BOOK REVIEW / Managing the most precious resource: 'Principles of Human Resource Management' - David Goss (Routledge, pounds 12.99)

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The Independent Online
Attention is often diverted by the big issues, such as takeovers and expansion plans, but among the matters that constantly come up in discussion around the coffee machines in companies everywhere is the question 'What is the difference between personnel and human resources?'

As David Goss says at the beginning of this book, human resource management is a term that has become increasingly familiar over the past decade without much clear agreement on what it is, where it differs from traditional personnel management and how important it will be for the future.

Wisely, perhaps, he does not offer a firm definition, but the rather lame observation that human resource management - or HRM, as it is inevitably known - 'will be treated as a diverse body of thought and practice, loosely unified by a concern to integrate the management of personnel more closely with the core management activity of organisations'.

At a time when organisations have been dispensing with employees as if they are not much more valuable than a pile of last year's calendars, this might strike some readers as a bit rich. The true motivation is probably better seen in the explanation of the development of the HRM concept in the 1980s. This revolves around 'a conjunction of socio-economic factors - in particular, changes in international competition, the restructuring of industrial sectors and organisations and the rise of a renewed confidence in the power of managers to manage'.

The last part is the key, for it has enabled such concepts as flatter hierarchies and empowerment to flower. Mr Goss acknowledges that it has generated scepticism, largely because some taking this approach have promised more than they could deliver. But he is not put off. Indeed, 'despite the charge of 'old wine in new bottles', the willingness with which many organisations have supported the change of title from 'personnel management' to 'human resource management' does seem to suggest a high level of managerial receptiveness to the notion.' Or - as the rise and fall of management theories suggests - perhaps many companies are susceptible to fads.

Either way, HRM is with us for the moment - and in the new nonhierarchical world in which we live every manager needs to know what it amounts to.

Consequently, Mr Goss's approach has much to commend it. Pointing out that there is little agreement among the professionals on the best way of integrating people management with company strategy, he describes the key issues so readers will be able to decide which aspect is likely to work best for their organisations.

It is then that we find out why Mr Goss, a lecturer in the human resource department at Portsmouth University's business school, regards the subject as 'a diverse body of thought'.

We hear about 'instrumental' approaches to HRM, largely driven by corporate needs and geared towards improving competitive advantage, and 'humanistic' approaches, with a more reciprocal nature, aiming to ensure that competitive advantage is achieved through people, but not necessarily at their expense.

We also learn about the role of such initiatives as psychometric testing, performance-related pay and team briefings. But - and this is the key - Mr Goss also uses the work of the many writers who have tackled this area to show how all these initiatives, and others, have been hailed as the next big thing, only to be found wanting and discredited while the search goes on for replacements.

Few will disagree with the author quoted by Mr Goss who says that personnel management had been 'dogged by problems of credibility, marginality, ambiguity and 'trash-can' labelling'. Dusting it off and giving it a new name is not going to change much. But it might help to alter things if more middle managers read books like this and were therefore less susceptible to the charms of those setting themselves up as experts in 'the people business'.