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Best fit vs. best practice: the importance of context in HRM

Last week I attended the Global Conference on International Human Resource Management at Penn State University, USA. The keynote of professor Chris Brewster focused, amongst other topics, on the importance of context in Human Resource Management. While a universalist paradigm has been paramount in HRM – let’s find the best practice so that we can apply it in every situation – Brewster argues that HRM is not a science like any other science where you can find universal laws that are applicable around the world.

One example of a universal law is the laws that govern the boiling point of water. The main law – water boils at 100 degrees Celcius – has beBoiling wateren refined over time when, for example, it was found that water boiled at a slightly different temperature in Nepal because of its elevation. Human Resource Management, however, cannot be predicted in this way, according to professor Brewster. The way you manage people varies with context – important factors are culture and institutions, but also type and size of organisation, industry etc. For these reasons HRM should not be about finding a best practice that is applicable everywhere but to find a best fit – to find what works in that particular context.

Best fit, yes, but we also should not zoom in too much, as was stressed during the plenary session on the future of research in International HRM at the end of the conference. We need to extrapolate our findings so that we can apply it to other cases. We should still learn from existing research and apply its teachings to other, comparable groups or countries – without looking for a best practice that is applicable everywhere. In the end, it is about finding middle ground between contextualised findings and universalist conclusions.

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