Using soft systems methodology to identify competence requirements in HRM.
Using findings from research conducted in one of New Zealand's largest social and market research companies, this article shows how Checkland's soft systems methodology (SSM) may be used as a vehicle for developing competence profiles in human resource management (HRM).
The study came about as a result of difficulties which the company, XY Research, had with recruiting and retaining suitable candidates as project managers. Traditionally, technical research and team-working capabilities were the main criteria used in both recruitment and performance evaluation. Although senior managers believed that such criteria were still relevant, a review was thought to be propitious because of recent recruitment failures, and it was felt that other key competences were becoming necessary owing to the rapid technological, market and business changes occurring in the industry. Several members of the company were familiar with SSM, and it was felt that the approach could help in the review.
In what follows, we begin by outlining the idea of competence profiling and the basic process of SSM. Various aspects of the research case are used to illustrate some important stages in the methodology. Next we describe how SSM was adapted to suit the particular purposes being pursued in the case. Finally there is a discussion of how the distinctive philosophy and process of SSM can be exploited to produce information superior to that obtained through using conventional methods.
Competence profiles aim to define the sets of skills, attitudes and knowledge which contribute to effective job performance. Their development is usually described along the following lines (Nankervis et al., 1993, p. 45):
* identify the mission and key objectives of the organization;
* identify the competences needed by the organization if it is to achieve its key objectives;
* acquire such competences by way of recruitment and selection or training and development strategies; and
* implement strategies to reinforce desired behaviours.
The first two of these stages nearly always rely on some combination of interviewing, focus groups and surveys for providing relevant data. Typically respondents are questioned about the competences required for effective performance, the factors which distinguish high performers from low performers, and the skills, behaviours and attitudes which are thought to be important in the future.
Although this article does not seek to dismiss the traditional approach entirely, it does question whether the traditional methods used to identify required competences are adequate for the purpose. Specifically, doubts are raised about the extent to which determining a single agreed model of the competences required is a straightforward activity. SSM is presented as a methodological framework which has the potential to address this issue.
Soft systems methodology
SSM has developed considerably since Checkland's original contribution (Checkland, 1990) and there is now an extensive literature devoted to various approaches to SSM as well as applications (Checkland and Scholes, 1990; Davies and Ledington, 1991; Mingers, 1993). The methodology, however, has not gained a strong foothold in mainstream management thinking or practice, nor is it widely known in HRM. It is necessary, therefore, to outline the basic approach and its underlying philosophy, before looking at how it may be used to support the purpose described here.
SSM provides a framework for dealing with complex ill-defined problem situations. With roots in the hermeneutic/phenomenology/interpretive tradition, systems concepts are used as an epistemological device to facilitate learning about problem situations with a view to taking action which is acceptable to the key stakeholders involved. Essentially SSM is a specialized form of action research where the aim is to improve practices and understanding of situations through participants' self-reflective enquiry.
Although SSM has been subject to a number of revisions and modifications during the period between 1981 and 1990 which separate Checkland's two major contributions, the original "seven-stage" model, shown in Figure 1, will be used here. The seven stages, numbered in the illustration, are distilled from an iterative process, so, in practice, the process can begin anywhere. Usually there is a good deal of movement forwards and backwards between the various stages.
Stages 1 and 2 in a traditional SSM study are "finding out" stages, the outcome of which is captured in a "rich picture" of the problem situation. A rich picture is a representation of the problem situation, presented usually in the form of a drawing, which makes explicit a range of diverse viewpoints concerning issues, conflicts and difficulties. It draws attention to cultural and political aspects of the problem situation and attempts to provide a complete picture of what is going on rather than reducing problems to their component parts. Figure 2 shows part of a rich picture capturing a number of key themes which bear on the position of project manager at XY Research. These include various tasks which have to be completed, like responding to briefs and writing reports. It highlights a number of issues including the problem of excessive work overload, difficulties in dealing with sometimes conflicting responsibilities, and major concerns which relate to the various relationships between the project manager and relevant others including clients, research directors, other project managers, field and support staff.
Identifiable themes from the rich picture are restated as notional systems in stage 3. Here the mnemonic CATWOE is used as a guide to producing root definitions (RDs) of these systems. RDs make explicit the complete nature of the system in question by defining customers (C), actors (A), the transformation process (T), owners (O), environmental constraints (E) and, importantly, the subjective worldview, or Weltanschauung (W), which gives the system meaning. By way of illustration an RD used in the study is shown as follows: a research consultancy service providing system is a company-owned system (O) designed to provide quality consulting advice (T) in which project managers (A) use the resources of XY Research and international affiliate companies to generate appropriate data which will be interpreted in line with the client's (C) strategic marketing objectives for the overall purpose of increasing market share (W). The system will operate within a number of constraints including budget size and time available (E).
Whereas root definitions define what a relevant system is, stage 4 involves building conceptual models (CM) of what the defined system needs to do, to be what it is. The model is made up of activities which are linked together denoting major dependencies. These activities, expressed using verbs, describe what one can logically deduce has to happen for the system to perform as it is defined in the root definition. Any activity in a "first order" CM may be examined in greater detail by conceptualizing it as a "second order" system. A basic first order model depicting the major activities and dependencies of the system described in the aforementioned root definition, and an associated second order model, is shown in Figure 3.
Once the group involved is satisfied that a model is coherent, internally consistent and meaningful in relation to a particular Weltanschauung, stage 5 involves using the model as a template to structure further investigation into the real world system described in the rich picture, with a view to identifying desirable changes.
Stage 6 involves evaluating the political and cultural feasibility of the changes identified in stage 5 and, finally, stage 7 develops an agenda for dealing with the situation. Having outlined the basic model, let us now describe the basic method of using SSM for creating competence profiles.
Creating competence profiles using SSM
Figure 4 shows how SSM was adapted to meet the research objectives. Initially a complete round of the process from stages 2-5 is completed. The aim of this part of the exercise is to focus discussion and facilitate deeper learning about the situation under investigation. Stage 2 involves collecting sufficient information in order to produce a complete and holistic representation of the situation under consideration, whether this be the organization as a whole, one of its departments or functions, or an individual position. Any information which is a potential source of insight about the kinds of competences needed, either currently or in the future, are relevant and should be included. In most organizations people hold differing opinions on the aims being pursued and the problems and issues in the situation as it currently exists, or as it might exist given certain defined scenarios. The rich picture should embody the full diversity of these viewpoints. At this point there should be no attempt to deny the applicability or relevance of minority opinions, or opinions which run counter to the official line. In fact, counter-viewpoints can lead to creative insights which may not emerge if discussion is limited to perspectives compatible with the currently prevailing ideology. In the rich picture it should be possible to visualize how individual activities, issues or problems fit into the broader context within which these are located.
After the initial rich picture has been developed and broad themes identified, a range of task and issue models based on different Weltanschauungen should be constructed and contrasted with the real world situation. In most SSM projects, a combination of task and issue systems are included, and this is advocated here. Task systems represent official pronouncements about the identity of an organization or what a particular job involves. Issue systems may represent contentious aspects of a job or contain ideas about what it means to be a member of a particular organization which are not formally sanctioned. Often, when individuals are being questioned directly about competences, these unofficial aspects of work do not surface. They can, however, be very important. Cultural and political aspects of work, for example, are especially important, and often warrant further attention. Sometimes achieving a better "fit" between individuals and these contextual and informal features of their work is more important than ensuring that individuals satisfy technical competence criteria.
As learning proceeds, the rich picture should be modified to incorporate new insights. Two or more complete methodological cycles may be required for this. Once the participants feel that they have a clearer and deeper picture of what is going on in the situation, the next stage is to create a number of primary task (PT) models that participants agree are desirable given current circumstances and likely scenarios. These models emerge out of a process of discussion and debate during which some may be dispensed with because they are implausible, unnacceptable or undesirable. In most instances activities identified in first order conceptual models will be elaborated on at lower levels of resolution. Political and cultural feasibility criteria are applied at the root definition stage. This acknowledges the fact that in most organizations, radical viewpoints which senior managers perceive to be incompatible with the overall ethos of the organization are unlikely to be implemented successfully.
The next stage is to assess the competences which would be required to complete each activity successfully. This is done on an activity by activity basis, elaborating second and third order models when necessary. These competences are then prioritized depending on how important tasks are within particular models, and on how much a particular task is common to a number of PT models. Next they are grouped into logical categories which may range from specific job behaviours to broad characteristics or attributes which relate to either the culture of the employing organization, or the vision being pursued by senior managers. The final stages in the process depend on the specific purposes being pursued. If the aim of the exercise is to create a profile of the sort of person the company needs to fill a particular position, the competence profile that derives from the various models can be used as a template for evaluating various applications. In this case it will be necessary to prioritize competences according to their relative importance. If the objective is to augment existing competences with others that are thought to be necessary either now, or at some point in the future, then it will be necessary to compare competence needs with provision, before coming up with recommendations for competence development. Decisions will have to be made about whether these recommendations are enacted through recruitment, training, or some combination of a range of human resource activities.
Having outlined the basic method, let us now consider the benefits which accrue from using SSM for this purpose and the advantages that SSM has over traditional methods.
The value of SSM in competence profiling
It is not claimed here that SSM should replace the traditional methods used for understanding competence needs. SSM has a number of shortcomings of its own which would appear to preclude this. It is a time-consuming process and it demands a level of commitment from others that is not always easily obtained. However the methodology does offer a number of advantages over other methods which suggests it may be used with these in a complementary fashion. This contribution arises out of SSM's underlying interpretive assumptions, the distinctive way in which conceptual models are used to create learning and insight, and other aspects of systems thinking that it embraces, notably the methodological guidance embodied in its technology, and its use of well-known systems concepts including hierarchy and holism. These advantages will now be examined in more detail.
Underlying interpretive assumptions
Since SSM first appeared on the academic scene in the mid-1970s, Checkland has assiduously reminded various audiences about the philosophical traditions which underwrite the methodology, and he has cautioned individuals about the dangers that attend on violating its basic philosophical principles (Checkland, 1991; Checkland and Scholes, 1990). These principles derive from the interpretive paradigms where the primary concern is to understand individuals' world views, to capture their perceptions and experiences, and to delineate the processes through which phenomena are interpreted. Within this tradition, SSM embodies a number of commitments which are best understood by contrasting "soft" with "hard" systems.
In hard systems thinking information is gathered to formulate goals, identify problems, ascertain and evaluate options and, finally, to select and implement a rational plan to achieve the desired outcome. Hard systems is a task-focused domain which emphasizes the importance of activities sustaining predetermined objectives in an economical, efficient and effective manner.
Whereas this genre of systems has been described as the exemplar of "rational" planning (Rosenhead, 1989), soft systems thinking emphasizes plural rationalities, complexity and uncertainty. According to this perspective, the mutual accommodation of diverse human interests is more crucial to organizational performance than the optimum performance of technical activities in support of some overarching goal. Soft systems, therefore, seeks to engage individuals in a participative dialogue for the purpose of accommodating a variety of viewpoints about problems and objectives and to obtain the richest possible description of the situation.
To the extent that any aspect of the HRM process privileges a particular worldview and takes this as a given aspect of the design brief, it suggests an orientation towards hard systems thinking. Often HRM appears to assume that the overall aims and objectives of the organization, or any of its sub-units, may be defined unequivocally without any serious investigation or reflection on the veracity of dominant viewpoints. Moreover it often appears that analysing job or organizational requirements is largely unproblematic, that these may be defined objectively and unambiguously. To some extent this is true. There are basic skills associated with the job of brain surgeon that are fundamentally different from those required of a social worker, for example. Clearly as one moves away from broad technical competences into the domain of attitudes, values and behavioural styles, the idea that such requirements may be defined objectively becomes increasingly less tenable.
Traditionally in many organizations it has been common practice to prepare detailed job descriptions and profiles of the "ideal candidate" based on some supposedly impartial reading of what a job involves. Today this practice is less appropriate. Work environments are more volatile than before, and individuals are now required to take personal initiatives in responding quickly to meet the needs of local, and often unforeseen circumstances. Here, tight job descriptions are manifestly dysfunctional. In recent years, organizations of all types have become more decentralized in response to the need to cope with increasingly competitive environments and hierarchies have been flattened, pushing derision making closer to the customer. Centralized bureaucratic control and tightly defined job descriptions are giving way to more subtle forms of control which has led to discretionary content being dispersed throughout organizations. In the recent past discretion has tended to be associated with senior positions. Today individuals are being given more licence to define job boundaries themselves. Even in relatively stable environments, the belief that jobs must be done in a particular way, or that individuals must possess a particular set of aptitudes in order to perform a job well, is being questioned. Women and those promoting the cause of minority groups have been particularly vocal in this regard.
Under these sorts of circumstances, recruiting someone according to a detailed and supposedly objective competence profile does not make a lot of sense. Neither does it make sense to evaluate aspects of someone's performance against criteria that may bear little resemblance to the specific way in which the job is performed.
SSM's contribution is to remind us that the process of teasing out job or organizational requirements is not a purely rational matter. Such descriptions cannot be intrinsically meaningful. Rather, they are underwritten by particular Weltanschauung. SSM recognizes this by insisting that alternative viewpoints are brought to the forefront of debate, and the methodology outlines a process through which this may be achieved. The process of identifying and learning from different viewpoints, and then moving towards negotiated agreement, is rarely a simple matter, and using SSM does not guarantee success. Ostensibly, however, the methodology does provide a structure that can improve the chances of this happening.
Using models to stimulate learning and creative insight
As we have noted, the SSM process is designed to stimulate learning and insight through an oblique juxtaposition of systems constructs and the real world. Of course we should not discount the traditional way of asking people outright about jobs and their competence requirements. Coming immediately to the point can be prudent, especially when time is at a premium. Sometimes, however, a less direct approach can yield useful insights which may otherwise be missed. An illustration from XY Research demonstrates the point.
In the first SSM cycle, the participants tended to focus most of their attention on known primary tasks. Virtually all of the root definitions and activity models identified as relevant to the position of project manager were based on primary tasks and closely related to the official line about what the job involved. Had the competence implications of these activity models been worked through at this stage, the results would have been similar to the formal criteria used previously. These criteria were mainly technical. Candidates were required to have a good degree in one of the social sciences, they needed to be able to translate clients' needs into coherent research programmes, design questionnaires, know how to interpret statistical data, be able to run group discussions and so on. However, during the first SSM cycle when these sorts of competences were being discussed, one experienced research director remarked that she had felt the technical criteria only "told part of the story about what was required to be a good researcher". Moreover, she admitted that in managing recent recruitment exercises she had tended to downplay the importance of how candidates fared when measured against such criteria - believing these could be easily learned if there were deficiencies - in favour of her "gut feel" about the more general suitability of the candidate as it emerged during interviews. Other research directors who had been involved in recruitment exercises also testified to the limitations of technical criteria. Significantly none of these senior managers had voiced such opinions before, nor, at this stage, were they able to articulate clearly what it was about favoured candidates, other than "gut feel", that led them to believe that such individuals were appointable.
As the process of creating root definitions, building models and then contrasting these with the problem situation continued, individuals gradually began to identify aspects of the problem situation which hitherto had gone unnoticed. The original rich pictures became embellished with new insights as they became available.
Although a number of issues emerged in this way, one in particular was later to be seen as highly significant. Project managers (and research directors) had often complained about the fickle nature of their relationship with clients. Part of the reason for this was that it appeared that no matter how pleased clients were with their work on individual projects, previous good performance did not seem to give the company an edge over competitors pitching for the same account. Yet reports which were received unfavourably, nearly always led to a loss of future business as the client awarded new contracts to competitors. Clients did have an "organizational memory", but it was one-sided and only counted if work was of a poor quality. They appeared reluctant to cement long-term relationships with individual project managers or the company. Because of this, project managers felt they were always on trial, continually having to demonstrate their credibility, no matter how experienced they were or how favourably their work had been received in the past.
In exploring this issue within the SSM framework, it was decided to create a number of notional systems and from these, two CMs - credibility developing and relationship building - were used to focus discussion. During this learning process, two activities - knowledge of a client's business and its market - stood out as being particularly important and common to both models. As discussion continued, it became more and more apparent that individuals felt these were key activities which needed to be incorporated into the primary task models construed as desirable.
Other competences which emerged through the same oblique process included the ability to deal with the feelings of rejection when accounts were lost, to balance the often conflicting needs of rigour in research with budget constraints, to avoid being possessive about clients, and to maintain good relations with a wide range of internal and external stakeholders whose demands were often perceived to be unreasonable, yet whose co-operation was vital for jobs to proceed smoothly.
Gradually individuals began to see that being in possession of, or being able to acquire, these sorts of competences was just as important as technical research capabilities. The process of completing the SSM cycle appeared to provide the catalyst for individuals to surface first and then debate previously unknown and unarticulated gut feel competences, which later were translated into much more precise statements about what was required to perform the role successfully.
Focus on wholes
Another specific characteristic of systems thinking is its predilection to deal with wholes rather than reducing problems to their individual parts and treating these separately. The logic behind this is that reductionism fails to capture emergent system properties which arise out of the complete set of interactions. This idea has implications which go beyond the simple idea of placing activities, issues and problems in their broader context in the SSM rich picture.
The problem is most noticeable when a group of individuals are placed in a focus group and asked to recount their ideas about the competences required in their work, or to describe the differences between good and bad performers. Difficulties arise when such beliefs are abstracted from the broader pattern of ideas and world views which give them meaning. When the data are aggregated, as they usually are, much of the meaning is lost. In SSM, the concern, always, is with wholes and the underlying world views which provide the crucial meaning. Meaning is explored and made explicit. It is not neutralized through a process of aggregation.
If one accepts the idea that potentially there are a number of possible ways of doing a job well, aggregating data does not make a lot of sense. The results can be costly. Potential recruits may slip through the net because they fail to match aggregated criteria which, at best, may bear only a tenuous relationship to the way in which the job would be done. At worst, the criteria may be completely irrelevant. Equally, current staff can become dissatisfied and disillusioned when meaningless criteria are applied in evaluating their performance.
At XY Research, a system had evolved over a number of years in which teams of researchers - led by directors, and including senior project managers, project managers and research executives - were allocated a portfolio of clients. Directors were primarily responsible for developing client relationships beyond that required for individual projects, for developing new business, and for overseeing the operational side of research projects. Project managers worked with research executives on the operational side of doing research and liaised with clients on a project by project basis. Teamworking had always been considered a vitally important requirement.
This system had worked reasonably well for a number of years. However, because of a serious shortage of good researchers in the industry, the company had begun to experiment by defining the project manager role differently. This came about largely to suit the needs of skilled women researchers, who, because of their family commitments, were not able to accommodate the traditional five eight-hour days in the office. In order to meet the needs of these women project managers, instead of working with perhaps up to seven or eight clients in a team of four or five staff, a system was put in place that allowed them to take full responsibility for a single client. Commensurate with this reduction in the number of clients serviced, there was a vertical broadening of the role to incorporate tasks which otherwise would have been carried out by research directors, research executives and even support staff. Although these project managers were ultimately responsible to research directors, who kept a "watching brief" over them, the women - often working from home or perhaps spending only one or two days in the office - were operating in a de facto sub-contractual role.
Essentially these changes in the structure and boundaries of the position reflected a different Weltanschauung, which, in turn, produced a new set of competence requirements. Gone was the need to be a good team player. In its place, a broader range of skills were articulated. These included being able to work in a more strategic role with the client, being able to deal with some of the more mundane and repetitive tasks associated with producing reports, and being comfortable with computers and telecommunications software. These competences, emerging, in this instance, out of the SSM process, reflected the Weltanschauung that jobs can and should be redefined to meet the needs of employees with major domestic resonsibilities. It is a moot point whether they would have surfaced had job-related data been aggregated, although one suspects they would not.
SSM's technical weaponry
SSM belongs to a genre of systems methodologies which directly address the problem of complexity (Jackson, 1988; 1991). Although some of these methodologies are also concerned with producing knowledge about systems, ultimately their major concern is to help individuals deal with real world problem situations. To this end, the provision of a toolkit of concepts and techniques designed to facilitate the collection of data and structure the enquiry process is one of the distinctive strengths of this branch of systems science. With its clearly articulated learning process, and associated technology, SSM befits the systems image in this regard.
It would be churlish to claim that the HR literature is bereft of practical guidance for those involved competence profiling. However, it has been suggested that the process of describing how job related descriptions should be formulated needs to be made more explicit. Van Zwanenberg and Wilkinson, for example, argue that "the techniques for translating information about jobs or organisations into person descriptors remain mysterious and ill-defined...it is left as some form of 'conjuring trick'" (1993, p. 54). The practice of combining observation with individual interviewing and focus group discussion where job incumbents are simply asked about the nature of their work and the demands that it places on them is direct and to the point. However, a more structured set of guidelines could help this process and, as we have seen, there are grounds for believing that a more oblique and less direct approach has benefits in terms of the quality of insights which are forthcoming.
Delineating the "fit" between an individual and an employing organization can occur at any level from the abilities required to discharge task requirements through to compatibility of individuals' values and the company ethos. Any methodology designed to elicit such information must, therefore, have the capacity to be applied at varying levels of abstraction. SSM is particularly well suited to this task.
The hierarchic quality of SSM is based on the idea that any system-in-focus may be conceptualized as part of a hierarchy of systems and sub-systems. Its mode of enquiry may, therefore, be applied at any level from task, through job, department and up to the organization itself. Conceptual models at any level can be elaborated on by treating any of the activities as a system at a lower level of resolution, or the system itself can be conceptualized as an activity in a system at a higher level of resolution. At XY Research this capability allowed the model to be used to identify the competences required of project managers ranging from highly specific research capabilities to broad characteristics or attributes which related to the company's culture and the vision being pursued by senior managers
The problem of determining competence requirements is exacerbated in circumstances of change and unpredictability. Whereas in performance appraisal where individuals are evaluated according to criteria that pertain to current circumstances, in other areas of HRM, notably recruitment and succession planning, there is a need to identify and plan for future competence needs. By definition, the traditional approach of analysing current jobs will not yield the kind of information required. Invariably such information will require constant updating and amendment as jobs evolve to meet the needs of changed circumstances. The time lag between the emergence of new circumstances and the corresponding change in the nature of the job compounds the problem, making information redundant almost as soon as it is collected. In such circumstances a proactive approach is called for where likely future scenarios rather than current circumstances can advance the information collection process.
Although traditional methods can also operate in a future mode, SSM has been shown to be particularly capable of making the transition from present to future (Galliers, 1992). This change occurs throughout the methodological cycle. Likely futures are reflected in the rich picture and activity models. The likelihood of various scenarios is evaluated. If, at one extreme, specific competences are common to all likely future scenarios, then they are prioritized. If, at the other extreme, they apply only to a single unlikely scenario, then they are given a lower priority.
The major tangible outcome of this research was the addition of a range of "softer" relationship-building competences to XY Research's competences portfolio. These emerged out of a consideration of alternative world views and various likely future scenarios. SSM provided the means by which previously intuitive criteria were first explored and then defined more carefully.
It is worth restating here that the call is not for SSM to replace traditional methods for collecting the type of data needed in HRM. Instead the argument has been that SSM can provide information of a particular flavour that derives from the distinctive contribution of the interpretive paradigm and soft systems thinking. Intrinsically much of the data which provide the basis for many HRM decisions are meaningless because they are abstracted from the broader social context from which they emerged. In SSM we have an approach for developing HR-related information which has the potential to overcome this difficulty.
The author would like to acknowledge the help of the anonymous referees who commented on the original draft of this article.
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|Title Annotation:||human resource management|
|Publication:||International Journal of Manpower|
|Date:||May 1, 1995|
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