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The International Journal of Human Resource Management,

Vol. 19, No. 11, November 2008, 1995–2003

INTRODUCTION
International comparative studies in HRM and performance – the
Cranet data
Mila Lazarovaa*, Michael Morleyb and Shaun Tysonc
a
Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, Canada; bKemmy Business School, University of Limerick, Limerick,
Ireland; cCranfield School of Management, Cranfield University, Cranfield, UK
Research in the field of international and comparative HRM is becoming ever more available.
The International Journal of Human Resource Management now usually publishes 12 issues
per year, and the enormous range of the field is apparent from the scope of the topics covered.
The papers published in this special issue are all drawn from the Cranet project. Cranet is a
network of scholars from universities across the world, representing over 40 countries. Cranet
conducts a survey of HRM in member countries approximately every four years, enquiring
into policies and practices in people management through a set of common questions. In this
introduction, we locate Cranet within this research field, and say how Cranet seeks to
contribute to this growing body of knowledge.
Keywords: comparative HRM; Cranet; strategic HRM

Different research trajectories


In the context of an ever-increasing evolution towards global activity in business venturing, the
notion of international comparative human resource management has concomitantly grown in
stature in recent years. Nonetheless, despite emerging evidence on its value to the international
firm, and its increased visibility within academic communities, defining and delimiting the
nature of this field and all its constituent parts poses something of a challenge. This is perhaps
hardly surprising. Determining the anatomy and impact of human resource management and its
associated activities in a domestic context have proven elusive. In an international context, these
problems are even greater. Along with being performed differently, HRM is also conceptualized
differently in different countries. Although some convergence has been observed, different
developmental trends, institutional determinants, cultural specificities, stakeholder preferences
and relationships, rather than atrophying, have shown intractable resilience. The result is a
variety of perspectives on what constitutes the field.
Morley (2007) describes three distinct, but overlapping, research trajectories along which
one can understand the field, namely an International, a Comparative and a Cross-cultural
trajectory. The concept of ‘trajectory’ is used here in order to denote the existence of a
distinctive line of enquiry. This distinctiveness may be observed both in terms of differing points
of departure in the original research effort and consequently unique developmental paths for the
major themes investigated.
Thus, it is suggested that International HRM can be conceptualized as a field of enquiry
dedicated to charting the anatomy of HRM in the MNC and the unearthing of the HRM

*Corresponding author. Email: mbl@sfu.ca

ISSN 0958-5192 print/ISSN 1466-4399 online


q 2008 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/09585190802404239
http://www.informaworld.com
1996 M. Lazarova et al.

strategies, systems and practices pursued in the context of internationalization. In this trajectory,
it is recognized that the ever-increasing complexity and uncertainty in which MNCs operate
creates a unique set of organizational, coordination and managerial issues for the managers of
these MNCs. Central among these is the management of employees on a global scale. In this
international trajectory, HRM is concerned with identifying and understanding how MNCs
manage their geographically dispersed workforces in order to leverage their HR resources for
both local and global competitive advantage (Schuler, Budhwar and Florkowski 2002).
The body of work arising from this trajectory has several unique features. Most of
the theoretical and empirical effort in this trajectory has focused on expatriation and the
international assignment cycle where much evidence has now been accumulated. There is
evidence also, in this trajectory of a focus on the dominant coalition of the firm as the human
capital base deserving of our research attention. Furthermore, given the MNC as a unit of
analysis, much of the work has sought to examine headquarter – subsidiary relations and the
diffusion of managerial practices and systems throughout firm subsidiaries.
The overlapping Comparative HRM trajectory shows a preference for exploring the context,
systems and content, and national patterns of HRM as a result of the distinctive developmental
paths of different countries and their subsequently idiosyncratic institutional and economic
regimes. This may be regarded as a trajectory that, in part at least, mirrors a much earlier
trajectory in industrial relations systems research. A long-established tradition, it is based on the
premise that many relevant insights into organization processes and systems in a global era will
come from studying them in a comparative context (Poole 1993; Strauss 1998; Evans, Pucik and
Barsoux 2002). Budhwar and Sparrow (2002) suggest that the increased level of globalization
and internationalization of business, the growth of new markets (such as in Central and Eastern
Europe, China, India, South East Asia and Latin America), the growth of new international
business blocks and the increased level of competition among firms at both national and
international level have resulted in a significant growth in comparative studies. Similarly, Morley
and Collings (2004) point to an increasing interest in comparative studies in a broadening range
of countries. This, they suggest, can be explained in part by the changing contours of foreign
direct investment (FDI) location decisions in the global economy. While traditionally FDI flows
have been concentrated in developed countries, recent years have heralded a shift in investment
locations towards new destinations, on many of which there is a dearth of knowledge. Such
new locations are now proving fertile ground for generating insights in this comparative tradition.
Within this comparative trajectory, there is a focus on national systems elements as a basis
for legitimate comparison and, as indicated above, the focus until relatively recently has largely
been on economically successful and developed economies, with a growing emphasis in recent
years on emerging economies. Thus, this trajectory may be characterized as one that gives
attention to country specific institutional provision as the wellspring for organizational-level HR
practice and one that is now characterized by an increasing heterogeneity in the number and
variety of countries being studied. Studies derived from this trajectory, either as single country
socio-systems accounts or as ab initio constructed comparative investigations now abound
(Lazarova 2006).
The third trajectory, here labelled as Cross-cultural HRM, may be conceived as a research
tradition dedicated to explicating tenets of national culture as the dominant paradigm for
conditioning what is acceptable organizational practice in that socio-cultural context. In this
genre, significant explanatory power is accorded to tenets of societal culture in accounting for
similarities and differences in the conceptualization of, and in the practice of, HRM. Much of the
empirical effort in this trajectory has been focused on the issue of dimensionalizing these
cultural tenets and replicating enquiry in an array of contexts. And, as with the other trajectories
outlined above, the range of contexts is continuously expanding.
The International Journal of Human Resource Management 1997

Against the backdrop of these distinct trajectories, there are several cross-cutting theoretical
and empirical themes that have been actively pursued by Cranet researchers in their efforts
to add to the body of work on aspects of international, comparative and cross-cultural HRM,
originally in the European context, but recently much further beyond. Worthy of particular
mention in this regard are three particular cross-cutting themes, first we consider, the
promulgation of a discourse on the appropriate paradigm for understanding HRM in
the international arena. At the fundamental level, the question of the adoption of an appropriate
paradigm for understanding HRM in an international, comparative and cross-cultural way has
proven theoretically significant for Cranet researchers, as set down in the Network’s 2000
volume New Challenges for European Human Resource Management. Here, Mayrhofer,
Brewster and Morley (2000), among others, argue that there are essentially two paradigms for
researching HRM, namely a universalist paradigm and a contextual paradigm. They highlight
that it is to some degree the difference between these paradigms that has led to the conceptual
confusion of what is the appropriate scope of the subject matter of HRM often obvious in
the literature. The universalist paradigm, Mayrhofer et al. argue, which is dominant in the
United States of America, but is widely used in many other countries, is essentially a nomothetic
social science approach: using evidence to test generalizations of an abstract and law-like
character. The strength of this approach, they argue, is that good research based upon it tends to
have a clear potential for theoretical development, it can lead to carefully drawn research
questions, the research tends to be easily replicable and research methodologies sophisticated,
and there is a coherence of criteria for judging the research. The contextual paradigm, by
contrast, according to Mayrhofer et al., is idiographic, searching for an overall understanding of
what is contextually unique and why. In the HRM field it often involves a focus on
understanding what is different between and within HRM in various contexts and what the
antecedents of those differences are. As a contributor to explanation, this paradigm emphasizes
external factors as well as the actions of management within an organization and context.
Second, we can see the efforts at establishing a European perspective on HRM, as something
that characterized much of the early research endeavour of the Cranet Network. Europe, and
the advancing of a more contextual understanding of HRM in Europe and the exploring of the
appropriateness of US notions of HRM for adoption and institutionalization into European practice
has also been a very significant leitmotif for Cranet researchers (see, for example, Brewster and
Tyson 1991; Brewster, Hegewisch, Holden and Lockhart 1992). The debate on what should be the
preferred labour market approach has been particularly significant in this respect. For example, it is
sometimes argued that the European Union’s preferred ‘social market’ approach, characterized by
comparatively high levels of labour regulation and strong trade unions, has served to impede
competitiveness and employment creation (Gooderham, Morley, Brewster and Mayrhofer 2004).
In contrast, the US ‘free market’ approach which – apparently – affords employers greater
autonomy, is often portrayed as a more ‘effective’ alternative in this respect, most particularly in
terms of its capacity for employment creation. In this context, there are what Gooderham et al.
(2004, p. 20) refer to as ‘powerful, non-market institutional factors’ at play in Europe, many of
which make the central features of US HRM inappropriate to, or unworkable in, European
organizations. Significant among the constraining forces here are national culture and legislation,
state intervention and organizational-level trade union involvement and participation and the
requirement for consultation, dialogue and communication between the social partners, all of
which have a long-established pedigree in European workforce management (Morley, Mayrhofer
and Brewster 2000; Gooderham and Nordhaug 2003).
Third, a discourse on patterns of convergence or ongoing and enduring divergence evident
from international, comparative and cross-cultural lines of enquiry has also proven to be a
significant cross-cutting theme within the Network’s research, and an empirically testable
1998 M. Lazarova et al.

proposition arising from the longitudinal nature of the Cranet Network (see Brewster, Mayrhofer
and Morley 2004). This well-established debate argues that the effects of increasing
internationalization, in general, will eventually give rise to an increasing similarity within
human resource management practices. At organization level this manifests itself in a common
set of management requirements that are resulting in a convergence of managerial techniques,
regardless of cultural or national differences (McGaughey and DeCieri 1999). The logic of this
argument is that the impact of national origin on management practices will progressively
decline as globalization leads to the adoption of more generic, standardized practices.
Divergence theorists, however, refuse to subscribe to the notion of convergence. They argue, on
the contrary, that national, and in some cases regional, institutional contexts are slow to change,
partly because they derive from deep-seated beliefs and value systems and partly because
significant re-distributions of power are involved (Brewster 2004; Gooderham et al. 2004).

The Cranet survey


Cranet has its origins in a conference organized under the auspices of the ILO, held at Cranfield
in 1988, many of the papers from which were subsequently published (Brewster and Tyson
1991). It is pleasing to note that Nancy Papalexandris, who has contributed to this special
edition, was one of the contributors to that original conference and to the book of articles. It was
Chris Brewster who took the idea of an international study forward and who founded Cranet, and
who has also co-authored a paper in this special edition.
Although the first surveys concentrated upon European countries (there were five members in
the first survey in 1989), there were 13 countries, including Turkey, by the 1991/92 survey, and by
2003 as well as the ‘accession countries’ to the EU, there were many non-European countries
including Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the USA, which expanded the focus beyond Europe.
This reflected a changing emphasis in the themes with which Cranet was concerned. In the first
surveys the European Union and the potential convergence in business practices across Europe
produced a desire at the outset to explore hypotheses on ‘harmonization’. This was also a time when
there was much debate about whether the then new term ‘human resource management’ was
replacing ‘personnel management’ just as a form of words, or whether this represented a shift in the
emphasis of the role to be more involved with business strategy, perhaps at the expense of the old
focus on industrial relations (Brewster, Hegewisch, Mayne and Tregaskis 1994). More recently,
greater attention has been given to questions about HRM and performance in the Cranet surveys.
The survey methodology has centred upon the prerequisite of a common questionnaire,
created by Cranet members who have had to establish a common interpretation of the terms so
often used unquestioningly by HR academics and practitioners alike; words which may have
different meanings in different cultures and languages and which do not translate exactly into
English (for example the word and concept of ‘cadre’ in French). The creation of the
questionnaire and its revision has required many meetings of members, and the use of practitioner
panels to help to provide a reality check on the outcomes. Preparations for a survey round usually
take up to 18 months of such meetings and discussions, when the questionnaire is re-examined,
amendments made, new questions added and old questions discarded. Bearing in mind the need
both for longitudinal data, and to obtain a good response rate for the survey, a parsimonious
approach has been taken to adding new questions, and to the removal of existing questions.
In order to minimize mistranslations, the questionnaire is developed in English, translated into
each language by the partners and then retranslated back into the English language for
verification purposes, so any queries can be dealt with prior to the survey itself.
Over the years, full details of the Cranet methodology have been published, perhaps the
fullest accounts being in Brewster, Hegewisch and Lockhart (1991) and Brewster et al. (1994).
The International Journal of Human Resource Management 1999

Nevertheless we should mention here, briefly, that questionnaires have typically been
administered by post (online in the USA in 2003), to samples drawn from representative
databases in each country to companies that have 200 plus employees, so that industry sectors
and organization sizes are representative as far as possible with the organizational populations in
each country.
The questionnaire is divided into six sections: HRM Organization and Activity (covering HR’s
strategic role and range of policies), Staff Practices (such as workforce numbers, flexibility policies,
diversity and recruitment practices); Employee Development (appraisal, training, development and
careers); Compensation and Benefits; Employee Relations and Communication (TU membership,
recognition, employer associations, communication channels) and finally Organization Details
(including workforce demographics, sector and organization performance details).
There has been no fundamental change to the methodology over the years, and the reliance
on a single respondent (the organization’s most senior HR Executive) could be criticized. Some
of this criticism applies to all cross-sectional studies and to large scale surveys, where, as Gerhart
(1999) points out, causality is difficult to ascribe from the results and there may be problems of
reverse causality. For example, organizational performance measured in profitability could be
the cause of different levels of investment in training rather than the consequence of investment
in training. Gerhart, Wright and McMahon (2000) also noted the limitations of single respondent
survey data. Paauwe (2004) has taken up these points in his analysis of HR theories, since so
much reliance has been placed on linking HR activities to performance based on the responses of
a single respondent, with all the potential problems of measurement error.
The question remains as to whether these criticisms are justified in all surveys, and what
alternatives can be proposed which are practical, and which would yield sufficient data to test
linkages between all the complex variables of context and culture, and which would make any
generalization of the findings possible? We believe there is a need for caution before rejecting
evidence about HR policies from Senior Managers who have the responsibility for HR policies
in their companies. These were the respondents to the Cranet survey. While one could mount a
philosophical argument to the effect that each individual stakeholder has his or her own version
of the truth (about everything), and that meanings cannot be found ‘objectively’, because they
reside in people, that does not really help in the conduct of a survey based on the principles
of positivism, although this argument does encourage us to be cautious about interpreting the
results. The assumptions we make in every day life have to be maintained if we are to map out
the HR world and all its contours, so that we do assume that organizations have an existence as
legal and national entities, that senior managers who claim to have responsibility for HRM are
telling the truth, and that their reports about HR policies in their own organizations are as
accurate to their own way of thinking as any other formal statement they make. We fully accept
that such statements may be the ‘official’ version of what happens but that is what in Cranet we
are seeking, since there may be as many unofficial versions as there are employees.
There is evidence to support the notion that reports, from subjective and objective sources
about organizational policies, practices and performance, in so far as they can be verified are
likely to coincide (Pearce, Robbins and Robinson 1987). In the case of Cranet, Smith, Tyson and
Brough (2005) were able to show that respondents reported similar organizational performance
outcomes (profit/loss, etc.), as were recorded in the published accounts of both the high- and low-
performing organizations surveyed. Most of the questions in Cranet require a factual response.
The local interpretations are according to the local culture and context. Indeed this is one of the
benefits of the international survey, so that comparisons and contextual effects can be discerned
and analysed by an international team (Bournois and Chevalier 1998; Mayrhofer 1998).
There is still the issue of whether there are better alternatives. These might include panel type
surveys, case studies, or multiple respondents from the same organization being surveyed.
2000 M. Lazarova et al.

‘Panel type’ surveys would inevitably only be possible for a few industry sectors and
organization sizes. They could be used longitudinally, but the danger is in the panel members
dropping out over time. Case studies could provide much more in-depth data, including insights
into the informal processes within organizations, but for practical purposes would be limited to a
few in each country, thus limiting the scale of the data collected, and its representativeness. Two
or more respondents could be sought, to avoid an individual’s bias, but methodologically to
approach companies for two or more respondents produces more difficulty. First, there is every
prospect that the respondents would collude, removing any advantage from multiple sources,
and second there would be problems of response rates because of the extra hurdle. Even if two
different versions were produced from different respondents in the same company, are they not
equally valid? Which version would be used for comparison and analysis? The only way to
resolve such issues would be to go back to the organization, no doubt to the annoyance of the two
people who responded, to find one version, which could more easily be achieved by seeking an
authoritative response in the first place.
Even with the possibilities of some measurement errors creeping into the data, Cranet
scholars have always taken the view that what matters is obtaining sufficient authoritative data
which is broadly representative of the organizations concerned and which uses the same
questions and has the added benefit of longitudinal description.

The papers in this edition


In this special issue, we are pleased to present a collection of seven empirical papers that not only
illustrate the diversity of strategic IHRM issues that can be examined using the Cranet dataset,
but also chart new directions for theoretical development which push forward the boundaries of
existing research. All but one of the papers examine the link between HR practices and
organizational performance, each from a unique perspective, explicating various pieces of the
strategic HRM puzzle. In a field largely dominated by empirical evidence originating in the US,
the papers included here stand out for examining HRM issues in multi-country samples. All but
one of the papers use data from at least a dozen, primarily European, countries. Some explicitly
compare different national contexts, while others look for evidence for the relationships they
propose across a number of countries.
Specifically, our first two papers examine the role of national context for integration and
differentiation of HRM practices. Drawing on the distinction between universal and context-
specific HRM, neo-institutional theory (e.g. DiMaggio and Powell 1983), research on varieties
of capitalism (Hall and Soskice 2001) and national business systems (Whitley 1999), Farndale,
Brewster and Poutsma investigate the influence of institutional embeddedness on the diffusion
of HR practices. They build a case as to why one might expect differences among the HR
practices of foreign-owned subsidiaries of MNCs, domestic subsidiaries of domestically-owned
MNCs and purely domestic (single-country) firms. They also address the distinctions between
coordinated market economies (CMEs; Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden) and liberal
market economies (LMEs; the United Kingdom). Given that companies have more leeway in
LMEs than in CMEs (where the range of practices available to firms would be more controlled
and restricted), the authors suggest that the practices between the three types of organizations
will be more divergent in LMEs.
In an independent research effort, Parry, Dickmann and Morley also investigate the role of
institutional environment for the transfer of HR practices. The theoretical underpinnings of their
study largely overlap with those of the first paper, but they provide a more focused test on the
influence of type of economy while also addressing issues of ‘country of origin’. Their paper
seeks to determine whether the landscape of North American owned firms in particular depends
The International Journal of Human Resource Management 2001

on whether they operate in LMEs or CMEs. After discussing the desirability and feasibility of
international standardization of HRM, the authors argue for differences between North
American owned firms operating in North America, in LMEs and in CMEs, further
hypothesizing that North American firms in LMEs will be more similar to North American firms
in America than to North American firms in CMEs.
The next paper examines the impact of HR bundles on organizational performance.
Gooderham, Parry and Ringdal set out to find whether all HR practices are ‘created equal’ in
terms of their impact on organizational performance. Drawing on both the universalistic
approach to HRM and on variants of the configurational approach, they propose that both
‘calculative’ and ‘collaborative’ bundles of HRM practices will positively impact organizational
performance. Further, they rightly note that extant research has largely failed to take into
account the role of the broader organizational context. In line with the contingency approach
to HRM, they propose an examination of the role of both external and internal factors for the
HRM-performance link.
The special issue continues with two focused papers that examine the link between specific
HR practices (training and development activities and work/family support practices) and
organizational performance. Nikandrou, Apospori, Panayotopoulu, Stavrou and Papalexandris
focus on the relationship between training and development activities and performance. In contrast
to past single-country research, they adopt a contextual approach and use a multilevel method to
explore the moderating influence of not only organizational but also cultural and institutional
factors. At the organizational level they examine the impact of strategy formalization and strategic
HRM in the organization and, at the country level, they investigate the influence of two cultural
values – performance orientation and humane orientation – and one institutional variable –
expenditure on education as a percentage of GDP. In the next paper, Giardini and Kabst examine
the commonly assumed relationship between human resource practices designed to help
employees balance the competing demands of work and family and indicators of organizational
performance and employee absenteeism. In the face of scarce and inconclusive past research, the
overwhelming majority of which is cross-sectional, the authors report results from two
longitudinal studies with data from Germany that investigate the degree to which work/family
policies are related to absenteeism, perceived general performance and perceived financial
performance five years later. They first examine the individual impact of three bundles, childcare
practices, flexibility practices, and targeted recruitment practices, and then re-run their analyses
with a comprehensive measure of work/family practices.
The final two papers included in the special issue consider those who bear the primary
responsibility of HR decisions. Dany, Guedri and Hatt start from the basic premise of SHRM but
argue that the link between HRM strategic integration and performance does not occur in all
instances. An important factor that is only beginning to receive attention in the literature is the
configuration of responsibilities regarding HRM between HR managers and line managers.
Building on the resource-based view, the authors argue that a specific organization of HRM is
necessary for HR to have a significant impact on organizational performance. Specifically, not
only should HRM be integrated in strategic decision making, but also HRM experts should be
given a prominent role to ensure high-quality HRM policies and their proper implementation.
Dany et al. seek to uncover the optimal distribution of responsibilities that can bridge the gap
between espoused HR policies and enacted HR practices.
Last but not least, also focusing on strategic HR integration, Brandl, Mayrhofer and Reichel
examine HR departments headed by female HR managers. HR is the field of corporate
governance most likely to be dominated by female managers. In this context, examining the
factors that contribute to strategic integration of HR directors is of utmost importance. Brandl
and colleagues analyse the consequences of social policy practices and investigate additional
2002 M. Lazarova et al.

effects resulting from the interplay between these practices and gender egalitarian attitudes at the
societal level. They hypothesize that enabling social policy practices are positively associated
with strategic integration of female HR directors. Then they also ask whether gender egalitarian
attitudes (i.e. the rejection of ascribed gender roles and normative standards for ‘equal
opportunity’ in a society) strengthen or weaken the effects of social policy practices.
Taken as a whole, the papers presented here greatly enhance the rich tapestry that is the field
of international and comparative HRM. They strengthen the evidence of the value of the
contextual approach to IHRM. The papers suggest that differences in HRM practices offerings
persist, at least for now, and that differences in institutional environments are important
explanatory factors. As with much of the related SHRM research, the papers included here
provide a ‘mixed bag of evidence’ regarding the relationship between HR practices and
organizational performance. While on balance the evidence points to a significant influence of
HR policies and practice on performance, the findings are not always straightforward. Some
configurations of HR practices do seem to influence performance positively, some do not;
some relationships hold universally (i.e. across contexts), for others contexts matters; some hold
across time, some do not. This emphasizes that research should always account for contextual
influences rather than seek the universal prescription for success. To that end, the last two papers
point to an interesting new area of inquiry – looking at how HR decisions are taken and
exploring the strategic integration of HR managers. While SHRM research has greatly
contributed to elucidating the relationship between HR and performance, we still know
surprisingly little about who influences HR decisions.
We are conscious that the research presented here is of necessity only a small example of the
range of research effort undertaken by Cranet members. We also realize that Cranet data are only
one data set in the enormous field of study encompassed by international and comparative HRM.
Nevertheless, we hope and believe the contribution is significant.

Acknowledgements
In the preparation of this special edition, we have received considerable help from the various referees,
whom we wish to thank. In addition, we wish to thank the Editor, Michael Poole, for his support and
patience and Jayne Ashley at Cranfield who has performed the Herculean task of coordinating, assembling
and preparing the manuscripts for publication so brilliantly.
Any errors or omissions remain our own.

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