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Publisher : Elsevier - Science Direct (الزویر - ساینس دایرکت)
Journal : Human Resource Management Review, Volume 20, Issue 2, June 2010, Pages 85–101
Synergy is a central tenet of the organizational level approach to human resource management (HRM). However, current theoretic treatments of synergy in the HRM literature are too inspecific to offer much insight about its essential characteristics in HRM systems. To move the treatment of synergy toward greater precision, this paper describes three different theoretic approaches to synergy in HRM systems: virtuous overlaps, independent effects, and efficient complementarities. Each of these approaches to synergy is better fitted to some contingencies than to others and is operationalized by different methodologies. Recognizing these different varieties of HRM system synergy allows researchers to better understand and estimate the impact of HRM systems on organizational performance. Moreover, the theoretic perspectives on synergy described here apply to many types of systems beyond HRM.
While synergy can be defined in many different ways, nearly all definitions encompass a notion of positive outcomes deriving from the interrelations among a system's components. The search for synergies in organizational activities is long-standing and extends across many fields under a variety of labels. This general concept is known in various fields as complementarity, internal fit, bundling, epistasis, supermodularity, congruence, alignment, horizontal fit, coupling, and interdependence.1 In economics, for example, Milgrom, Roberts, and colleagues' theoretic work (e.g., Milgrom & Roberts, 1992) has brought rigor to arguments about the impact of synergies within organizational systems on organizational level outcomes. Organizational theorists, especially those working in organizational evolution and learning (e.g., Levinthal, 1997), have examined the impact of synergies under the rubric of internal fit versus flexibility. A subset of the literature on mergers and acquisitions explores the difficulties and opportunities inherent in combining the internal structures of two different organizations (Hall and Norburn, 1987 and Mirvis and Marks, 1992). A similar stream of research examines the effects of alignment between partner firms in a joint venture (Hill & Hellriegel, 1994). Research on person–organization fit (e.g., Cable & Judge, 1997) and on team consensus in organizational behavior (e.g., Dess & Origer, 1987) share many synergy-related themes, as well. Despite the breadth of interest in this topic, the road to synergies is hardly well marked. Most treatments of synergy lack precision in describing how interrelationships among system components create synergistic benefits for organizational stakeholders. Such is the case in the human resource management (HRM) literature. A growing stream of research examines the linkages between organizational level HRM systems and organizational performance, and there is evidence to suggest that this relationship can be meaningfully large for many organizations (e.g., Huselid, 1995, Ichniowski et al., 1997 and MacDuffie, 1995). The organizational system level approach to HRM is a defining characteristic of this research for a number of theoretic and practical reasons, including synergy (Becker & Huselid, 2006). Aggregating HRM practices into organizational level systems addresses researchers' theoretic interests in HRM's influence on organizational performance by placing HRM at the same level of analysis. Moreover, the HRM system level approach simplifies a paper's theoretic exposition by reducing the many activities that occur within organizations' sets of HRM practices to a single construct, the HRM system. In practical terms, the HRM system level approach replaces an assortment of independent variables with a single aggregated variable, which simplifies the stories being told in data analyses and preserves degrees of freedom in the small data sets which are common in this stream of research. However, all of these problems can, in principle, yield to researchers' precision in crafting sophisticated theoretic arguments, to researchers' care in executing complex analyses, and to researchers' efforts (albeit quite likely great efforts) in acquiring larger data sets. Thus, these issues are strong but not overwhelming reasons to prefer organizational HRM systems as a level of analysis. The other, more conceptually compelling rationale for examining HRM's impact on the organizational system level is synergy. Many scholars have contended that interactions among organizations' HRM practices can affect organizational performance (e.g., MacDuffie, 1995 and Meyer et al., 1993). Thus, to properly evaluate HRM's influence on organizational performance, goes the argument, researchers must capture these interactive effects by treating organizations' HRM practices as holistic systems (Hackman, 1985). Yet despite widespread acceptance of this contention, some scholars have suggested that the empirical evidence that synergy occurs in HRM systems is underwhelming (e.g., Gerhart, 2007 and Guest et al., 2003). Furthermore, notwithstanding some reasonable conjectures in the literature, a number of observers have concluded that no one has yet described where such synergies in HRM systems really come from (Bowen and Ostroff, 2004, Delaney and Huselid, 1996, Delery, 1998, Dyer and Reeves, 1995 and Wilk and Noe, 1998).2 Instead, synergy is most often invoked metaphorically in HRM research as a loose rationale for working with aggregations of HRM practices. Concurrently, most operationalizations of synergy in empirical HRM research seem to be driven by convenience rather than by theory, with little justification given for the methodologies chosen (Becker & Gerhart, 1996). As a result, key theoretic assumptions that are intrinsic to the type of synergy methodology that a researcher employs may be made blindly and the resulting inferences about HRM system effectiveness can have unexpectedly limited generalizability. This lack of theoretic and methodological precision, in turn, makes it difficult to create theory-driven definitions of strategically effective HRM systems. Hence, there may be considerable value in better specifying the ways in which synergies work in HRM systems. Accordingly, this paper points toward a more theory-driven approach to synergy within HRM systems. First, I review the state of synergy research in the HRM literature. Next, I explain and contrast three distinct theoretic approaches to HRM system synergy, highlighting the differences between these approaches with two detailed examples. I then discuss the methodological implications of these different theoretic mechanisms and the repercussions of this paper's arguments for research on HRM systems and organizational performance.