Human Resource Management and Performance: Still Searching for Some Answers David E. Guest,

Topics: Human resource management, Management, Organizational studies and human resource management Pages: 22 (6992 words) Published: October 6, 2012
doi: 10.1111/j.1748-8583.2010.00164.x

Human resource management and performance:
still searching for some answers
David E. Guest, King’s College, London
Human Resource Management Journal, Vol 21, no 1, 2011, pages 3–13

Over the past 20 years, there has been a considerable expansion in theory and research about human resource management and performance. This paper reviews progress by identifying a series of phases in the development of relevant theory and research. It then sets out a number of challenges for the future on issues of theory, management processes and research methodology. The main conclusion from the review is that after over two decades of extensive research, we are still unable to answer core questions about the relationship between human resource management and performance. This is largely attributed to the limited amount of research that is longitudinal and has been able to address the linkages between HRM and performance and to study the management of HR implementation.

Contact: David E. Guest, Department of Management, King’s College, London, 150 Stamford Street, London SE1 9NH, UK. Email:




hen the Human Resource Management Journal was launched in 1990, it was able to capture a rising wave of interest in human resource management and in particular the relationship between human resource management (HRM) and performance. The following decade provided the initial sound evidence about a positive association between HRM and firm performance (see, e.g. Arthur, 1994; Huselid, 1995; Delery and Doty, 1996). A decade later, the number of studies had grown to such an extent that two major reviews of the research (Boselie et al., 2005; Combs et al., 2006) confirmed that the large majority of published studies demonstrated an association between HRM and performance; but both also emphasised that their analysis provided evidence of an association rather than causation. Both reviews also concluded that there was insufficient evidence to explain why there was an association. It is this lack of an explanation that provides the point of departure for this paper. Its aim is to provide an analysis of how after 20 years of extensive research we are more knowledgeable but not much wiser, in that we have not been able to explain the demonstrated association between HRM and performance with any conviction, and to outline possible lines for developing research that might provide some answers.

While it is always easy to be critical of developments in a complex area of organisational research, it is also important to acknowledge the considerable progress that has been made in research on HRM and performance. This is a rapidly evolving field that has gone through a fairly typical series of steps towards a perhaps wiser and more reflective perspective on the subject (see, e.g. Paauwe, 2009). I will argue that in retrospect several overlapping phases can be identified, reflecting the ebb and flow of theory, research and application and it is useful briefly to consider these, both to recognise the progress that has been made and to highlight the distinctive challenges for future research that each reflects.



© 2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Please cite this article in press as: Guest, D.E. (2011) ‘Human resource management and performance: still searching for some answers’. Human Resource Management Journal 21: 1, 3–13.

Human Resource Management and Performance

The beginnings
The first phase in the development of theory and research on the association between HRM and performance occurred in the 1980s. In this period a series of articles and books by, for example, Fombrun et al. (1984) and Miles and Snow (1984) began to link business strategy to human resource management. Others such as Walton (1985), writing from more of an organisational behaviour perspective had highlighted the need for a shift...

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