Strategies cannot be left as generalized aspirations or abstractions. If, in Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s (1984: 301) phrase, they are to be action vehicles, they must be translated into HR policies that provide guidelines on decisionmaking and HR practices which enable the strategy to work. These can be the basis for implementation programmes with clearly stated objectives and deliverables. It is necessary to avoid saying, in effect: ‘We need to get from here to there but we don’t care how’. But getting strategies into action is not easy. The problem is that intent does not always lead to action. Too often strategists act like Mr Pecksmith, who was compared by Dickens (Penguin Classics, 2004: 23) to ‘a direction-post which is always telling the way to a place and never goes there’.
The term ‘strategic HRM’ has been devalued in some quarters; sometimes to mean no more than a few generalized ideas about HR policies, at other times to describe a short-term plan, for example, to increase the retention rate of graduates. It must be emphasized that HR strategies are not just aspirations that the HR department happens to feel are important. Aspirations have to be expressed as intentions and these have to be converted into actions. The problem with strategic HRM as noted by Gratton et al (1999: 202) is that too often there is a gap between what the strategy states will be achieved and what actually happens to it. In their words: ‘One principal strand that has run through this entire book is the disjunction between rhetoric and reality in the area of human resource management, between HRM theory and HRM practice, between what the HR function says it is doing and how that practice is perceived by employees, and between what senior management believes to be the role of the HR function, and the role it actually plays.’
The factors identified by Gratton et al (1999) that contributed to creating this gap included:
- the tendency of employees in diverse organizations to accept only initiatives they perceive to be relevant to their own areas;
- the tendency of long-serving employees to cling to the status quo;
- complex or ambiguous initiatives may not be understood by employees or will be perceived differently by them, especially in large, diverse organizations;
- it is more difficult to gain acceptance of non-routine initiatives; employees will be hostile to initiatives if they are believed to be in
conflict with the organization’s identity, eg downsizing in a culture of ‘job-for-life’;
- the initiative is seen as a threat;
- inconsistencies between corporate strategies and values;
- the extent to which senior management is trusted;
- the perceived fairness of the initiative;
- the extent to which existing processes could help to embed the initiative;
- a bureaucratic culture that leads to inertia.
Barriers to the implementation of HR strategies
Each of the factors listed by Gratton et al (1999) can create barriers to the successful implementation of HR strategies. To overcome them it is necessary to: (1) conduct a rigorous preliminary analysis of needs and requirements; (2) formulate the strategy; (3) enlist support for the strategy; (4) assess barriers; (5) prepare action plans; (6) project-manage implementation; and (7) follow up and evaluate progress so that remedial action can be taken as necessary.
Other major barriers include failure to understand the strategic needs of the business (which may be difficult), inadequate assessment of the environmental and cultural factors, including internal politics, which affect the content of the strategies, the development of ill-conceived, unmanageable and irrelevant initiatives, possibly because they are current fads or because there has been a poorly-digested analysis of ‘best practice’ that does not fit the organization’s requirements and, importantly, failure to involve stakeholders in the formulation of strategy. These problems are compounded when insufficient attention is paid to practical implementation problems, particularly where line managers are concerned and there is a need for supporting systems.
The role of line managers in implementing strategy
HR strategies have to be converted into policies and practices and these have to be implemented by line managers. As Purcell et al (2003) stress, it is front-line managers who ‘bring policies to life’. They point out that: ‘Implementing and enacting policies is the task of line managers. The way they exercise leadership in the sense of communicating, solving problems, listening to suggestions, asking people’s opinions, coaching and guiding, and controlling lateness, absence and quality make the vital difference’ (ibid: 72).
Jonathon Trevor (2010) established through his research into the implementation of reward strategy that too often line managers compromised, even sabotaged, the implementation of HR strategies because they were not convinced that they were necessary or lacked the skills or motivation to put them into practice. It could be said that HR may propose but line managers dispose – line managers can bring HR policies to life but they can also put them to death.
There are three ways of dealing with this problem. First, involve line managers in the development of HR strategy – bear in mind that things done with line managers are much more likely to work than things done to line managers. Second, ensure that the HR policies they are expected to put into practice are manageable with the resources available. Third, provide them with the training and on-the-spot guidance they need.
HR initiatives may not work unless supporting processes are available. One of the main reasons why performance-related pay has failed is because an effective performance management system is not available.