What is human resource management?

Back in the day, when our hunter-gathering ancestors were scraping together a subsistence-based existence on the plains of Africa, the notion of division of labor and task specialization were not high on the list of priorities.

This all began to change as soon as we discovered the ability to create a surplus. It’s difficult to pin down exactly when this became a thing but best estimates are that when agriculture took hold in the fertile crescent, a region covering eastern Turkey, Iraq, and southwestern Iran some 10,000 years ago, in fairly short order the division of roles and the emergence of specialist workers began to occur. We know this thanks to tablets left behind from ancient Mesopotamia which give us accounts of how the world of work was changing… forever.

Job specialization

The development of specific jobs in ancient Mesopotamia led to increasing trade and economic growth. This allowed people to hone their time and energies on one set of tasks and not have to understand how to do all the jobs needed for civilization to blossom. This specialization created the first hierarchies in early society, as some jobs were deemed more important than others; this led to some people “having more authority and power over others, eventually forming a social class in Mesopotamia.”

You could argue that the long, often slow, yet steady emergence of ever-increasing specialization in the workplace continued at a snail’s pace until the start of the industrial revolution in western Europe from around 1760. That’s when the pace of job specialization went into relative overdrive as new roles popped up everywhere.

This is also when the notion of having to organize groups of people for optimum performance came onto the agenda. Initially, management was tasked with overseeing staff and ensuring targets were being met, yet the act of carrying this out quickly developed into a recognized, if somewhat simplistic, discipline called ‘personnel management’. However, the shot in the arm for the discipline was unquestionably the first world war.

The emergence of early HRM

Suddenly much of the male workforce was being recruited for the battlefront and swathes of manufacturing industry, now on a war footing, needed to be re-staffed. En masse women joined the vacated roles and it quickly became apparent that the old-style apprenticeship approach was no longer fit for purpose. Human resources had finally been recognized as crucial to helping the war effort. Its moment had arrived.

At its most basic, early HR (then know as personnel management) was about sourcing, hiring and firing staff and the focus was solely on people as a resource to be exploited to maximum corporate benefit. Yet increasing industrialization was continuing to drive the growth in ever greater numbers of discrete specialist roles within the organizational hierarchy of businesses.

Modern HR has been built upon this foundational bedrock, accumulating recognition as a discipline and developing in expertise over time.

Human Resources takes center-stage

Around the turn of the 1980s “human resources” began to be better understood. Where “personnel” more or less describes workers, acknowledgment of the “human” and “resource” monikers illustrated the acceptance of people in all things work-related and the value of employees per se. “It was as though a lightbulb had been switched on: these workers are actually valuable assets that can be nurtured, developed and encouraged to be loyal, bringing untold benefits to employer and employee alike.

The modern view of HRM is one focused on recognizing the value of the human resource to an organization’s competitive success; its ‘human capital’. It is also diverse, encompassing a range of skills and practices surrounding the development and management of employees in an organization.

HRM’s expanding role

Thus, contemporary views of Human Resource Management are very much focused on areas affecting a company’s human capital, including:

  • Recruitment and staff acquisition/retention
  • Financial compensation and work benefits
  • Training and development
  • Labor and employee relations
  • Organizational development

In part, due to this specialization, new categories of HR practitioner have emerged focussing on specific aspects of the practice. A sample of these new verticals includes:

  • Benefits specialist
  • Human resources practitioner
  • Employment services manager
  • Employment analyst
  • Training and development manager
  • Recruitment manager
  • Benefits counselor
  • Staff Counsellor

The degree of specialization occurring within a HR department will be dictated by the size of the company and the industry sector, amongst other internal and external factors. But the key takeaway is to recognize the changing face of HRM. It has evolved to reflect new working practices and business demands and, according to experts in the field, this will continue as the drive to an ever more employee-centric employment culture develops.

So, whilst it is true to say that HRM was, and remains, about hiring and firing, today it is also so much more. Human Resource Management has become the science of all things relating to effective employment, before, during and after an employee joins an organization.


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