Global research

The Centre's Global HR theme covers work on the architecture required to cope with the impact of globalisation on HR functions, global resourcing options, global services delivery, known currently as outsourcing, and the impact of HR policies and processes across national cultures.

There are five key learning points from this work:

  1. Globalisation is much more than simply moving employment and activities from developed markets into emerging markets that have lower cost forces. Such a conclusion has been criticised for being far too simple, mainly because it obscures a complex tangle of cross-border relationships that have evolved out of the historical strategy of multinationals (different firms reach and seek different solutions to the above forces even when apparently facing the same situation). 
  2. It is becoming increasingly difficult to disentangle the process of globalisation from associated changes being wrought in business models. The HR function has to understand the implications of both these change processes.
  3. In making choices about sourcing and shoring, multinationals do not simply decide on the basis of transaction costs, but seek to balance a kaleidoscope of variables. These include labour and inventory costs, transportation, quality, the existence of knowledge and capability, and the proximity to customers. The importance of these factors also fluctuates over time. 
  4. In making choices about what capabilities should be seen as core, then ambiguity still reigns on how to establish this. Is it what the multinational does best, or what creates value, or what has the most strategic importance in relation to changing industry requirements? 
  5. It is not the capabilities or resources that form the basis of competitive advantage, but rather it is the exploitation of such capability and resources through associated changes in the efficiency and effectiveness of the existing business processes.

Paul Sparrow’s work covers analysis at the individual, organisational and institutional level. There are a number of recent and new research and writing projects that capture this stream of activity.

Current research projects

The two existing projects are on:

Global talent management: the role of corporate HR?

This is a research collaboration with Professor Hugh Scullion (National University of Ireland) and Dr Elaine Farndale (Pennsylvania State University). The study is designed to expand our knowledge of the process of talent management on a global scale in multinational corporations. In particular, it focuses on the role of the corporate HR function in facilitating the successful management of key talent across the organisation. Case work is currently being conducted in a number of firms, including a large financial services organisation.

The brave new HR function? Roles and structure, activities, resources, and outcomes (‘BraveHR’)

This is a project being established by Professors Ingmar Björkman (Hanken School of Economics) and Vesa Suutari (University of Vaasa, Finland). The research will be driven by three objectives:

1. To analyse how large multi-unit firms structure, organise, and coordinate the different roles of the HR function;

2. To investigate the concrete activities that HR professionals and managers engage in as parts of their roles, in particular their roles as business partners; and

3. To examine the resources – the human, social and organisational capital – of HR managers and professionals, how these develop and how are they used to carry out their roles and activities.

Professor Paul Sparrow is collaborating in this project and is conducting research in European MNCs, currently including a large energy multinational.

Other recent research and writing projects

Global human resource management and economic change

In a writing collaboration, Dr Maura Sheehan and Professor Paul Sparrow recently edited a Special Issue of the International Journal of Human Resource Management on this theme. The papers in this Special Issue can be traced back to a Work Employment and Society Conference held at the University of Brighton in 2010 on the topic of 'Managing Uncertainty: A New Deal? International challenges and the changing face of work'. It questioned what the potential consequences of the incredible turbulence experienced in the wake of the 2008 banking crisis might be – by any measure seismic and erratic changes in economic affairs - and asked whether or not the political, economic and social forces that currently exist would be able to forge a new social compromise.

In the opening article on Global human resource management and economic change: a multiple level of analysis research agenda, Maura Sheehan and Paul Sparrow argue the need to examine core international human resource management (IHRM) issues across multiple levels of analysis. This means combining analysis of the key groups of people central to and managed within international organisations, the processes being used at firm-level to help globalise the HRM system, and the contextual and institutional factors that shape this interplay. Periods of economic uncertainty make this need even more important. The relative power and agency in matters concerning IHRM researchers may change with, for example, a shift in agency towards organisations for a while, as they both cope with the traumas of lost markets and changing business models, but also the opportunities for new strategies and action, whilst the institutional arrangements remain slow to change, unstable and politically negotiated.

International mobility functions and emerging markets

Should HR Directors worry about where they place the international mobility (IM) function within their structures? And should the current headlong charge into emerging markets – credit crunch apart - cause them to rethink their solution?

The article on Globalising the international mobility function: the role of emerging markets, flexibility and strategic delivery models by Paul Sparrow argues that some of the recent institutional research in IHRM risks becoming overly deterministic. There has been considerable global economic uncertainty, and this can be expected to impact the need for and pursuit of functional realignment within MNCs. In periods of rapid strategic change, the most proximate level of analysis by which to judge globalisation is to see if it has occurred at the level of the function, rather than the firm. The paper studies the functional delivery strategies used in international mobility functions as they support the organisation in its pursuit of globalisation. It examines how managers use three strategies to manage local responsiveness to enhance the ability of the IM function to perform globally as the organisation seeks to both co-ordinate (develop linkages between geographically dispersed units of a function) and control (regulate functional activities to align them with the expectations) mobility activity across borders:

  • an emerging market strategy, which is characterised as an industrial push force,
  • a flexibility strategy, which is characterised as an environmental demand or pull force, and
  • developments in the strategic HR delivery model, which is constrained by administrative heritage, but should be considered as organisational capability and infrastructure force.

Slowly but inexorably, in many sectors, the centre of gravity is shifting. Firms are building capability in emerging markets for four reasons:

  • to capitalise on growing consumer market expenditure to balance declining markets elsewhere
  • to apply a rudimentary business model that will over time develop into a full-product or service model
  • to relocate production, processing or knowledge capabilities 
  • to help manage the in-country economic transition process itself. 

The research considers how IM functions will face up to the challenge of making a more strategic contribution to these developments.

Alternative forms of international working

In part these developments also reflect growth in alternative forms of international working. This research chapter by Wolfgang Mayrhofer, Astrid Reichel and Paul Sparrow in the Handbook of Research in International Human Resource Management, 2nd edition, reviews recent research on emerging forms of international working. After capturing recent developments in classical expatriation and identifying core factors contributing to the greater variety of international work, the chapter examines work on phenomena such as inpatriates, permanent international transferees, self-initiated international transfers, short-term assignments, international business travellers, skilled individuals working in geographically remote cross border teams, or centres of excellence serving global operations, and immigrants actively attracted to national labour markets. The chapter shows that organisations now have a wide range of options at their disposal for global resourcing of work, but also raises questions about four aspects of HRM: organisational policies; assumptions about the necessary support; recruitment processes; and employee well-being. It also recommends that research now examines:

  • the process and speed of capturing these new forms of working internationally and absorbing their management into standardised HR activities and policies
  • the effects of this more diversified international workforce on organisational processes such as knowledge sharing, strategic alignment or speed of organisational change
  • the reaction of organisations to ‘born or socialised internationals’ i.e. the way they manage new employee segments such as those who leave universities and business schools, ready to take on international positions throughout their careers

Global knowledge management and international HRM

Picking up on the theme of global knowledge transfer, this research chapter by Paul Sparrow, also in the Handbook of Research in International Human Resource Management, 2nd edition, reviews the research literature on knowledge flows and diffusion since the mid-2000s. It analyses how the field has developed, and looks in particular at two key knowledge management constructs from within the international business (IB) literature: knowledge transfer and absorptive capacity. It examines four knowledge integration mechanisms (KIMs): organisational design and the specific issue of centres of excellence; expatriate advice networks; transnational management teams; and communities of practice (COPs) and internal networks of practice, and areas of potential alignment between IB and IHRM research interests. It argues that the IHRM literature needs now to study the ways in which global HR architectures enable effective knowledge transfer, particularly with regard to the management of international mobility and global talent management processes. Finally, critical conclusions are drawn about the state of research in the field, and shows that these more recent calls for development in the IB literature bring a number of knowledge management constructs within the realm of IHRM researcher interest and competence.

Comparative analysis of employment contracts

This chapter by Paul Sparrow in the Handbook of Research on Comparative Human Resource Management looks at the nature of employment contracts through a comparative lens. Attention is given to what an employment contract actually is, the nature of its terms, and how the rights and obligations – codified or implied – of the contract are in turn embedded in highly nationalistic legal systems and frameworks. It explains some notable cross-national differences in the terms of the employment contract, and explores how comparative researchers have attempted to understand the institutional and cultural web that surrounds the employment contract and the different legal origins. The chapter shows that the comparative study of employment contracts is best conducted by examining the inter-dependency of external institutional and cultural factors, and by understanding in a comparative sense the effect of both these webs on employee and the employer logics of action.

Developments in the management of international HRM

Some of the most sophisticated multinational corporations are taking a new look at their IHRM policies and practices. The balance in the tension between globalised and locally adapted practices is swinging towards a higher demand for globalisation, driven by the need for the centre to be aware of and control operations. A research project conducted with Professor Chris Brewster for the UK's Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development identified the way that organisations are adapting to these challenges. Results from an in-depth case study, involving work in a global information company providing information tailored for professionals in the financial services, media and corporate markets. The research was based on extensive documentary data, interviews with 21 global senior line and HR managers and their counterparts in the UK, Japan, US, India, Australia, and Spain, collecting network data from many of the key players and an e-survey of more than 300 randomly selected employees. The research identified five important issues for corporate decision-making in IHRM:

  • the design of international HRM structures and strategies
  • the role of line managers in HRM; diversity
  • e-enabled HRM
  • use of networking, social capital and knowledge transfer
  • diversity

International resourcing and skill supply strategies

Another stream of research looked at the issue of international resourcing and skill supply strategies. This considers internationalising domestic labour markets and recruitment, selection and assessment processes. The national debate on immigration has raised questions about the actions of organisations and their reliance on immigration to handle skills shortages in the UK. As part of a multi-stranded process of globalisation, migration, always an 'engine of history', has now become a central feature of international life. Paul Sparrow worked with the former Sector Skills Development Agency to produce a Catalyst report on International Recruitment, Skills Supply and Migration. The report asked a number of questions. It looks at practice in other companies to ask can the value of immigrants be judged based on their skills at point of entry? Does immigration depress wages and provide disincentives to train? Is a virtuous circle between high skill immigration and productivity possible? It then examines the characteristics of immigration into the UK in terms of global care chains, a within-EU influx of labour, and as part of high skills migration.

International recruitment, selection and assessment

Prior to this research, Paul Sparrow produced a research report on international recruitment, selection and assessment for the UK's CIPD. His research focused on changes in resourcing issues which many firms, not just those working internationally, are now facing. As a consequence, HR professionals now confront very different international recruitment, selection and assessment issues as they pick up the challenge of the rapidly expanding global labour market. The research looked at the increase in mobility of all different types of international employees, not just traditional overseas assignees. Issues relating to these topics are illustrated by case study examples from the South East London Strategic Health Authority, BBC World Service, Barclaycard International and Save the Children UK. The journal article in International Journal of Human Resource Management on this issue is still the fourth most read article in this journal.

International HRM textbooks

In collaboration with Professor Chris Brewster (Reading) and Dr Michael Dickmann (Cranfield), Paul Sparrow co-edited a Routledge book on International HRM: Contemporary Issues in Europe. This book brought together over 20 European IHRM scholars writing about recent developments including localisation, HR outsourcing, knowledge management, resourcing, pre-departure preparation, expatriate adjustment, reward, repatriation, career capital, news forms of international working, women in international management and IHRM in non-governmental organisations. Plans for a new collection of work to be published in 2014 are advancing.

Paul Sparrow also collaborates with Professor Chris Brewster, Dr Guy Vernon and Dr Liz Houldsworth in writing the CIPD's textbook on International Human Resource Management, currently in its third edition.

Routledge Global HRM series

Paul Sparrow is also a Series Co-Editor with Professors Randall Schuler and Susan Jackson of Rutgers University (originally also with the late and sadly missed Michael Poole of Cardiff University) for the Routledge Global HRM series. This series has produced 23 books involving over 340 academics covering topics including: managing HR in cross border alliances; globalising HRM; people strategies in global firms; global staffing; global industrial relations; global legal systems; global leadership; performance appraisal around the globe; managing HRM in Africa;.. in Asia-Pacific; .. in Latin America; .. in North America; .. in Europe; .. in Eastern Europe; .. in the Middle East. Three more books on manager-subordinate trust, Asia-Pacific, and institutional perspectives are coming out in the next year. Professor Randall Schuler of Rutgers University talks about the series here.

Sage Major Works on international HRM

Finally, along with Professors Schuler and Budhwar, Paul Sparrow has co-edited four volumes for Sage to bring together the Major Works in the field of IHRM. These volumes bring together articles which highlight the historical evolution of IHRM, discuss the contemporary issues and make projections for further developments in the field.