Say What? Work-Force Science a New Field...Not! And Data Aren't the Problem

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A recent New York Times article described a so-called "emerging field called work-force science:

It adds a large dose of data analysis, aka Big Data, to the field of human resource management, which has traditionally relied heavily on gut feel and established practice to guide hiring, promotion and career planning.

While the practice of human resource management could certainly use stronger foundations in rigorous scholarship, this article is insulting to generations of researchers who have used data to carefully answer critical questions in the field for decades. In 1949, the first director of the precursor to today's Center for Human Resources and Labor Studies at the University of Minnesota, Professor Dale Yoder, launched a series of pioneering benchmarking studies of personnel ratios, salaries, and budgets. In the 1950s, Professor Yoder's colleagues developed of a number of measurement instruments that continue to be used today around the world, including the Minnesota Satisfaction Questionnaire. And so on and so forth right up to today, such as a recent project by some of my current colleagues who worked with data from seven organizations to better understand turnover. In fact, while we can always keep learning from new data sources (especially those using company records, or, even better, field experiments), from my perspective the field sometimes has too much data and not enough conceptual clarity.

Indeed, my books seek to add this conceptual clarity and many of my entries in this blog are ultimately more conceptual than empirical in nature. As another example, earlier this month I had a stimulating time at the Asian Congress of the International Labor and Employment Relations Association in Melbourne, Australia, where I listened to numerous presentations on diverse topics related to human resources and employment relations in the Asia-Pacific region. But if there was a shortcoming, it wasn't that data were lacking, it was a lack of conceptual clarity.

From my perspective, the key idea of unitarism is particularly misapplied. Unitarism is a belief that the employment relationship is largely characterized by a unity of shared interests among employers and employees. Unitarism is thus a key assumption--often not articulated--of the scholarship and practice of human resource management that seeks to improve individual and organizational performance by recognizing the human factor inherent in employees and by aligning employee-employer interests (see chapter 6 in my book The Thought of Work).

But contrary to how I see it frequently (mis)used, unitarism does not reflect all methods of managing employees. Unitarism is not simply unilateralism. Admittedly, unitarism can have an element of unilateralism because human resource management is often determined with little employee input. But unitarist human resources practices are designed with the objective of benefitting employees and their organization through win-win interest alignment. A low-road employer that unilaterally slashes wages or benefits simply because it can is exercising a very different kind of unilateralism. So yes, human resource management can be criticized for its unilateral aspects, but unitarism is not simply unilateralism.

Similarly, unitarism is not neoliberalism. Neoliberalism embraces laissez-faire economic policies and the operation of so-called free markets. So forms of human resource management that emphasize adherence to markets, such as imposing wage cuts when unemployment is high, are consistent with neoliberalism. But they are not rooted in unitarism. In contrast, human resources policies that seek engagement, commitment, alignment, and the like are rooted in unitarism, not neoliberalism. Neoliberalism also sees work as a commodity while unitarism sees work very differently as a source of personal fulfillment.

Admittedly there is overlap between neoliberalism and unitarism in that both perspectives embrace the freedom of corporations and managers to make unfettered decisions, and thus both perspectives do not embrace unions or interventionist public policies--but for different reasons. In neoliberalism it is because the market is king, in unitarism it is because unions and laws interfere with employer-employee alignment.

In closing, I should make clear that I am a critic rather than supporter of unitarism. I believe that the employment relationship is better characterized by pluralism (that is, the employment relationship involves a multiplicity of legitimate stakeholder interests that include conflicts of interest that cannot be aligned--see my book Employment with a Human Face), and thus we should not rely on managers (or markets) to look out for workers' interests in all cases. But these debates are better served by clear understandings of these key conceptual ideas. And new data sources are always good, too, even if so-called work-force science has been around for decades in the form of industrial relations, I-O psychology, and other fields.

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About this Blog

Whither Work? is a blog about work created by John Budd. I am a professor of Work and Organizations in the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, and the author of several books including The Thought of Work. Follow me on Twitter: @JohnWBudd.