Research on human resources: Reflections and reinforcements

Monday, 12 December 2011 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Research related to Human Resources is a growing global priority. We saw the enthusiasm last week, when the Research and Publications Committee of the Institute of Personnel Management organised an evening presentation on “Research trends in HR”.  Today’s column will focus on the highlights of it, with extended emphasis on the need to debunk some fallacies.



Research on Human Resources falls into the broader category of Management research, which in turn is a part of the wider array of research. Whilst positive initiatives are being taken, current situation with respect to research in Sri Lanka is far from a satisfactory level. I read an article written by Dr. Jayaratne Pinikahana a few months ago, highlighting the need to focus on for private  sector to collaborate in university research. He shared some revealing statistics about local research.

“Sri Lanka contributes only 0.17% from GDP whereas Singapore contributes 2.3%, South Korea, 2.9% and China, 1.3% from their GDP for research. A recent report published by the Ministry of Technology and Research in Sri Lanka revealed that Sri Lanka has only 287 researchers per million which is less than the world average of 894. The average number of researchers per million in the developed world and the developing world is 3272 and 374 respectively. It is clear from these statistics that Sri Lankan situation is worse than the average third world situation. The most alarming situation is that it is getting worse in recent years. For example, in 1996 Sri Lanka had 6000 full time researchers including university researchers but by 2006 this number declined to 4200.”

In such a context, any move to strengthen the research rigor, particularly among the University community is commendable. As I observe, there is a clear need to create better awareness on the importance of research. This I see acutely in the field of management.

Highlights of evening presentations

There were nine HR researchers who shared their experience and expertise to a packed audience at IPM auditorium last Thursday.  It was perhaps the first time in Sri Lanka that such a large number of HR academics have got together to share their research insights with the aspiring researchers and HR practitioners.

Professor Henarath Opatha from the Faculty of Management, University of Sri Jayewardenapura spoke about the fundamentals of HR research. He highlighted the need to have both fundamental research as well as applied research. Having done HR related research for a long period of time, and having published numerous papers, his ideas were of very high practical importance.

Professor Gamini de Alwis from the Faculty of Management and Finance, University of Colombo, stressed the need to have more qualitative research. He compared macro level quantitative research to a skeleton, where the flesh and blood has to be the qualitative research.

Then came Professor Sudatta Ranasinghe from the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Open University of Sri Lanka. His focus was mainly into the changing nature of HR research from personnel management to strategic human resource management. Being the co- author of perhaps the only local publication on management research, his advice on selecting the right methodology was very useful.

Dr. M. Saman Dasanayake, also from the Faculty of Management and Finance, University of Colombo shared his research experiences in developing Sri Lankan case studies with emphasis on blue ocean strategy. Dr. Badra Arachchige, from the Faculty of Management, University of Sri Jayewardenapura stressed the need to engage in more applied research in collaboration with the practitioners.

Professor Vathsala Wickremasinghe from the Department of Management and Technology, University of Moratuwa, highlighted the need to clearly conceptualise a research problem, and then to use the appropriate methodology. Her current research engagements such as the study of employee competencies and organisational competencies with regard to software developers were also shared.

Dr. Pavithra Kailasapathy, from the Faculty of Management and Finance, University of Colombo shared her research experience in areas such as work-family balance and gender issues. Dr. Arosha Adhikaram, also from the same institution was of the view that “research is seeing as everyone does, but thinking as no one has done.” Highlights of her recent research on “sexual harassment of women in Sri Lankan workplace” were also presented.  

Qualities of a good researcher

Whilst moderating the above mentioned de research discussion, my mind went back to the basics of research. There are several key qualities of a good researcher that can be highlighted. The list provided by Professors Sudatta Ranasinghe and Mangala Fonseka is as follows:

  • Objectivity and absence of bias: The researcher does not attempt to prove his/her point without considering evidence  that challenges the  point
  • Tends to probe  deep issues and never accepts things on face value or never take things for granted
  • Does not look for short cuts and is prepared to go through difficulties in finding facts
  • Believes in rationality and relies on the power of reasoning
  • Has an inquiring and analytical mind and continues to raise “what if” type questions
  • Communicates well. Keeps things  simple and avoids unnecessary jargon
  • Committed to fulfilling the research objectives and continues to remain focused. Maintains integrity and avoids committing unethical acts like plagiarism by using other’s work without due acknowledgement
  • Maintains honesty in data gathering as well as reporting
  • Preserves confidentiality of information. Not concerned with personal publicity  and prestige
  • Conscious of time and keeps to a time-schedule through better time management.

It will be worthwhile to reflect on oneself as to what level the above qualities are present.

Five fallacies of HR related research

In expanding our discussion on HR related research further, it is worthwhile looking at why the apparent enthusiasm on research is not translated into enduring actions. It is interesting to note  that most of the management programs do not contain a research component, and management research is perceived to be something extremely difficult and to be left to the experts to handle. Should that be the approach of management learners? I would say “no”.

Why HR learners and practitioners are reluctant to embark on management research? I would propose that we need to debunk the fallacies associated with management research. Let me discuss five such Fallacies.

Skill fallacy

I have seen management learners being scared to engage in management research stating that they do not have necessary skills to do so. Refraining from management research due to skill shortage is a fallacy.

Skills can be acquired in variety of ways. Same is true for management research skills. The starting point is an inquiring mindset. When you have a problem in focus as an unsolved puzzle, a logical step-by-step approach is needed in understanding the nature of it, and finding solutions for it. There are range of ways to strengthen the skills of doing management research including books, websites and short courses. It is encouraging to see that pioneering academic institution who started offering an MBA program to Sri Lanka is still maintaining a research rigour, making it a vital component in MBA education.

Scope fallacy

Some tend to complain that the extent involved in a management research is so vast. Reluctance to embark on management research due to its scope is a fallacy.

Scope is there for the researcher to decide. I have heard many a times from my senior colleagues that management researchers want to cover everything under sun and moon. Instead, they should clearly demarcate a boundary within which their investigation will be carried out. A beginner can start studying on his/her organisation or even a division of it.

On the other hand, a veteran researcher will clearly identify the scope which is relevant to the nature of the problem under investigation. For an example, in a study of employee satisfaction, instead of covering all employees all over the world, a demarcation such as “middle level managers of private commercial banks in Sri Lanka” would be a more sensible scope.  

Style fallacy

There is no one universal approach to management research.  Diverse patterns can be seen in moving beyond traditional number-crunching practices. Conviction that there is a universal style of doing management research is a fallacy.

What I mean by style is essentially the approach to management research.  It can be one of the following:

  • Study of an unexplored area, E.g.: Career aspirations of call-centre operators,  
  • Challenge what is already known, E.g. Motivational factors of sewing workers apparel industry
  • An existing problem formulated in a novel way, E.g.: Why plantation workers rest change
  • New interpretation to existing findings, E.g.: Revisiting culture study by Gert Hofstede (A famous Dutch anthropologist)
  • New evidence on a previous issue, E.g: Productivity and employee satisfaction
  • New method/ technique adopted, E.g: Use of “grounded theory” for local research
  • Replicate a study done elsewhere, E.g: Study of organisational commitment
  • Synthesis of existing knowledge, E.g: Combining two studies on different aspects of stock market performance

Hence, it is clear that there is no universal style towards management research. The challenge is to select the style matching the nature of the investigation.

Structure fallacy

Some management researchers insist on a formal structure in approaching research. The world is moving towards multiple structures. I saw how story-telling has influenced as a powerful way of narrating a management research, in the recent past. Reliance on one formal structure for all management research is a fallacy.

In perusing through the fundamentals of management research, two key structures can be found. They are related to an exploration or an explanation. The twin terminology associated is deductive and inductive approaches. Deductive approach begins with an initial idea or conceptualisation of the problem in focus. It is applicable when substantial knowledge is already in existence.  In contrast, the inductive approach begins with the observation of realities and then moving towards generalising the results. It is more suitable when available knowledge is insufficient to develop predictions.

Each approach leads to a different structure of the management research. It is difficult to say, which is better out of the two. A more pragmatic approach will be to fine the best fit with regard to the nature of problem under investigation.

Source fallacy

Some of the management researchers complain that they have no access to sources of information in formulating the problem. There is no one source but multiple of sources are available in order to gain knowledge. Refraining from management research due to source constraints is a fallacy.

There are electronic databases that contain thousands of research papers. In some management programs, instead of access to a physical library, the students receive a user name and a password, inviting them to visit a virtual library full of versatile resources.  On the other hand, there is a wealth of local management research, sadly not yet available in electronic form. Visiting several management institutes will serve the purpose, instead.  

Hence, source should no way be a constraint in conducting management research.

Way forward

The field of HR is increasingly expanding. So does the need to engage in HR-related research. It is an invitation to have a new kind of “tripartisim” as mentioned by Aruna Dayanatha, a doctoral candidate of Postgraduate Institute of Management, at the above evening presentation. HR scholars, HR students and HR practitioners should collaborate in order to gain better understanding of HR, which in turn will lead to higher organisational results. Overcoming fallacies and enhancing capabilities will pave way for such a leap.

(Dr. Ajantha Dharmasiri is a learner, teacher, trainer, researcher, writer and a thinker in the areas of Human Resource Management and Organisational Behaviour. He can be reached on [email protected])

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