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A retrospective and prospective analysis of HRM research in Chinese firms: Implications and directions for future study

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A retrospective and prospective analysis of HRM research in Chinese firms: Implications and directions for future study
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  Introduction C hina’s economic transition and pub-lic ownership reform since 1979, andfurther integration into the worldeconomy since joining the WorldTrade Organization (WTO) in 2001,have resulted in significant changes in thecontext of management practices. Thesechanges have had a considerable impact onthe management of China’s workforce. Dueto the volume of its growing economy andits vast population, China has become animportant player in international businessand, therefore, has become well establishedas a research interest for Western organiza-tional and management academicians(Shenkar & Von Glinow, 1994). The changesthat have occurred in China hold profoundconsequences for managers, managementresearchers, and policymakers at both macroand micro levels across national borders.These changes have triggered remarkablegrowth in the research literature dealingwith human resource management in Chinasince 1979.Basing our work on an extensive reviewof the literature, we examine research con-ducted on HRM in China from 1979 to2005, analyze issues and deficiencies in theresearch conducted, and identify directionsfor future study. We begin by analyzing thebackground and catalysts for China-relatedHRM research, and we classify China-relatedHRM research in terms of major categoriesof research and practice (HRM, strategic  A RETROSPECTIVE ANDPROSPECTIVE ANALYSIS OF HRMRESEARCH IN CHINESE FIRMS:IMPLICATIONS AND DIRECTIONSFOR FUTURE STUDY  CHERRIE JIUHUA ZHU, S. BRUCE THOMSON, ANDHELEN DE CIERI Based on an extensive review and analysis of 182 articles published in the field of human resource management that focus on China since its economic reform, this article discusses the major reasons for the growth in this area of research. We identify five major categories spanning research and practice,ownership type, and research method. Further, we examine issues and defi- ciencies in the research literature. Based on our analysis of each research cat- egory, we present a substantial series of research questions and implications for future research on HRM in China. © 2008 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Correspondence to: Cherrie Jiuhua Zhu, Associate Professor, Department of Management, Monash Univer-sity, P.O. Box 11E, Clayton Campus, Vic. 3800 Australia, Phone: +61 3 990 55465, Fax: +61 3 990 55412, E-mail:cherrie.zhu@buseco.monash.edu.au. Hum n Resource M n gement, Spring 2008, Vol. 47, No. 1, Pp. 133–156© 2008 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Published online in Wiley InterScience (www.interscience.wiley.com). DOI: 10.1002/hrm.20201  134H  UMAN  R  ESOURCE  M  ANAGEMENT  , Spring 2008  HRM, and industrial/labor relations), owner-ship types, and research methods. Then, weidentify a number of deficiencies in the re-search and present a series of research ques-tions and implications for future study. Background to China-Related HRM Research Research focusing on HRM in China wasprompted by economic reforms initiated bythe Communist government in the late 1970s.The two major components of the Chinesecommand economy (i.e., centralplanning and public ownership)were targeted for reforms to intro-duce a market-oriented economicsystem and a mixed ownershipstructure that would stimulate eco-nomic growth (Dong, 1992). In-creasing participation in the worldeconomy, foreign direct invest-ment (FDI), and the continuousprocess of societal and economictransition have resulted in consid-erable changes in managementpractices in China. These changeshold significant implications forthe management of people. Al-though HRM has become com-mon terminology in Chinese en-terprises, Warner’s observation that“people mostly use HRM as a syn-onym for personnel management”(1997, p. 38) was still valid sevenyears later, especially in state-owned enterprises (SOEs) (Y. Zhu &Warner, 2004a). However, the term  HRM  increasingly has been used ina wider context than the tradi-tional notions of personnel andlabor administration, and has attracted moreresearchers to examine its development.China’s unique political and social en-vironment, flourishing FDI inward andoutward, serial reforms launched by itsgovernment, and the ability to apply dif-ferent research approaches and methods(i.e., exploitation or exploration ap-proaches, as noted by March, 1991) offerample justification for China becoming anattractive topic for managerial researchers.As an example, China retains its socialistone-party government system as well as itssocialist ideology while moving from ahighly centralized command economy to amore market-driven economy (e.g., Burns,1999; Pye, 1999; Story, 2003). It can beused as a test case for socialist and postso-cialist economic reform and its impact onHR practices—for instance, the political in-fluence on staffing and performance man-agement (e.g., Bai & Bennington, 2005;Zhao & Zhou, 2004; C. J. Zhu & Dowling,2002) and socialist ideology on reward andcompensation (e.g., Warner, 1995). There has been an unprecedented enthu-siasm for the establishment of foreign-in-vested enterprises (FIEs) in China for morethan two-and-a-half decades. Many foreigncompanies have expanded their operationsinto China, attracted mainly by the fastgrowth in the economy, the sheer size of thepotential market, and the abundant labor re-sources. FDI in China has grown from U.S.$4 billion in 1990 to U.S. $72 billion in 2005(United Nations Conference on Trade andDevelopment [UNCTAD], 2006). China hasreceived over U.S. $48 billion in FDI fromthe United States since 1979. According tothe Chinese government official report(UNCTAD, 2006), by the end of 2005, cumu-lative real use of FDI had reached over U.S.$660 billion, and 90% of the 500 top com-panies in the world reported by  Fortune hadinvested in China. Employment in FIEs increased to over 23.5million by mid 2004 (i.e., over 10% of thewhole workforce in the urban area), risingfrom 550,000 employees in 1986 (Fu, 2004;State Statistical Bureau, 2002). As a recipient of FDI, China is the largest recipient among thedeveloping countries and second only to theUnited States (Panitchpakdi & Clifford, 2002).Meanwhile, China is ranked as one of thelargest outward investors among developingeconomies. In 2005, China invested U.S. $11.3billion overseas (UNCTAD, 2006). By the endof 2005, the cumulated outward FDI fromChina was U.S. $57.2 billion (“Outbound FDIPicks Up Pace in 2005,” 2006, p. 1). The fastgrowth of FDI inward and outward for China China has become an important player in international business and,therefore, has become well established as aresearch interest for Western organizational and management academicians (Shenkar & Von Glinow, 1994).  Human Resource Management  DOI: 10.1002/hrm  A Retrospective and Prospective Analysis of HRM Research in Chinese Firms135  has thus triggered an interest in cross-culturaland cross-national management practicesand subsequent research in related areas,such as the transfer of HR practices across na-tional borders. Research Method We followed the qualitative analysis strat-egy proposed by Miles and Huberman(1994): collection, reduction, displays, andconclusions. The data collection involvedselecting the appropriate articles. For thedata-reduction process, we utilized a cod-ing procedure to establish major categoriesfor the research conducted on HRM infirms in China. The displays were a series of tables and graphs, three of which appear inthis article. These allowed us to focus ouranalysis and generate the discussion andresearch questions. Since the goal of our article was to fur-nish a broad perspective of HRM in China,the decision was made to concentrate onmajor streams of scholarship and practicewithin or related to HRM. As recommendedby Strauss and Corbin (1998), open codingwas used to identify the categories, subcate-gories, and properties of HRM utilized ineach article. China’s distinctive situation ini-tially prompted us to divide our analysis intotwo defined areas: (1) major categories of re-search and practice and (2) ownership types.When refined, we identified three major cat-egories of research and practice: generalHRM, strategic HRM, and industrial/labor re-lations. Inspection of these three categoriesled to our analysis of key findings and iden-tification of deficiencies of the research inthose categories. China provides a unique setting with amultitude of ownership types due to its own-ership reform and rapidly increasing FDIsince the early 1980s (Ahlstrom, Foley,Young, & Chan, 2005; Ding & Akhtar, 2001;Warner, 2003). Not surprisingly, ownershipemerged as an important facet of the re-search; ownership was included as a majorcategory in the research protocol, and we re-viewed articles dealing with the influence of ownership configurations on HRM. The coding procedure provided insightsinto empirical research that has been con-ducted, and we identified several researchmethods that have been utilized. The inclu-sion of research methods brought the cate-gories to a total of five (general HRM, strategicHRM, industrial/labor relations, ownership,and research methods). We used three criteria for including arti-cles in the study:1.The article must be HRM-focused.2.The research must be located on themainland of the People’s Re-public of China (excludingHong Kong, Macau, and Tai-wan).3.It must be published between1979 and 2005 (inclusive). The initial search generated460 articles using the search pa-rameters (“China,” “human re-source management,” “scholarlyjournals,” “1979 to 2005”). Afterthe removal of inappropriate arti-cles, the sample size was reducedto 182, or 39.6%. For a break-down of the articles in five-yearincrements, see Figure 1. China presents an attractivesite for research on manage-ment, especially in the area of comparative and internationalmanagement. In addition to thegrowth and changes in the Chinese econ-omy, as outlined earlier, Shenkar and VonGlinow (1994) present three compellingreasons for the growth in China-related re-search. First, China has the largest work-force in the world; hence, current manage-ment theories and methodologies cannotclaim to be universal unless “they can ex-plain the structure and processes of PRCenterprises, as well as the attitudes and be-havior of those who work in them” (p. 56).Second, China “potentially represents themost serious challenge to paradigms devel-oped in the West” because of its numerousdifferences compared with Western coun-tries (p. 56). Finally, China’s integration China’s distinctive situation initially prompted us to divide our analysis into two defined areas: (1) major categories of research and practice and (2) ownership types.  Human Resource Management  DOI: 10.1002/hrm  136H  UMAN  R  ESOURCE  M  ANAGEMENT  , Spring 2008  into the world, albeit slow, has made the rel-evance of Western models “a practical mat-ter as much as a theoretical issue” (p. 56). Human Resource Management in Firms in China The subject areas encompassed within the ar-ticles include most HRM-specific activitiesand practices. For example, in the first ten-year period, 1979–1989, topics covered inthe articles included knowledge transfer(Tsurumi, 1979; Von Glinow & Teagarden,1988, R. L. Wang, 1986), motivation (Tung,1981), women in management (Hildebrandt& Liu, 1988), compensation systems(Shenkar & Chow, 1989), joint venture re-forms (Ouyang, 1988), management devel-opment (Chastain, 1982), industrial/labor re-lations (Helburn & Shearer, 1984) and thestatus of HRM (Jones, 1984; Warner, 1986).These articles provided a holistic view of thetopic areas and, as a result, their conclusionstended to be generalist rather than offeringspecific solutions or predictions. The status of HRM in these early articleswas relegated to being an element of man-agement (e.g., Chastain, 1982; Jones, 1984;Y. Wang, 1986) and was not defined in anyway (e.g., Helburn & Shearer, 1984; Warner,1986). For the definition of HRM, one had toread between the lines and draw out thepractices that the authors were using to de-lineate HRM. For example, in a four-countrycomparison, Carroll (1987) utilizes compen-sation, performance appraisal, training, re-cruitment, and promotion as HRM “sys-tems.” Later research (e.g., Björkman & Fan,2002; Deng, Menguc, & Benson, 2003) fo-cused on HR activities identified by Huselid(1995) as “high-performance” HR activities(recruitment and selection, training, andcompensation). The use of a common set of HR activities provides a broader basis of com-parison of research conducted in China withWestern-based research. The main thrust of the early research onHRM in China was the introduction of newknowledge either in the form of technologyor management systems that had an impact  Human Resource Management  DOI: 10.1002/hrm 5 82447980204060801001201979-1984 1985-1989 1990-1994 1995-1999 2000-2005 Total number of articles published 1979–2004 = 182 Source: Business Source Premier and Proquest databases.Search command: China and human resource management—Hong Kong and Taiwan excluded. FIGURE 1. Human Resource Management—China: Articles Published 1979–2005  A Retrospective and Prospective Analysis of HRM Research in Chinese Firms137  on HRM practice. As stated above, early arti-cles (1979–1989) were holistic in view. How-ever, the common theme was the lack of trained management personnel, the lack of an appropriate training system, and the per-ceived need to gain management and tech-nological skills through knowledge acquisi-tion or transfer from either Japanese orWestern (i.e., American) sources. Tsurumi(1979) delved beyond the transfer of tech-nology to the transfer of knowledge andskills to upper and middle management inthe subsidiaries of multinational corpora-tions (MNCs) in China. Tung’s (1981) articleon the motivation of Chinese workers iden-tifies an underlying driver—namely, theopening of the Chinese market to foreign in-vestment via joint ventures. Tung extols thevirtues of Chinese workers and emphasizesthe need for foreign investors to understandthe moral basis for Chinese motivation.Thus, her focus is not on the transfer of knowledge to China but on those doingbusiness in China. Tsurumi (1979), Von Gli-now and Teagarden (1988), and R. L. Wang(1986) all focus on the transfer of eitherknowledge or technology. Von Glinow and Teagarden (1988) differ-entiate between the transfer of industrialtechnology (hard) and the transfer of man-agement and marketing technologies (soft).They state that due to the difficulty in thetransfer of soft technology, the cooperativeventures will “perform short of their poten-tial efficiency and effectiveness” (1988, p.202). The article uses a comparative analysisbetween Chinese management systems andAmerican management systems to highlightdifferences in the following categories: orga-nizational assumptions, work environment,assumptions about people, assumptionsabout performance, perspectives on trainingand development, assumptions about re-wards, and HR practitioner’s background.The analysis underlines the belief of the Chi-nese government that the modernization of Chinese management is indeed the “fifthmodernization” that must occur to reap thefull benefits of the previous four moderniza-tions that focused on industrialization. VonGlinow and Teagarden offer a normativeframework for a modernization of Chinesemanagement. The cornerstone of this frame-work is the integration of HRM from the be-ginning of the joint venture process throughnegotiation and education. Chastain (1982), Helburn and Shearer(1984), Jones (1984), R. L. Wang (1986), andWarner (1986) all stress the importance toChina’s development in learning from mod-ern management practices of Western countries and developingeducation systems that meet theneeds of Chinese managers thatmust deal with a more Western-ized management system. In thearea of project management, Gra-ham and Minghe (1988) con-curred that more training and for-mal education was needed. R. L.Wang (1986) took it a step furtherwith an analysis of American and Japanese management systemsand concluded that Chinese man-agers have a desire for more Amer-ican-oriented management styles. Articles of the 1990s on HRMin China dealt with HRM and spe-cific HR practices, HRM’s effect onworkers, and HRM’s overall effec-tiveness in the Chinese context.The major theme runningthrough these articles hingedupon the degree of acceptance of Western HRM practices. Warner’s(1993) landmark article declaredthat it was premature to state thatHRM had been accepted as com-mon practice in China. He reiter-ated his earlier conceptualizationsof HRM with Chinese characteris-tics but stopped short of sayingthat there was any distinct path of convergence with Western HRM. The adaptation of Western HRM to theChinese context was indeed a concept ex-plored by several researchers. Lu and Björk-man’s (1997) findings, based on a study of 65Chinese-Western joint ventures, not onlyvalidated Warner’s concepts of Chinese HRMbut took it a step further. They found that“various HRM practices have different re- Articles of the 1990s on HRM in Chinadealt with HRM and specific HR practices, HRM’s effect on workers,and HRM’s overall effectiveness in the Chinese context.The major theme running through these articles hinged upon the degree of acceptance of Western HRM practices.  Human Resource Management  DOI: 10.1002/hrm
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