Whither the Human Resource Function in Supporting Service Change within CLAHRC WM?

Ultimately CLAHRC WM should promote service development. Associated with this, I often ask the question when confronted with a service development challenge in the NHS, such as that faced by various CLAHRC WM studies, “Where is the HR function in this?” This question seems important given that an array of HR practices, such as incentives, performance management, workforce development, or cultural change, are likely required to support service development. These all seem important in my own areas of research interest – patient safety; use of evidence; distributed leadership; role of middle managers; strategic change. I guess HR Directors and HR Managers pose the same question as they discharge their responsibilities – “Where am I in all this?” I certainly did when enacting an organisation development role located within the HR function whilst working in the NHS many years ago. Indeed, the answer to the question is what probably drove me into academia! I seemed to be banging my head against a ‘brick wall’, facing clinical resistance as I tried to implement those general management reforms associated with The Griffiths Report,[1] and I was characterised as a “man in a grey suit” (to draw upon the critique of managers like me by then Secretary for Wales, John Redwood). Notwithstanding the crudity of the Griffiths Reforms, which were not sufficiently contextualised for the NHS,[2] why do the HR function and HR practitioners fail to get effectively involved, even to this day, in strategic matters associated with service development?

There are a number of issues raised in the management literature, which gathered force in the late- 1980s and early-1990s, that help answer the question about the role of the HR function and practitioners. Literature notes a change in label from ‘personnel’ to ‘human resource’ function. It is claimed, on the one hand, this reflects a move from the former personnel function becoming more strategic in its influence upon organisational change. This was particularly associated with increasing interest in managing workplace culture.[3] Running counter to such assertions, critics suggest that this represented nothing more than a relabeling of the function – “old wine in new bottles”.[4] Associated with the latter, the newly labelled HR function continued to perform the role associated with the personnel function from which it sought to distance itself; of administration, welfare, and policing adherence to policies and procedures.[5] My own view, reflected in my research some years ago, is that the HR function and practitioners should be strategic, but this is merely aspirational,[6] [7] although others are more optimistic regarding the difference that a more strategic variant of human resource management (HRM) has made.[8]

Here is my empirical example upon which I rest my argument that the HR function and practitioners should be central to service development (even if empirically they are not) – the reconfiguration of an eating disorders service for adolescents, following a service failure that caused a teenager’s death from chronic anorexia (note this does not lie within the CLAHRC WM region before any CEOs or safeguarding leads start worrying!). The teenage girl ‘fell between the cracks’ of services delivered with high quality by various professionals (psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, nutritionists, paediatricians, intensive care clinicians, educationalists) within their jurisdiction, but the service delivery was insufficiently joined up so there remained gaps between jurisdictions that ultimately led to organisational failure. In reconfiguring services, most obviously there is a need for workforce development. This should examine roles and responsibilities of each professional and organisation to ensure they were effectively joined up, encompassing training and development, performance management, and talent management. Perhaps more importantly, there is a need to drive a cultural change from mere compliance with accountability demands, towards a more active responsibility,[9] [10] within which a sentiment of care comes to the fore, and which has to be resilient in the face of workplace pressures that frontline professionals and managers face.[11] Using this high profile example, an organisational failure, my aim is not to offer prescriptions (more to come later), but to engender debate about the pressing managerial issues that pervade service development, and around which input from the HR function and practitioners is required. Let’s make sure we consider this in CLAHRC WM. Any HR practitioners out there interested in such strategic matters?

— Graeme Currie, Deputy Director CLAHRC WM, Professor of Public Management Warwick Business School


  1. Griffiths R. Report of the NHS Management Inquiry. London: HMSO. 1983.
  2. Pettigrew AM, Ferlie E, McKee L. Shaping strategic change: Making change in large organizations – Case of the National Health Service. London: Sage. 1992.
  3. Storey J. New perspectives on human resource management. London: Routledge. 1989.
  4. Legge K. Human resource management: A critical analysis. In J. Storey (Ed.), New perspectives on human resource management. London: Routledge. 1989.
  5. Ulrich D. Human resource champions: The next agenda for adding value and delivery results. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press. 1997.
  6. Procter S, & Currie G. The role of the personnel function: Roles, perceptions and processes in a NHS trust. Int J Hum Resour Man. 1999; 10: 1077-91.
  7. Currie G, & Procter S. Exploring the relationship between HR and middle managers. Hum Resource Manage. 2001; 11(3): 53-69.
  8. Hoque K, & Noon M. Counting angels: A comparison of personnel and HR specialists. Hum Resource Manage. 2001; 11(3): 5-22.
  9. Bovens M. The quest for responsibility: Accountability and citizenship in complex organisations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1998.
  10. Mitchell DE, & Ream RK. Professional responsibility: The fundamental issue in education and health reform. New York, NY: Springer. 2015.
  11. Apesoa-Varano EC, & Varano CS. Conflicted healthcare: Professionalism and caring in an urban hospital. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press. 2014.



One thought on “Whither the Human Resource Function in Supporting Service Change within CLAHRC WM?”

  1. This is a really good point, about the absence of strategic human resource management in wider quality/safety debates. I think there have been some good additions to the knowledge base recently on the academic HR side, some funded by the NIHR HS&DR programme, like a review on staff engagement by Katie Truss (about to publish)http://www.nets.nihr.ac.uk/projects/hsdr/12500401 and recently published analysis by Martin Powell of staff satisfaction/cohesion and performance http://www.journalslibrary.nihr.ac.uk/hsdr/volume-2/issue-50#abstract. Would be good to bring together the learning about health-related evidence on HR issues…

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