Engaging with Research
This paper reports empirical data from an exploratory study aiming to examine the role of the HR function in mergers and acquisitions. Given the exploratory nature of the research, there are no specific research questions outlined and the main objective is to provide empirical evidence for Ulrich??™s (1997) four-fold typology of the role of the HR function in large firms. This entails an emphasis on HR as an ???administrative expert??? (managing the infrastructure of HR policies like staffing, training etc), an ???employee champion??? (enhancing employee commitment), a ???strategic partner??? (alignment of HR policies with company strategy) and finally a ???change agent??? (an aspect of HR work which is expected to be more prominent in the context of M&As).
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Bjorkman and Soderberg (2006) justify their focus on Ulrich??™s conceptual framework by arguing that his typology frames our understanding of the nature of HR especially in the context of broader debates around the differences of the latter (strategic orientation) from ???old-fashioned??? personnel management. They also suggest that since Ulrich??™s typology highlights both operational and strategic issues, it can be used as a lens through which the role of HR in mergers and acquisitions can be understood.
Overall, the brief review of the strategic HRM literature on page 655 provides justification for the selection of the paper??™s main conceptual framework. However, some clarification is needed regarding previous research in mergers and acquisitions. The authors defend their choice of topic by citing previous studies (e.g. Buono and Bowditch 1989) which have highlighted the need to consider the ???human side??? of M&As. They also add that previous research has not examined in detail the role of HR within such a context. While this may be true, the authors could acknowledge that there is a significant amount of research considering the impact of post M&A management on employees (in terms of levels of commitment, turnover, morale etc) (e.g. Nikandrou et al. 2000). Such acknowledgment could be useful here as Bjorkman and Soderberg claim that ???research focusing on the organization and functioning of the HR function may help shed light on how the workforces are integrated and managed in the post-merger process???. This creates the impression that the paper will touch upon the impact of integration processes on staff, which is not the case. Overall, instead of arguing for the absence of previous studies in general, the authors could have clarified that their focus on the role of HR has the potential to generate insights that could help develop further existing research on M&As and the employment relationship.
Nevertheless, the authors refer to previous studies which have outlined a range of factors which may influence the various roles played by HR in large firms. They focus on five factors in particular, including the expectations of top and line management, awareness of the need for change (so that HR could play a more important role), the power and political skills of HR managers, the availability of resources and support systems and finally the size and complexity of the corporation. These five factors provide a useful background against which the empirical evidence will be compared.
The choice of a case study design is appropriate as the study aims to generate in-depth knowledge about a relatively under-researched topic. Case studies are particularly suited for research which aims to capture the context within which complex organizational processes unfold. The case organization provides an ideal setting to conduct such research, as it resulted from a series of M&A activities. The number of interviews conducted (60 overall) provides a sufficient amount of evidence upon which to build a narrative and the choice of interviewees (featuring both top managers as well as HR managers) is justified on the basis that knowledge about both the wider context of the mergers and the role of HR was needed. A slight criticism could be that the majority of interviewees were non HR managers, whilst a more balanced approach could have been pursued. Additionally, the authors could have noted that a further limitation of the study lies in the retrospective nature of the interviews (as they took place over a year after the completion of the merger which constitutes the focus of the study). Although actors are able to recall with accuracy details around the issues explored, it is usually preferable to conduct interviews at the time when the main events under investigation are unfolding. Regarding the issue of validity, the authors could have pointed out more clearly that the secondary data they gathered allowed them to triangulate their interview findings. They could have also specified the type of issues they were able to explore on the basis of the secondary data that became available to them.
Moving on to the findings, these are presented in four sections which clearly correspond to Ulrich??™s framework on the key roles of HR (outlined above). This is highly recommended as the authors aim to provide empirical evidence related to this model. Overall, the findings highlight the relative lack of a strategic role for HR in Nordea. The explanation provided (in the discussion section), manages ??“ to a significant extent – to relate the findings back to the five factors identified by the literature review as key in influencing the nature of HR. Thus, the explanation touches upon the perceptions of HR by top management (the findings on the role of HR as strategic partner, on page 663 illustrate that HR was not a major concern for top management) while it is also noted how these perceptions are also shaped by external norms (rooted in other organizations) about successful HR models (this is mentioned in page 656). Additionally, the complexity of the merger process is highlighted as another key element shaping the role of HR in this case. Also, it is recognised that overriding concerns about the financial outcomes of the merger caused human resource procedures to be discounted to a certain extent by the new organization. As the findings illustrate the rather operational than strategic role of HR, they also indirectly raise the issues of power and political status of HR practitioners (another one of the five factors outlined in the literature review).
Bjorkman and Soderberg also recognise limitations in their study acknowledging the need for further research which will aim to capture the views of line managers and employees besides those of top and middle management.
Overall, despite the minor limitations noted earlier, the paper manages to accomplish its objective of providing exploratory insights into the issue of HR in M&As and it helps open up avenues for future research. The paper is cohesive as the literature review (although brief and with some minor omissions) justifies the focus of the study and the research design is appropriate to the topic and the nature of the research. Finally the presentation of the findings and the discussion are clearly linked to the issues raised in the literature review which outlined the four roles that are likely to be played by HR and also the key elements that shape this process.