This ‘universalist’ approach is based on the assumption that there is a set of best HRM practices and that adopting them will lead to superior organizational performance. They are universal in the sense that they are best in any situation.
Lists of best practices
A number of lists of ‘best practices’ have been produced, the best known of which was produced by Pfeffer (1994), namely:
- employment security;
- selective hiring;
- self-managed teams;
- high compensation contingent on performance;
- training to provide a skilled and motivated workforce;
- reduction of status differentials;
- sharing information.
The following list was drawn up by Guest (1999):
- Selection and the careful use of selection tests to identify those with the potential to make a contribution.
- Training, and in particular a recognition that training is an ongoing activity.
- Job design to ensure flexibility, commitment and motivation, including steps to ensure that employees have the responsibility and autonomy to use their knowledge and skills fully.
- Communication to ensure that a two-way process keeps everyone fully informed.
- Employee share ownership programmes to increase employees’ awareness of the implications of their actions for the financial performance of the firm.
The notions of a high-performance, high commitment or high involvement management as described in Chapter 8 can incorporate best practice characteristics.
Problems with the best practice model
The ‘best practice’ rubric has been attacked by a number of commentators. Cappelli and Crocker-Hefter (1996: 7) comment that the notion of a single set of best practices has been overstated: ‘There are examples in virtually every industry of highly successful firms that have very distinctive management practices. We argue that these distinctive human resource practices help to create unique competencies that differentiate products and services and, in turn, drive competitiveness.’ Becker et al (1997: 41) believe that ‘an inordinate focus on “best practices” is misguided and may even be counterproductive’. Purcell (1999: 26) noted that ‘the search for best practice tends to take on the flavour of a moral crusade’. He has also criticized the bestpractice or universalist view by pointing out the inconsistency between
a belief in best practice and the resource-based view that focuses on the intangible assets, including HR, that allow the firm to do better than its competitors. He asks how can ‘the universalism of best practice be squared with the view that only some resources and routines are important and valuable by being rare and imperfectly imitable?’ and states that: ‘The claim that the bundle of best practice HRM is universally applicable leads us into a utopian cul-de-sac’ (ibid: 36). And Boxall et al (2007: 5) remain ‘deeply sceptical about claims for universal applicability for particular HRM practices or clusters of practices [but] this does not rule out the search for general principles in the management of work and people’.
In accordance with contingency theory, which emphasizes the importance of interactions between organizations and their environments so that what organizations do is dependent on the context in which they operate, it is difficult to accept that there is any such thing as universal best practice.
What works well in one organization will not necessarily work well in another because it may not fit its strategy, culture, management style,
technology or working practices. Becker et al (1997: 41) remark that: ‘Organizational high-performance work systems are highly idiosyncratic and must be tailored carefully to each firm’s individual situation to achieve optimum results’.
However, a knowledge of what is assumed to be best practice can be used to inform decisions on what practices are most likely to fit the needs of the organization, as long as it is understood why a particular practice should be regarded as a best practice and what needs to be done to ensure that it will work in the context of the organization. Becker and Gerhart (1996) argue that the idea of best practice might be more appropriate for identifying the principles underlying the choice of practices, as opposed to the practices themselves. Perhaps it is best to think of ‘good practice’ rather than ‘best practice’.