HR as a Thinking Performer

  • 12 Pages
  • Published On: 28-11-2023

The impact and of high-performance HR practises have been an issue of the great focus for researchers in the field of HRM. Specifically, according to Francis (2006), most researchers in this field have sought to understand how employee commitment and take-up of the high-performance attitude has improved their contribution to organizational goals. Furthermore, Kaufman (2015) observes that attention has also been drawn to how e-enable can reduce the cost of HR practices as well as how it can relieve HR practitioners off micro-managing employees so that they can focus more on change management and other issues of strategic management. Closely associated with this is David Ulrich’s business partnering model of 1997, or his idea of unitarism and pluralism. This essay critically analyses key practices underpinning human resource management based on the concept of ‘thinking performer’ coined by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). The essay will be structured as follows: the first section will evaluate the underlying models informing the concept of thinking performer and how they shape the creation of HR objectives. Afterwards, the essay will explore various knowledge, skills and behaviours required by Human Resources professionals and how they promote the achievement of organizational goals. The essay will then include by suggesting how the concept of thinking performer can be used as a tool for critical thinking in the organizational context.

The underlying models of ‘Thinking Performer’

The term ‘thinking performer’ was coined by members of the CIPD executives after realising that they were forced to focus on operational issues of the organization rather than strategic issues, as well as the need for them to understand why it is important to understand the link between business outcomes and HR practices (Savvas, 2016). Out of frustration, the CIPD sought to develop a conceptual model that would help new professionals with thinking and reflecting on one hand, and the other, doing (Keegan & Francis, 2008). Therefore, according to Lawless et al (2012), the term outlines the CIPD’s vision of professional standards, which is to ensure that all members of CIPD are thinking performers who are on a continuous journey of updating their professional skills and knowledge while adding value to the organizations within which they are employed (CIPD Professional Standards, 2004).

Against this backdrop, the CIPD defined ‘the thinking performer’ as “someone who deliberately seeks to become a business partner and constantly takes critically thoughtful approaches as they carry out their professional responsibilities so that they can effectively contribute to the organization’s profitability and survival while helping the business to meet its strategic goals, mission and visions (Whittaker and Johns, 2004, CIPD Professional Standards, 2004). This goes along with the concepts of unitarism and pluralism, where despite the various requirements, needs and objectives, they must compromise for the good of the organization (Francis & Keegan, 2006).

It is therefore evident that the definition of ‘Thinking Performer’ is framed by expressions like ‘added value’, ‘strategic’, cost-effectiveness, customer advantage, and doing things better or faster (Francis & Keegan, 2006). According to Anderson (2004), these values are like the values underpinning the partner modelling of human resource management that was developed by David Ulrich (Ulrich, 1997). As modelled by CIPD, the ‘thinking performer’ model was meant to be a fundamental rethink of the importance of HRM and how it is measured (Stanton et al, 2010). This is like Ulrich’s ‘business partner’ framework, which has recently been conceptualized as a paradigm shift that professionals should take (Caldwell, 2003). In the section that follows, we put both the business partner and thinking performer concepts into context.

Contextual background

In HR, the partnering, unitarism and pluralism can be contextualized within the consistent debate over the roles of a human resource manager (Ulrich, 1997). Earlier literature by Legge (1999) introduced two influential models through which human resource managers could acquire organizational influence and power namely: the deviant innovator and the conformist innovator. According to Boxall et al (2007), the conformist innovator attempts to align their work to the dominant norms and value within the organization to satisfy the demands and needs of senior management. On the other hand, the deviant innovator tends to subscribe to other norms hat help them gain support and credibility from ideas motivated by social norms as opposed to strict criteria set by the senior management.

Tyson & Fell (1995) also constructed an alternative classification of how human resource managers could acquire organizational influence, drawing from the construction industry to identify three types of human resource practice. These included the basic administrative model, the industrial relations model and a strategically aware and business-oriented model. These models illustrate how the human resource function can contribute to organizational and employee performance, thereby creating expectations about effective human resource management practice. Saini (2000) observes that the models have increasingly focused on both strategic and non-strategic roles played by human resource professionals, with the relationship between human resource management and financial performance of the organization gaining more prominence (Massmer & Bogardus, 2007).

Consequently, there has been a higher expectation of HR to be more strategic and less transactional on its approach to managing people in the organization, especially considering the introduction of technology as a tool for supplementing the HR function (Griggs et al, 2015). By conceptualizing the HR this way, it is difficult to dissociate HR managers from their ‘partners’, meaning that organizational success must be evaluated through different criteria that draw from business and social values (Berman et al, 2019). In short, HR professionals are likely to enhance their influence on strategic decision-making by enacting a ‘conformist’ approach, thus treating the dominant business values as stipulated by the top management.

However, Berman et al (2019) argued that for human resource managers to deliver value to both internal and external business stakeholders (e.g. employees, managers shareholders and customers), they must invoke a powerful and unique perspective that enables them to see various aspects of the business environment that go beyond what other disciplines contribute and that add substantial success to the business. Typically, the HR manager is expected to be the bridge between employees and managers, and bridge of mutual understanding between the two parties (Ordiz-Fuertez & Fernandez-Sanchez, 2003).

As discussed earlier in this article, the concept of thinking performer is a key element of CIPD’s leadership and management standards and is widely framed as a strategic/business partnership. It is therefore important to evaluate the behaviours and skills of a thinking performer HR manager, and how they can apply those skills and knowledge to promote a critically through the approach to human resource management. Beforehand, it is important to note that this application cannot happen automatically, especially with the key role that business partnership plays in facilitating critical thinking approach (Sheth & Mittal, 1996). Rather, the ‘thinking performer’ approach requires facilitation through critical reflection – meaning that to be a thinking performer, HR managers must develop critical reflection skills, thereby setting the foreground for effective human resource practice.

According to Dcruz & Noronha (2010), critical reflection is especially important for understanding the dominant assumptions of how human resource management function is modelled, and its potentially negative side effects on employees, which is potentially a valuable contribution to the function of human resource management. However, Gregeby (2010) argues that the business partner modelling has two major limitations namely its apparent disconnection between strategic and operational human resource mindset, and the disconnection between human resource personnel and employees.

Perhaps the critical thinking approach, a key element of the ‘thinking performer’ concept, can be best explained through a 2 by 2 matrix that describes a manager’s effectiveness, ability to do things the right way and ability to think. From a thinking performer’s perspective, a human resource manager can have be any of the four categories of a manager namely: the lifetime liability, the wish-list dreamer, the automated bureaucrat and the thinking performer himself – as illustrated below:

manager’s effectiveness

According to Chugh & Bhatnagar (2006), the lifetime liability manager is one who nether performs their duties nor engages in critical thinking. On the other hand, the wish list dreamer is a manager who is a non-thinking performer and keeps ideas to themselves without sharing to colleagues (Savvas, 2016). Meanwhile, the automated bureaucrat is a non-thinking performer who only does what they are told without going beyond the assigned tasks (Savvas, 2016). Lastly, according to Lawless et al (2012), a thinking performer manager is one who adopts strategic activist traits and adds value to the organization through continuously self-imposed and challenging goal improvement.

As a thinking performer, the human resource manager engages inefficient delivery of set human HRM targets and performance standards, thus exemplifying the ‘performance’ element (Savvas, 2016). Similarly, Berman et al (2019) argued that a thinking performer periodically reflects on how they are currently executing their tasks and seeking better ways of completing those tasks (i.e. both costs effectively and by higher standards). More importantly, a thinking performer HR challenges the status quo by critically analysing the steps and procedures involved in various HR functions (e.g. recruitment, performance appraisal and training) and the systems already in place to facilitate those functions to ensure that they make a difference and add value to the desired outcomes (Savvas, 2016). Other attributes of a thinking performer HR are staying committed to, and clear understanding of the purpose behind all the HR activities and tasks so that they develop processes and systems that produce the desired objectives (Gregeby, 2010). Furthermore, according to Gregeby (2010), a thinking performer HR develops an appropriate and consistent ethical attitude towards their duties while always being prepared to raise concerns to colleagues if need be.

In the HR arena, human resource managers constantly try to seek how they can contribute to organizational purposes by understanding what those purposes are and their strategic importance. While commenting on the role of an HR manager as a thinking performer, Gregeby (2010) argued that HR managers understand how to fulfil the compliance role of personnel function, both from the ethical and legal perspective. Furthermore, Gregeby (2010) argued that as a thinking performer, the HR manager must fully appreciate that ethical and legal compliance is part of value addition to the personnel’s’ effectiveness.

HR’s attribute as a thinking performer is especially important because it would be impossible to expect a successful organization with an HR manager who observes anything else than being a thinking performer. For example, back in 2001, Land Rover’s Human resource manager at its Solihull plant initiated a culture change by giving staff a chance to drive the cars they had manufactured for the first time (Lawless et al, 2012). Before that, the closest an employee had a chance to drive a newly manufactured Land Rover at the Solihull plant was when moving it from the assembly yard. According to Berman et al (2019), this was Land Lover’s way of motivating employees to think of how they would like the cars to be manufactured and incorporate it in the production process.

This action by Land Rover was motivated by the concept of ‘thinking performer’ which has further been broken down by several scholars as follows. During the era of the scientific revolution, companies used to break down manufacturing processes into simpler tasks to facilitate efficient operations by staff and managers based on certain performance standards (Gregeby, 2010). This enabled companies to hire unskilled or uneducated workers who would then be facilitated to work by breaking down the tasks into smaller and simpler ones.

However, in today’s industry, this approach has long gone obsolete because no matter the profession, all employees must be skilled. Thus, according to Lawless et al (2012), much of the work is mental rather than physical and automation has reduced the number of people needed to do some work.

Today’s employees are involved in discretionary tasks such as customer relations, marketing and product development, presenting a major challenge: how to enlist the employee’s hearts and minds into their tasks and responsibilities. Even the employees that are actively involved in manufacturing, HR managers are faced with the task of constantly improving the quality of their output, reducing process time and costs while meeting customer expectations.

In the context of such a complex organizational environment, the thinking performer HR must ensure that employees perform four major duties namely: maintenance of roles and responsibility, crisis prevention, continuous improvement, change management and maintenance of ethical conduct (Savvas, 2016). While maintenance of responsibilities is important, it might not add value. Furthermore, according to Gregeby (2010), the crisis prevention role of employees does not add value either, even though it is important in minimizing liabilities. On the other hand, continuous improvement entails doing things better – which adds value by maintaining low costs. Similarly, change management entails proposing change persuading employees to adopt such changes, a role that adds value to the organization because it acts as a performance indicator. With the recently increased cases of corporate misconduct (Gregeby, 2010), much emphasis has been put on the HR manager’s role in maintaining ethics and order among employees. A thinking performer HR reflects on such matters and sets a positive example by articulating any constructive concerns about relevant issues.

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It is therefore not surprising that the vision and roles of a thinking performer are often misunderstood and imagined to be undesirable. In their contribution towards the concept of a thinking performer HR, Lawless et al (2012) argued that the role and vision of a thinking performer are not achievable in an authoritarian organization whereby what the top managers have said is final and cannot be challenged. Rather, a thinking performer HR would thrive in an environment where everyone participates and contributes to decision-making. When the HR manager has dictated around, they are most likely to become an automated bureaucrat, who only does what they are asked to do.

Therefore, an enabling environment is essential for a thinking performer HR to thrive. According to Berman et al (2019), most Japanese companies such as Land Rover understand how to create this environment. They have established a constant top-down leadership, whereby all managers are expected to be committed and have ownership of their decisions. Furthermore, an enabling environment for thinking performer would be that which the HR’s people practices are integrated into the thinking performer’s vision of the organization and its HR systems (e.g. relations, rewarding and outsourcing), all which are based on ‘select for attitude’ and ‘train for skill’ attitude.

In conclusion, the current human resource management models of practice are constantly changing, requiring HR to be more strategic. This article has explored the concept of ‘thinking performer’ propose by the CIPD in 2002. It has emerged from the article that the concept of ‘thinking performer’ is dominated by the notion of business partnering (unitarism and pluralism) and critical thinking. A thinking performer HR is one who is constantly collaborating with both senior and junior employees of the organization while critically evaluating every aspect of people practice ensuring they align with organizational mission, goals and vision.


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