhill ; Others, 1998)

Conclusion

Whilst most management and HR experts are unanimous in their opinion of the usefulness and suitability of line managers for assuming extensive HR responsibilities, their recommendations to managements, in this respect, are routinely accompanied by apprehensions about the likely consequences of the success and proliferation of such practices on the roles and functions of HR departments, especially of junior and middle level personnel managers.

With a natural apprehension being evidenced on the possibility of greater devolution of HR functions on line managers making the functions of personnel managers redundant, experts feel that such concerns could well discourage HR managers from pushing for the devolvement of HR responsibilities on line managers. Personnel management historically being a rather inconspicuous backburner function and HR departments generally being the last to come into existence in new companies and the first to face the brunt in times of downturn and difficulty, personnel managers of the old school could well be true to type in apprehending a downgrade in their importance to organisations in the wake of widespread devolution of HR functions on line managers. (Whittaker ; Marchington, 2003)

Whilst the 1980s and the 1990s did see a certain amount of downgrading of the personnel management function and the exclusion of HR managers from key strategy and decision making functions, the second half of the 1990s saw the beginning of a dramatic change in such perceptions; especially after the growth of huge service sector organisations in areas of BPO, Accounts and Financial Services, IT and IT enabled services. (Hughes, 2002) With the virtual collapse of huge automobile companies like GM and Ford in the face of the challenge mounted by Toyota and Honda, many large western business organisations have drastically strengthened their HR departments and are leveraging and rejigging their HR skills and management policies in order to regain and further competitive advantage.

In light of such circumstances it is unlikely that personnel management will have to revisit the comparative anonymity and exclusion of the past years. Furthermore with HR functions becoming increasingly complex, not only in response to the changing economic realities, but also because of the increasing incidence of labour legislation and the demands of international HRM requirements in a fast globalising scenario, (where small and large companies are venturing out of their home bases), managements are unlikely to scale down HR functions.

 In fact with some HR functions being passed on to line managers, specialised HR functionaries will be able to focus more on core HR functions and in bringing about serious value additions to the quality of workforce and organisational competitive advantage. In fact the contribution that can be made by HR managers to corporate strategy, and their role as strategic partners, in line with Ulrich’s model, will depend substantially upon the extent to which HR responsibilities can be successfully devolved upon line managers.

On the other hand the success of line managers in handling HR functions will also depend significantly upon the support they receive from dyed in the wool HR managers. Any plan to truncate organisational HR strengths may well deprive line managers of vital support systems and jeopardise the success of such initiatives significantly.

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