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Emergent practices in agile people management: a multiple-case study of SMEs in New Zealand and Switzerland : A thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy at Lincoln University

Mollet, Léonie S.
Fields of Research
ANZSRC::350503 Human resources management , ANZSRC::350707 Leadership , ANZSRC::350709 Organisation and management theory
Many agile organisations experiment with new approaches to people management. They do so as a response to increasing complexity and a dynamic environment that requires them to abandon previous management practices. In these organisations, hierarchical structures are replaced with self-organisation that relies on empowering every member of the organisation. Consequently, people are no longer seen as a resource that needs to be controlled, but as trustworthy, resourceful, and whole. Instead, their ability to learn and collaborate are the source of future-proofing the organisation. In short, agile organisations can be described as being talent-led instead of being strategy-led. However, this emergent practice is not reflected in theory. In the field of Human Resource Management (HRM), this divide between academic and practitioner interest is a common thread. This research addresses the identified gap between practice and theory in three steps. Firstly, it gives an in-depth and rich description of the emergent practice in ten knowledge-intensive SMEs in the service sector. In the absence of best practice approaches due to the dynamic nature of agile organisations, these diverse portrays of reality serve as a welcome illustration. Secondly, a cross-case analysis identifies recurring patterns and common themes. Thirdly, the insight gathered is integrated into an empirically grounded conceptual framework that frames people management in agile organisations as a social practice – as opposed to a profession in the current HRM paradigm. This practice acts as a driver of business agility: the dynamic capabilities embedded in an organisation’s culture, values and its collective ability. The new framework integrates complexity and tensions instead of omitting them, and describes agile people management as a triadic process where (1a) core principles and a general (1b) approach to people management are embedded in (2) practices surrounded by a fluid (3) enabling structure. (1a) The principles circle around enablers of self-organisation, such as transparency, visibility, pragmatism, and diversity. (1b) An agile approach to people management is then characterised by fostering learning, self-reliance and distributed or servant leadership. (2) The core of bringing agile people management to life is the anchoring of principles in everyday interactions (such as recruitment, onboarding, or professional development). Embedded in practices, these principles act as an enabler of autonomy and reproduce the organisational culture and values. (3) The organisation then wraps itself around practices as a fluid entity that adapts quickly with changing needs. HR work in such an organisation is typically carried out in a network structure, integrated in numerous roles. Consequently, HR work is no longer largely limited to traditional HR functions, but distributed across the organisation – as a shared social practice. As a next step, expanding the new conceptual framework to different sectors or sizes of organisations commends itself. Moreover, investigating the tensions raised in regard to implementing agile people management might also prove fruitful in follow-up research. These tensions include nurturing resilience and self-reliance in the face ambidexterity, enabling visibility in alternative career models, balancing individual and collective needs as well as establishing an open feedback culture. Examining a potential connection between agile people management and an organisation’s financial success is another possible branch of research.
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