Soft HRM is associated with the concept of a ‘high commitment work system’, (Walton, 1985 cited in Truss et al 1997) this is aimed at ‘eliciting a commitment so that behaviour is primarily self regulated rather than controlled by sanctions and pressures external to the individual and relations within the organisation are based on high levels of trust (Wood, 1996. p 41). Trust is a key element associated with soft HRM as by trusting the employees commitment is generated. This is the opposite view to the hard model of HRM, which is based on the assumption that employees are not to be trusted to the high level expressed within the soft model.
The hard model assumes that employees are not capable of being left to their own devices but instead that they need constant monitoring if the organisations objectives are to be achieved. This leads to a major conflict between the two models as the soft model places emphasis on the idea that control comes from commitment (Purcell, 1993) rather than through performance systems, performance management and tight control as with the hard model suggests.
Storey (1992) stated that “it is human capability and commitment which distinguishes successful organisations… the human resource ought to be nurtured” (p.26).
If commitment is to be retained HRM needs to train and develop their employees. This idea is emphasised within the soft model. The need to retain knowledge workers is one of the biggest challenges, which faces organisations today. In America, Ford offered a PC, printer and Internet access to all employees for a month.
The idea was that by being able to communicate amongst themselves much more easily, being more able to use the computers at work and becoming more acquainted with the mindset of the e-consumer, that it would make the whole organisation much more customer focused.
(Johnson and Scholes, 2002) By training and developing employees there is a potential to create a win-win situation, with employees gaining job security, interesting work and an improved work-life balance, with the best organisations gaining competitive advantage from the best workers (Peter Drucker, 1988, cited in Johnson and Scholes, 2002). Individual development, flexibility, self-fulfilment, high trust, autonomy and adaptability are all aspects that are closely associated with the ‘soft’ model (Morris et al. 2000).
There has been some criticism of these concepts, which the soft model adopts. It has been argued the concepts of commitment, flexibility and quality are somewhat ambiguous and open to debate and interpretation (Purcell, 1993). Flexibility has been noted to come in a number of different forms; it could be to ‘express the value of employee upskilling, development and initiative or the numerical and financial flexibility to be achieved by treating labour as a variable cost-to-be-minimised input’ (Atkinson, 1984 cited in Legge, 1995).
Prieto (1993 cited in Truss et al. 1997) noted three types of flexibility; ‘numerical (flexibility in the number of people in the workforce), wage (where wage adjustments can be linked to profits) and functional (where there is the broadening of skills). He stated that they were all very different and in many respects contradictory. He commented that one method of numerical flexibility may be to alter the size of the workforce by using short-term or temporary contracts at the expense of permanent contracts which would be much more attractive to employees.
This would in turn have an effect on the employees’ level of commitment. Furthermore there is also question as to what is being referred to when commitment is talked about, ‘what exactly is the employee to be committed to? ‘ (Legge, 1995). Are employees committed ‘the organisation, work group, immediate supervisor, union or occupation’ (Legge, 1995). Other criticism has come from Kennoy (1990 cited in Truss et al. 1997) who argues that the goals of quality, flexibility, commitment and integration are not mutually compatible and may be difficult to achieve in practice.
There is debate as to whether committed workers are more productive as it has never been proved (Bassett, 1994 cited in Truss et al. 1997). Within the hard model of HRM emphasis is placed on strategic direction, integration and performance managing techniques such as appraisal. Hard HRM is concerned with achieving competitive advantage by the close integration of human resource policies, systems and activities with business strategy.
They view the HRM as a way of driving the strategic objectives of the organisation (Legge, 1995). The ‘hard’ model views the employee as largely ‘a factor of production’, along with other resources such as capital and land and an expense of doing business rather than ‘the only resource capable of turning inanimate factors of production into wealth’ Tyson and Fell, 1986, p. 135 cited in Legge, 1995). The element of integration that the hard model emphasises can be further expanded into two different aspects.
The first is the ‘external fit’ which is the view that the human resource policies and practices are closely linked to the strategic objectives of the organisation and the second is the ‘internal fit’ which is the coherence of the human resource polices and practices (Baird and Meshoulam, 1988 cited in Truss et al. 1987). Although soft HRM does consider integrating HR policies with business strategies as important, its emphasis is placed on treating employees as valued assets, a source of competitive advantage through their commitment, adaptation and high quality.
(Legge, 1995) The stress is therefore on human resource policies that deliver resourceful humans (Morris and Burgoyne, 1973, cited in Legge, 1995) in the case of the soft model. The hard is more about how the HR policies can deliver the organisations objectives rather than developing employees, which can. Although both consider different aspects of the organisation they are necessarily incompatible. It would seem that these two aspects could be brought together to increase the chances of corporate objectives being obtained and competitive advantaged being maximised.
A study carried out by Kane and Crawford (1999) looking barriers to effective HRM found that although both hard and soft aspects of HRM are seldom effectively implemented in practice there was little evidence of conflict or incompatibility between the two theoretical perspectives in their results. They also found that HRM effectiveness could be achieved by both approaches as effectiveness is related to both organisational strategy and objectives and to employee motivation and development.
Legge (1995) comments that potential tensions however could rise through this aspect of strategic integration, as she believes there to be an amount of contradiction amongst the models. At a surface level she believes that problems arise from ambiguities in the conceptual language of both models. She argues that the problem arises due to the fact that ‘while ‘fit’ with strategy would argue a contingent design of HRM policy, internal consistency- at least with the soft human resource values associated with ‘mutuality’ – would argue an absolutist approach to the design of employment policy’ (Legge, 1995).
The strategic fit which the hard model refers to can be extremely tight in nature and there is little or no evidence that tight fit leads to positive outcomes. Furthermore it implies that there is no flexibility and rigidity, which could be detrimental to the organisation (Lengnick-Hall and Lengnick- Hall, 1990, cited in Truss et al. 1997). It is argued that fit may not be attainable, or desirable, in a diversified organisation.
In conclusion it is clearer to understand why there has been so much difficulty amongst writers and academics to develop a single model of human resource management, which could be used in practice by businesses and organisations. To begin with there is a huge amount of differing opinion as to what exactly human resource management is. It is a relatively new concept and the literature would suggest that it still a huge amount of debate as to exactly what it is. Although models have been developed them are clearly problematic.
This essay aimed to compare the hard and soft approaches to HRM to establish if it was possible to incorporate them into a single model. The evidence provided showed that both of the approaches were based on different sets of assumptions with soft HRM placing emphasis on the human element and hard HRM emphasising the resource. It is clear that the incorporation of both hard and soft elements within one model would be problematic with one considering human nature and the other considering managerial control strategies. Apart from these differences each of the models are problematic within themselves.
The main assumptions on which the soft approach is based such as flexibility, commitment and quality have been argued by critics to be ambiguous and open to debate. In many instances it is unclear as to what exactly the model is referring to when it uses these concepts. They can take the form of many different meanings and interpretations and if interpreted wrongly can even finish up with a practice, which is hard in approach rather than soft. These three concepts were also viewed by critics as being incompatible and difficult to achieve in practice.
This is a major factor that needs to be considered when models are being developed, they may work theoretically but do they work in practice. There are many conflicts and tensions that are evident between these two models such as the soft placing emphasis on self-expression and high trust and the hard model emphasises direction and low trust, this makes it extremely difficult to place the two together in a single model. They both consider strategic integration between business strategies and the HR policies but from conflicting viewpoints.
At present the literature is incomplete making it difficult for a single model of HRM to be developed. The flaws in the current models either soft or hard are evident and further work needs to be carried out to clarify exactly what each of the terms within the models is referring to. They’re a number of weaknesses within the models and these need to be considered and improved. If there was more clarity within the models then perhaps it would be possible to even take elements that are positive from each to create an overall model or theory, which could be used in practice.