Barriers to the evaluation of human resource management initiatives : three public sector case studies

Skinner, Denise Olwyn (2001). Barriers to the evaluation of human resource management initiatives : three public sector case studies. PhD thesis The Open University.



In the context of Human Resource Management (HRM), organisations have been increasingly encouraged to implement a range of practices which, it is argued, will improve their competitiveness in the global market place. Thus, change initiatives within organisations follow one after the other. Yet, although there is apparent acceptance among practitioners and academics that evaluation is a crucial step in any process of continual improvement the reality is often that little has been done to assess the impact and degree of success of each initiative before organisations progress to the next. However, despite wide acknowledgement within the literature that is a significant problem there are few explanations offered and little evidence of any in-depth empirical exploration of the issues involved.

This thesis reports on a study which sought to identify and explain the factors which created barriers to evaluation. Using a case study approach the research explored the reality of the evaluation process as it occurred in three UK public sector organisations, each of which was seeking to evaluate a Human Resource Management (HRM) change initiative. Two distinct types of barrier were found to exist which were labelled primary and secondary. As anticipated, there were barriers (secondary) that arose during an evaluation process that related to the choices made about purpose, process and responsibility and which made it difficult for 'good' (thorough, unbiased, relevant) evaluation to occur. However, of greater significance was the discovery in all three organisations of other factors (primary barriers) which, in combination, created a context in which the failure to undertake formal evaluation could be justified as a reasoned, and reasonable, action on the part of managers thereby offering an explanation for why such evaluations are rare. These primary barriers relate to the organisational and individual value placed on the act of evaluating and the learning that occurs as a result of any findings, including the way that it informs the change. Among those responsible for the initiation and implementation of the initiative (normally those who have control of the resources necessary to enable formal evaluation to take place), informal evaluation of the initiative and the context in which it occurred determined the perceived degree of need for formal evaluation to take place. Past experience, observation and shared perceptions suggested that formal evaluation activity was neither valued nor required by the organisation and was likely to have negative personal consequences. Matters are further clouded by an academic and practitioner literature which actively promotes the benefits of HRM strategies, supported by simplistic prescriptions for success, while the majority of empirical studies offer examples which substantiate these claims. In each of the cases reported here the nature of the chosen HRM initiative was assumed to be inherently good, something which would inevitably benefit the organisation in some way, by those responsible for its adoption and implementation thus making formal assessment unnecessary.

The research clearly identifies the complexity of the barriers; each type having its roots in different factors that need to be addressed in a variety of ways if they are to be overcome and thus enable the organisation is to achieve the collective, and productive, learning from experience increasingly called for by the management literature. Until evaluation is valued at senior levels and accompanied by the necessary incentives, responsibilities, resources and rewards, wider perception of it as an important and valued activity is unlikely to become an active reality. Thus, the failure to learn from experience, to share understanding and to achieve both continuous improvement and greater levels of success in the management of change will continue. It is also clear that the same academic literature which is currently advocating a key role for HR and evaluation in the context of change needs to offer more in the way of information, guidance and support to make a positive contribution to the changes in perception that are required.

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