Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Article Type: Guest editorial From: Journal of Chinese Human Resource Management, Volume 2, Issue 2
About the Guest Editor
Malcolm Warner Professor and Fellow Emeritus at Wolfson College and Judge Business School, University of Cambridge, Cambridge. He has researched and taught at a number of American and British universities, including Stanford and Columbia, as well as at the London Business School, a Brunel University-Henley Graduate Programme. He has also been Halevy Visiting Professor at Sciences Po’ in Paris, France, as well as Visiting Research Fellow at the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin Fur Sozialforschung. He additionally holds a Visiting Chair at the Cass Business School, City University, London. He was the Editor-in-Chief of the multi-volume International Encyclopedia of Business and Management, London: Thomson, 2002. He is currently Co-editor of the Asia Pacific Business Review and has published extensively in the field of Asian management and particularly on China. His most recent work is an edited book, Confucian HRM in Greater China, London and New York: Routledge, 2011.
Congratulations to the Journal of Chinese Human Resource Management (JCHRM), now in its second year of publication. It is most encouraging to see a new specialist journal in the field, encompassing both Western as well as Chinese contributors. Clearly, it has its work cut out in creating a “niche” in the market, as there are now a number of management journals specifically devoted to China, whether in English or Chinese. One long-established International Human Resource Management (HRM) Journal (The International Journal of Human Resource Management) frequently publishes articles based on Chinese data and even has an annual special issue on “HRM in China” (Warner, 2011).
In this guest editorial, I will set out a number of conceivable options, remember only possible choices – for the new journal. One concrete suggestion which I would like to make is for the JCHRM to concentrate on the more critical, even speculative treatments of Chinese HRM, since there are already many outlets out there for the more positivistic kinds of articles. This genre of publication now dominates the field, with a North American paradigm that now seems to sweep all before it. Some say we now need our own “cultural revolution” in the field. But what is to be done?
A start might be to open up the discourse to wider debate. The debate centred around the need for a Chinese-based theory of management in general – and in our case, HRM in particular – might be one major focus for future issues and a “Call for Papers” on these lines must now be a priority. This demarche would build on the initiative taken by the editors of Management and Organizational Review on the future of Chinese management research, published a year or two ago (Editors’ Forum, 2009). We clearly need more theory in the field and the JCHRM might do well to promote the generation of more robust endeavours in this domain.
Even so, do we really need a “Chinese theory of management”, as opposed to a “theory of Chinese management” as an academic priority, as opposed to an indulgence? Does it matter? And for whom? This debate has been rumbling on for some time and is as yet clearly inconclusive (Tsui, 2009). Given the growing interest in China’s extraordinary achievement in its economic growth as well as its far-reaching industrial reform across the world of academia and beyond, its management as defined in the broadest sense (Rowley and Warner, 2010), as well as its management education and training (Warner and Goodall, 2009) and more specifically in its HRM spin-offs (Cooke, 2005), seems to me to be a “hot” topic of discussion for both specialist and non-specialist readerships. There is one overwhelming reason to promote the study of Chinese HRM, which is that China now has more or less one quarter of the world’s workforce, indeed a massive share of global human resources.
A theory of Chinese HRM might be a promising start, connecting past, present and future (Zheng and Lamond, 2009), whether indigenous or even from outside, indeed avoiding any cultural chauvinism en route, could be an inspiration to young scholars in particular. It might help switch attention to the possibility of “thinking through” what are interested in, rather than more mere “number-crunching” exercises with limited academic outcomes in far too many instances. It thus calls for further consideration and elaboration from scholars interested in deepening and enriching the intellectual thrust of study of HRM in China, and indeed farther afield. As a previous editorial (Cooke, 2011) has made clear, the need for new approaches in the specific area of Chinese HRM is vital. Whether this will extend “to developing indigenous Chinese theories of management” (Cooke, 2011, p. 3) as such, is moot, however, at least in the short term. Remember that the phenomenon in question, Chinese HRM, in its modern guise, has not been around for very long. Hence, it is no surprise we do not have much convincing theory, at least to date.
We certainly need something new, whether with respect to either theoretical models or empirical field research. Far too many existing papers in the field of Chinese HRM come from those schooled in either organizational behaviour or psychology. Many of these papers are in fact replications of studies already carried out in the west. A good number of these are, alas, highly “mechanistic” in their approach. Sometimes, a dozen papers or so with very similar sounding OB titles appear in a given journal’s e-mail box as potential submissions. They are frequently, may I say, somewhat anodyne. The authors, often recent doctoral students, were originally corralled into choosing this or that topic and methodology, now need “to publish or perish”, to get their first appointment or promotion. The submissions very often lack what the French call couleur locale, meaning that the authors do not adequately locate the study in its Chinese context and there is very little or not enough that is China specific. To put it very bluntly, the proposed article sent to an editor could indeed be about a sample in any number of other Asian or even Western countries and their enterprises. Nor is the discussion of the findings of the empirical study in question convincingly related to the indigenous values of the country concerned, namely China. Furthermore, the conclusions do not add a great deal to our understanding of what HRM in China “really” is or where it is going. There is an apparent disconnect between what we see on the ground in China, whether in factories, hotels or shopping malls and what is written up about employee behaviour in the journals. Something is missing; it is all “existence” – with little “essence”. It is like “Hamlet without the Prince”, as the saying goes. So, we need to do better.
Now, let me make a bold suggestion. I think there would be greater academic “added value” from eliciting contributions deriving from other subfields of study, such as anthropology, ethnography, and similar, maybe also the economics or sociology of the workplace. Sometimes, quantitative work may be appropriate but I can say emphatically that more sharply observed qualitative research is needed to counterbalance the existing emphasis. I am not convinced that we need “more of the same”. We also need more cross-cultural analysis and more comparative studies, say of China with other Asian countries (Zhu et al., 2007; Collins et al., 2011), maybe in dyads or triads, as well as with Western ones. Comparative company-based case studies might be another avenue to explore. A new journal should mark out its territory sharply, define it boundaries ambitiously and explore new academic frontiers vigorously, rather than try “to keep up with the Jones”, as it were. The JCHRM can plan ahead for new special issues that raise the ante; I am sure that it will be a path-breaker in the years to come. Face the future but do not forget the past! The JCHRM should be both “looking back and looking forward” [italics added] (Lamond and Zheng, 2010 put it).
Above all, we need new ideas, new concepts and new approaches. To paraphrase a most famous economist, the difficulty lies not so much in thinking up truly fresh ideas, but in escaping from old ones (Keynes, 1936). He also said it was better to be more or less right than very precisely wrong. Being a newcomer to the field, the JCHRM can, I think, afford to take chances. It should encourage its contributors to “stick their necks” out in terms of generating truly innovatory contributions to knowledge.
So, I wish the journal well in its future endeavours and thank the editor for his kind invitation to contribute this editorial “think-piece”.
Malcolm WarnerWolfson College and Judge Business School, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK
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