Who Is Not Sleeping with Whom

Who Is Not Sleeping with Whom



Dr Kiran Trehan

University of Central England Business School


Human Resource Development occupies some interesting educational territory. Given the rapid pace of development and innovation in education and in the practice of HRD, coupled with alternative approaches to learning, a re-evaluation of HRD might be expected to be a prominent feature within discussions of the future practice of HRD.

However, whilst there has been a growing demand in the academic literature of the last few years for management educators to engage more critically with their subject than has been the tradition in Business Schools. The case has been argued for strengthening the critical perspectives in contributory disciplines within management (Reynolds, 1999, Alvesson and Willmot, 1996) and for a revision of management more generally (French and Grey, 1996). Yet, while examples of critical pedagogies are accumulating, they seldom exhibit corresponding changes in HRD practices. Where HRD does depart from mainstream practices, alternatives are typically based on humanistic student-centred aspirations for social equality, rather than on an analysis of HRD in terms of power, politics and social dynamics.

The intention of this paper is to highlight what’s not being talked about in HRD in order to illuminate the importance of power to the study of HRD. The paper will explore the significance of power in Human Resource Development, drawing on ideas from critical and post modern perspectives. By illuminating social and power relations embedded within HRD practices, I hope to present a more contextualised and processual account than the proceduralist recipes that currently dominate the study of this vital aspect of educational and organisational practice.

Key words: critical power authority deconstruction


This brief exploration of power seen from within the postmodern paradigm (pattern of thought) might seem, quite reasonably, to be an overly abstract and theoretical way to approach the subject of power in Human Resource Development. However, this way of seeing power has been prevalent in the social sciences since the eighties and even the IPD syllabus now includes postmodernism under ‘leading ideas in Human Resource development’.

Much of the power within organisations and Human Resource Development is invisible. It resides in and between the very words that are used in ‘management’ and within practices that have become so habitual that they are no longer worthy of comment. The need to find and then question the hidden assumptions, ideas and values behind a practice (deconstruct the discourse) is highlighted by Edwards, writing on adult education, …’practice’ is already informed by overt or covert discursive understanding and exercises of power.’ (Edwards 1997:155) and by Watson, writing on management ‘…managers themselves, however much they tend to scorn the very idea of theory, are inevitably theorists of a sort.’ (Watson 1994:2) and by Schein, writing on shared assumptions about nature, reality and truth; ‘A fundamental part of every culture is a set of assumptions about what is real, how one determines or discovers what is real… …how members of a group determine what is relevant information, how they interpret information, how they determine when they have enough of it to decide whether or not to act, and what action to take.’ (Schein 1992;97). In other words, practices are always supported by theories and pre-understandings of sorts, whether this is the result of academic work or local practitioner theorising. These theories, whether written as texts or carried in the head, always exist within one or several fields of discourse (a coherent system of meanings) that define the limits of the knowable and the permissible, and are conditioned by the socio-historical biography of the author or ‘authorities’ (usually academics) within that practitioner community.

In Human Resource Development, just as in adult education and the practices of management education and management development, an essential part of reflecting critically on, and interpreting, practice is identifying the often hidden threads of discursive understandings with which current practices are interwoven. To achieve this it is necessary to make use of some conceptual tools from recent sociology and philosophy, to unpick the epistemology (system of knowledge that provides the foundations for a discourse or practice) and deconstruct the rationality (system of beliefs about cause and effect) of management practice which is commonly limited by the immediate pressures of practice. There follows an outline of some key concepts that are used from within a postmodern awareness to deconstruct (expose and examine the parts) the hidden power built into Human Resource Development.

The Contemporary Context

The contemporary condition, and particularly the field of human sciences, is characterised by a loss of certainty. We are witnessing profound and accelerating political, economic, social and technological changes. A major factor in this is the increasing rejection of taken-for-granted belief systems and overarching philosophies. In particular the modernist project of ‘finding the truth out there’, i.e. objectivity, has been critically undermined. The term ‘modern’ is used here to ‘…designate any science that legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse (philosophy) making an explicit appeal to some grand narrative, such as the dialectics of spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational or working subject, or the creation of wealth.’ (Lyotard 1979; xxiii). This condition, that now severs us from any reassuring belief that all thought is based on agreed foundations, has been labelled by Habermas as a ‘crisis of legitimation’ (Habermas in Usher et al 1997;210) and by Lyotard as ‘postmodern’ (Lyotard 1979;xxiv).

The disputed, untidy and overlapping fields of Human Resource management education and Human Resource development have, it seems, had few definite or agreed foundations, even overlapping, uncomfortably as they do, with the modernist-managerialist project. Their role/purpose is still a source of confusion and debate for line managers and HRD practitioners alike. The fields remain, like the field of personnel management generally, Drucker’s ‘dustbin’ (Drucker in Townley 1994;3). Acceptance of the ‘realities’ of the postmodern condition leads to the problematisation (exposing the weaknesses of a theory’s supporting arguments) of even the few taken for granted assumptions that have been the basis for these practices. However, if HRD practitioners are to make a significant contribution to the success of their organisations, in whatever way that success might be defined, they will need to understand and respond to these disorientating changes in the contemporary condition. Paradoxically, some of these changes may actually lead to greater freedom to interpret the role/purpose of Human Resource educators/developers and increase their potential to influence the strategic direction of organisations. Some characteristics of the contemporary world that have already impacted, or can be expected to have an impact on the fields of Human Resource development, management development and ‘management’ are explored in more detail below.

Perspectives on Human Resource Development

To define or not to define?

It has become almost routine to point out the importance of Human Resource Development (HRD). This section explores literature on HRD and draws from current debates on how HRD might be theorised, before offering a critical perspective on HRD.

Since the mid 1990s, Britain has seen increased exhortations to improve its development of people. Invariably the rationale for human resource development is to better pursue competitive advantage, or to fulfil the needs of business strategy. Following on from the performative concerns with human resource development, it is a term that is used both in terms of its objectives or rationale, and with respect to the processes of doing it.

Other definitions focus on the overlap of individual objectives and organisational interests, for example, oriented towards developing individuals in ways which are complementary with the organisation and its objectives and appropriate for meeting the individual’s own career and development needs. Human resource development is also frequently understood in terms of its processes, of formal and informal activities and processes which provide opportunities for individuals to develop cognitively in their understanding and behaviourally in their skills and competences. Although this conception of human resource development highlights processes of development, it again emphasises the performative rationales. Typically the measure of successful human resource development lies in its impact on business performance, as indicated by financial measures.

An additional interest in most definitions of human resource development is their focus on cognitive processes and behavioural capabilities, i.e. on knowledge, understanding and competences or skills. Again there are absences, notably mention of values, or of learning. Human Resource Development is presented as an additive process, akin to Paulo Freire’s ‘banking’ concept on knowledge (1972), rather than conceiving how it might be a process of change or transformation.

Recent developments in HRD have been influenced by professional practice and academic enquiry. This has created a fertile ideological backdrop for the flourishing of the notion HRD. The concept of HRD is used to convey different meanings, including those which frame HRD as a synonym for Training and Development. This means the systematic development of knowledge, skills and attitudes required by individuals to perform adequately a given task or job. Implicit within this definition are the notions of present needs and structured or mechanistic processes designed to meet specific job performance standards. HRD, as an extension of training and development, is seen by many as the poor relation to more mainstream human resource activities. Steward, Manhire and Hall (1999) argue that the organisational world has changed and recent years have seen the introduction of the terms development and Human Resource Development to the vocabulary, as their growing recognition that HRD can develop individuals and, more significantly, organisations.

An alternative and more ambitious perspective is to see HRD as an ‘holistic societal process of learning drawing upon a range of disciplines’ (Stead and Lee, 1995). They suggest that there are two historical traditions for addressing HRD: firstly, where HRD is conceived as an extension to Training and Development with the specific orientation towards organisational learning interventions designed to improve skills, knowledge and understanding. Secondly to view HRD as being more holistic in origin and focusing on ‘the interplay of global, national, organisational and individual needs’. A key feature of their argument is that HRD encompasses national initiatives to improve the skills and knowledge base of a given society and is less ‘instrumental’ than organisation-centred training and learning interventions.

McLagan (1989) adds to the debate by arguing that HRD as a process can be defined as the integrated use of training and development, organisation development and career development to improve individual, group and organisational effectiveness. These three areas use development as their primary process. HRD as an emerging concept thus encompasses training and development but is not restricted to it.

Thus, development opportunities have also been extended beyond the perimeters of a given organisation, as activities are being outsourced and sub-contracted. Non-employee human resource development is concerned with enabling an organisation to influence its external environment through a planned process of learning so that the skills and knowledge of those outside its boundaries on whom it depends to a greater or lesser extent are enhanced.

The emerging nature of theory and practice in this area is leading to much reflection as to what constitutes HRD. Stewart and McGoldrick (1996) argue that HRD is seen as a relatively new concept that has yet to become fully established and accepted, either within professional practice or as a focus of academic enquiry. Whilst Walton (1999) believes that part of the reason for this, lies in the emergent nature of HRD and a sense that people are finding their way to something new and creative.

The initial problem in attempting to present a case for HRD being a discipline, or multidisciplinary, or a body of practice (or indeed none of these) has been the absence of agreement on what it means in the first place. Chalofsky (1992) from an academic perspective has suggested that ‘HRD is a field of study in search of itself’. Blake (1995) from a more practitioner-orientated standpoint, contends that ‘the field of HRD defies definition and boundaries’. He goes on to say; ‘It’s difficult to put in a box. It has become so large with the field still growing’. Megginson et al (1993) refer to the ‘fog factor’ that has developed in the HRD world. ‘Anyone new to the world of human resource development will quickly realise that one of the most important requirements for a speedy assimilation is to learn the language’. However, he goes on to say ‘Don’t assume that the people you are working with … share your understanding’.

All of the above creates one of the dilemmas articulated by Elliott (1998) when trying to review texts influential upon HRD in the UK. She felt the picture to be undefined, ‘consisting of many fuzzy and indistinct areas with no recognisable boundaries’. This lack of boundaries and ‘newness’ made it for her an exciting field of work within which to work and write, enabling her to develop her ‘own perception of the interdisciplinary nature of the field’ but led to a justifiable ‘concern that her understanding of HRD is likely to be different from anyone else’s, she goes on to argue ‘How can we justify any claims to HRD being a distinctive discipline if there is no consensus about the field of study that HRD is purported to encompass?’

In summary, the use of the term ‘HRD’ is a subject of ongoing contention, with much of the complexity surrounding the area due partly to a lack of agreement as to how HRD is conceptualised, defined and distinguished. Part of this problem can be attributed to the assumptions that people make when using these terms, which has led to multiple definitions as to what HRD entails. Much of the earlier literature and debates on HRD were prescriptive in orientation and intended for the consumption of large organisations.

One of the outcomes of current attempts to define HRD is a focus on the role of learning. A more in-depth understanding of individual learning and the ways in which such learning is supported by training and development initiatives is central in understanding and researching HRD activities.

Rigg and Trehan (2003) argue that recent debates on how to define HRD have produced some stimulating insights (e.g. Lee 2001, McGoldrick et al 2001a). One of the developments is the broadening of HRD beyond a focus on training to encompass learning. For example, McGoldrick, Stewart and Watson propose a holographic metaphor to understand HRD as “…’the fluid, multifaceted, integrated social artefacts’ which are the ’continuing outcome’ of contextualised learning. HRD then serves as collective noun for the various concepts, theories and methods devised to manage and control learning”. (McGoldrick et al 2001a:351). Concluding the benefits of their holographic metaphor they say ‘it emphases the analytical significance of mutually involved processes of social and discursive construction …(and) provides interesting methodological questions concerning empirical research’.

Summing up authors’ perspectives in their recent edited collection (McGoldrick et al, 2001b), they conclude ‘HRD has a central focus on and concern with learning…Therefore we can conclude that HRD will be increasingly concerned with facilitating the learning of individuals, teams and organisations through the design, structuring and organisation of work itself’ (2001b:396).

It is not that in the past there have not been voices calling for recognition of learning within HRD. Marsick and Watkins (1990) are perhaps most notable, drawing attention over 10 years ago to informal and incidental sources of learning; ‘Informal learning…can be planned, but includes learning that is not designed or expected. Incidental learning, by definition, includes the unexpected’. (Marsick and Watkins, 1990:215). Not only does this perspective collapse any boundary between work and rest-of-life, in that experiences outside work can provoke learning about work, but they also acknowledged learning as a collective, not simply as individual process; ‘In the process of seeking answers to collective problems, other people learn along with the person initiating the action’. (Marsick & Watkins, 1990:217).

Other writers who present a perspective on HRD as integral to organisation processes, include Walton (1999), who talks of human development as part of the fabric of an organisation and Kessels (2001) who likens HRD to a ‘corporate curriculum’ - “the ‘rich landscape’ of the work environment that invites you to explore, meet others and develop”. (Kessels, 2001:388).

However, there is also arguments presented on not defining HRD. Lee (2001) argues for non-definition – drawing from Chia’s ontology of becoming (1996) as justification. She says; ‘instead, I suggest we seek to establish, in a moral and inclusive way, what we would like HRD to become, in the knowledge that it will never be, but that we might thus influence its becoming. (Lee 2001:338), which the next section goes on to examine.

HRD; A Postmodern Perspective

Usually one would define a term before going on to use it in a text, however ‘the postmodern’ creates a problem here. It resists easy definition because the very systems of knowledge that we usually call on to provide the foundations for a ‘definition’ are themselves problematised by the postmodern. ‘Perhaps it is best understood as a state of mind, a critical, self-referential posture and style, a different way of seeing and working, rather than a fixed body of ideas, a clearly worked-out position or a set of critical methods and techniques.’ (Usher and Edwards 1994;2).

In the postmodern, language is understood as referential, (definable only by reference to other parts of itself) leaving nowhere solid to stand, no fixed foundations on which to build. Everything is contingent and provisional. Language does not just describe the ‘real’, it constitutes it, defining the knowable and the permissible, shutting out that for which there are not yet words ‘Simplifying in the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity towards meta-narratives.’ (Lyotard 1979;xxiv). To live consciously in the postmodern is to maintain a constant resistance to totalising discourses, the temptation to sum up, create constricting taxonomies (categories) and carelessly generalise, to remain uncomfortably generalise, to remain uncomfortably at home in chaos and ambiguity. Many disciplines have formulated ways of being in the postmodern, these include architecture, literature, cinema, fine art and cultural studies. The postmodern has also begun to inform the discourses of education, sociology, management and, specifically in the case of Townley applying the concepts of Foucault, to the theory and practice of HRM, ‘There is sense here, but not safe sense. Sense made here is limited, local, provisional and always critical. Self-critical. That is sense within the postmodern moment. That is the postmodern.’ (Marshall 1992:2). Some concepts that are commonly associated with the postmodern and only really have currency within it are explored below to collectively provide a rounder picture of this condition.