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The evolution of HR: 1984 to 2014 and beyond

Back in 1984, the working landscape was very different to the one we find ourselves in today.

Personally I hadn’t yet reached the world of work and was busy studying at university, where my research involved borrowing books from the campus library and using the microfiche machine.

When I did enter the world of work in the 1980s, the post room was fully staffed with people whose main job was to distribute not only external mail and parcels, but a mountain of internal memos around the building. The brave new world of email and the internet was yet to arrive.

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As the world of work has changed, the role of human resources has evolved significantly. It is important to understand the historical backdrop, because many of the stages personnel/HR has developed through over the past thirty years have been fundamental in shaping what HR is today.  

The 1980s 

Many authors trace the origins of personnel management back to the 19th century where social reform led to the emergence of the welfare worker, who improved working conditions, particularly those of women and children working in factories.

Over time the role of personnel became much wider than just a focus on welfare. Frameworks of policies and procedures were developed to manage ‘the employment relationship’ between employee and employer.

UK governments actively encouraged the appointment of personnel officers (particularly in industries nationalised during the 1940s) to ensure the smooth management of the employment relationship in unionised environments.

As we pick up our story in the 1980s, a climate of industrial action led to the rise of what has been referred to as industrial relations (IR) firefighter or IR negotiator. While the modern concept of the employee relations role is much broader than the IR role of this time, key elements can be traced back to this point.

The election of a Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher accompanied a shift away from collectivism to individualism in the management of the employment relationship, pushed by legislation aimed at restricting the power of unions. Alongside this change the concept of human resource management arrived from the US. 

It was greeted with quite polarised views. Some saw it in very negative terms; as treating people just like other resources organisations need to deliver performance outcomes. For others, however, HRM represented a real recognition that an organisation’s performance was dependent on harnessing the value of employees, through investing in them and gaining their commitment to organisational goals.

There is a resonance here with the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ approaches to HRM. The ‘hard approach’ is closely linked to manpower planning and the alignment of HRM particularly in terms of numbers (headcount) to business strategy. The ‘soft approach’ is more closely linked to the human relations school; recognising the way workers were treated and the degree to which their commitment was gained as fundamental to delivering the required performance.

Check back tomorrow to read more about HR in the 1990s and the new millennium.

Linda Ashdown is an associate tutor at MOL, a leading provider of professional learning programmes. It has been developing and delivering CIPD qualifications for more than 30 years.