Re-dressing the Technological Frames of Human
Resource Information Systems
Tanya Bondarouk
University of Twente, Department of Organization, Opeartions and Human Resources
P.O.Box 217 7500 AE Enschede The Netherlands
Abstract. This paper explores the linkages between the normative foundation
underlying the IT-enabled transformation of HR and insights out of sociology
in order to bridge the gap between intentions of IT-enabled HRM and its organ-
izational reality. I introduce the notion of HRM frames where the (IT-enabled)
HR transformation in organizations influences employees’ behaviors, at the
same time it is influenced by human actions. The framework gives the opportu-
nity to step beyond traditional polarities in the HR research (like subjective vs.
objective, deterministic vs. phenomenological), resulting in the analysis of un-
derlying assumptions, values, interpretations that employees have about IT-
enabled HRM in organizations. Such interpretations are central to understand
the role of IT-enabled change in the HR processes and their transformation like
role changes, competencies modifications, re-structuring and globalization of
the HR function.
1 Introduction: IT-enabled HRM Research Up-to-date and
Research Questions
The modern HRM is one arena in which the dictum ‘there is nothing constant but
change’ is particularly relevant. One of the recent key drivers of this everlasting
change is the application of Information Technologies (IT) in the HRM field, support-
ing its everyday activities, personnel administration, policy developing and decision
making. More and more working organisations have been introducing Information
Technologies for Human Resource Management, using a variety of names, for exam-
ple electronic HRM, digital HRM, virtual HRM. It is therefore probably not surpris-
ing that IT is given lots of tributes in its potential significant impact on the ways how
HRM is organized, allocated and accomplished.
In the literature there is a strong belief that IT-enabled HRM should facilitate the role
of HRM as a strategic partner, allowing them to undertake critical people manage-
ment activities [28]. A number of benefits are pronounced as expected from the intro-
duction of IT-enabled HRM in organizations:
- Integrated “total solution” approach to problems through the re-centralization of the HR
Bondarouk T. (2007).
Re-dressing the Technological Frames of Human Resource Information Systems.
In Proceedings of the 1st International Workshop on Human Resource Information Systems, pages 109-119
DOI: 10.5220/0002417201090119
- more selective and strategic contribution from HRM by freeing staff from the burdens of
- greater efficiency and professional provision of HR services through simplifying services;
and through providing a single point of contact for clients;
- cost-effectiveness;
- more efficient resourcing through economies of scales in staffing;
- improved cross-group learning and sharing good practices through having a common
information base;
- better management of information, provided more consistently across the organization as a
- improved career development for HR staff; higher customer satisfaction through better
service specification;
- greater transparency of cost of services and easier monitoring of budgets [31, 33].
Despite of the growth of implementation of IT-enabled HRM, organizations continue
to experience mixed results with a combination of success and failure stories. Recent
studies, for example, indicate that in nearly half of the companies with a completely
integrated HR Information Systems, HRM was not viewed as a strategic partner [26],
but re-alignment of the HRM function led to the increase of the line managers’ work
stress .
Academics devote more and more attention to examining IT-enabled HRM in at-
tempts to explore this contradiction. Within the last decade, scientific knowledge as
regards IT-enabled HRM has comprises several conclusive notions about its goals
[8,27,33], its types [28], the effectiveness of different applications [7,23,37], and the
implementation of Human Resource Information Systems (HRIS) [2].
At the same time these studies discuss results of the introduction of IT-enabled HRM
in organizations only from a one-size-fits-all approach by considering overall IT-
enabled HRM’s impact as cost reduction, or organizational added value. Moreover,
the existing research into IT-based HRM has continued using the factors-based re-
search approach, by analyzing four-to-five variables, that influence the IT-HRM
adoption, HR competencies, changes in HRM roles [35], or IT-HRM effectiveness
[12]. Such studies are very useful in sensitizing the researcher in issues of impor-
tance, and, in some cases, to help developing guidelines to overcome constraints in
such an organizational change as introduction and diffusion of IT-enabled HRM.
However, first, the factor-based research tends to adopt cross-sectional survey meth-
ods, with little consideration of the dynamics of the HRM transformation process.
Second, these studies are inclined to consider HRM practices as communications
from the employer to employees about HRM content [6, 12], with modest thought
about the social constructions of HRM by the employees.
Therefore, this paper aims to make a contribution to the research into the IT-enabled
HRM transformation by adopting a process approach that involves in-depth case
studies. To this end, this paper examines the attempted HRM transformation with the
help of Information Technologies in organizations. Some of the key questions moti-
vating this research were thus: why do some organizations manage to transform their
HRM function with the help of IT easier than others? In what ways have social and
technological issues been significant in explaining the IT-enabled HRM transforma-
tion? To which extent people beliefs and perceptions construct the IT-enabled trans-
formation in large international organizations?
This is achieved by drawing on the Structuration theory and on HRM frames analysis.
The work demonstrates that the IT-enabled HRM transformation is a dynamic process
in which stakeholders frame and reframe their perceptions and thus, construct the
transformation of the HRM function.
1.1 Structuration Theory
Our research starts from the beliefs in the importance of subjective meanings as sym-
bolic actions in the process through which humans construct and reconstruct their
reality. This requires the use of field of studies of humans in their social settings so as
to describe, interpret, analyze, and understand the social world from the participants
perspectives [4]. That is, the research is focused on the dynamic nature of the social
reality, which is both time and context dependent, and strives to understand the HRM
transformation from the participants’ perspectives, with the primary focus being the
meaning of HRM, HRM transformation and the use of IT for that, as well as their
expectations around this process, particularly with respect to their social, cultural, and
work contexts.
The first step in understanding basics of the structuration theory is to see its objec-
tives, driving forces. Giddens is very precise about it and describes it immediately in
the beginning of his The Constitution of Society (1984). His thought is that previous
dominant approaches in the social sciences are not enough to understand the social
reality. He states that the basic domain of social science study is neither the experi-
ence of the individual, nor the existence of any form of societal totality, but social
systems referring to regular patterns of enacted conduct by actors who interact with
each other in situations with specific conditions. “One of my principal ambitions in
the formulation of structuration theory is to put an end to each of [the] empire-
building endeavors” [14], meaning previously dominant approaches in social thought
– functionalism/structuralism seen by Giddens as too macro, and interpretiv-
ism/hermeneutics as too micro. So his task is to resolve a fundamental division within
the social sciences between those who consider social phenomena as determined by
the influence of “objective” social structures, and others who see them as products of
subjective interpretations. Giddens proposes to view “objective” structures and sub-
jective interpretations not as independent (even conflicting) elements but as mutually
interacting duality [24]. Therefore, social structures can be viewed as created by hu-
man agents in their actions, while those actions produce and reproduce the social
structures. Structuration is understood as a social process that involves the reciprocal
interaction between human agents and structural features of organizations: human
actions are enabled and constrained by structures, yet these structures are the result of
previous actions.
More specifically, Giddens proposes three dimensions of structures, to some extent
based on Marx, Weber and Durkheim, - signification, domination, and legitimation.
Attempting to apply the concept of structuration to the organizational life, Taylor
states that a structured organization implies that
- There is an established system of domination.
- The system is legitimated.
- It is inscribed in the framework of its members, as part of their normal interpretive
sense-making [34].
These dimensions are linked with corresponding dimensions of power, sanction, and
communication, through modalities of facilities, norms, and interpretive schemes
(figure 1).
Fig. 1. The interactions of human agents and institutional properties, mediated by modalities of
structures (adapted from Giddens [14]).
The recognition that human agents are knowledgeable and reflexive is one of the
central premises in the theory: “All social actors, all human beings are highly leant in
respect of k
nowledge which they possess and apply, in the production and reproduction of day-
to-day social encounters; the vast bulk of such knowledge is practical rather than
theoretical in character” [14, p. 22]. Reflexivity is not simply self-consciousness, but
mostly – the ability of human agents to continuously monitor of physical and social
contexts and activities. Through the regular actions of knowledgeable and reflexive
agents, patterns of structuration become established into standardized practices like
evaluating employees behavior or coordinating meetings. Over time the use of such
practices becomes traditional and institutionalized, forming the structural properties
of organizations. These structural properties (or structures) are drawn on by human
agents in their on-going interactions.
“Human actors are not only able to monitor their activities and those of others in the
regularity of day-to-day conduct, writes Giddens (1984, p. 29); they are also able to
‘monitor the monitoring’ in discursive consciousness.” Thus, interpretive schemes are
seen as stocks of knowledge that are applied reflexively in the supporting communi-
cation. Normative components of communications always center around the rights
and obligations expected from participants of interactions. If in formal codes of law
we can usually observe claimed symmetry between rights and obligations, such sym-
Structure of
Structure of
Moral sanction
Structure of
Modalities of
metry does not necessarily exist in every day practice. This observation allows Gid-
dens to conclude that in every day practice there are ‘contingent’ claims which have
to be sustained through the effective sanctions. Normative structures are seen as re-
flecting asymmetrical structure of domination.
Actions always incorporates all three dimensions. Modalities are considered as the
locus of interaction between the knowledgeable capacities of actors and the structural
features of the system [24]. However, splitting the duality of structures into these
dimensions serves more an analytical procedure than practical reality: in practice all
three are interlinked. Jones and Karsten [24] draw on an everyday example of organ-
izational life to illustrate the central concept of the structuration theory. The clothes
that employees wear to work reflect the influence of social structures that are repro-
duced by individual’s accepted practice. There is an expectation that people working
in an office will wear more or less formal, business-like clothing, while medial doc-
tors will wear white clothes in hospitals. When come across somebody in a work
environment we conclude based on structures of signification that inform us about a
person’s role wearing special clothes. Clothes do not indicate who a person is, con-
clude Jones and Karsten (2003), but also put across important messages about the
power he holds. It means that a police officer wearing special uniform will likely be
more successful if he were in plain clothes, to influence people’s behaviour. Struc-
tures of legitimation will define the appropriate dress code, where organizations may
differ in the degree of formality. However if certain employees challenge the dress
code, then over time, new structures (e.g., less formal) may develop. Thus, people are
viewed as being able to develop structures through their actions.
Giddens puts it explicitly: social structures do not exist without human actions, nor
they are material entities. Structure is what he calls “a virtual order of transformative
relations”, existing “only in its instantiations in such practices and as memory traces
orienting the conduct of knowledgeable agents” [14, p.17].
The Duality of Structure. The emphasis is given on structuration as an ongoing
process rather than structure as a static property of social systems [24]. Giddens [14,
p. 25] gives the following definitions:
- Structures are rules and resources, organized as properties of social systems; structure
only exists as ‘structural properties’.
- Systems are reproduced relations between actors or collectives, organized as regular
social practices.
- Structuration is conditions governing the continuity of transformation of structures, and
therefore the reproduction of social systems.
Structures for Giddens have two components: rules and resources.
When we think about rules, we are likely to imagine something very explicit as rules
of a game. That is precisely what he does not mean! [14, pp. 17-18]. Giddens’ argu-
ment recalls, notice Taylor [34], the distinction between practical and discursive
knowledge. Most activities demonstrate the presence of practical knowledge, and if
rules-following behavior enters activities, then most rules are practically, not discur-
sively grounded. Thus, rules are not even a part of what we consciously know but
what we logically do, as “routines of social life”.
Rules cannot be separated from resources, “which refer to the modes whereby trans-
formative relations are actually incorporated into the production and reproduction of
social practices” [14, p. 18]. One could probably got completely lost after reading the
previous statement, ‘what on earth could Giddens mean by that’? As we mentioned
earlier, his quantity, density, and specifity of writings is sometimes a lesson in inter-
pretations. There are two types of resources – allocative (capabilities to generate
commands over objects, goods, or material phenomena); and authoritative (capabili-
ties to generate commands over persons).
In fact, rules are always about acting on or transforming something either material or
human. They could get discursive recognition (“rationalized”) and then become rules:
in their usual connotation as explicitly setting of special parameters, or constraining
individual behaviors.
An important point is that structures do not exist as material artifacts, but only in
human memory traces and through social practices. Even for example, technology for
Giddens “does nothing, except as implicated in the actions of human beings” (Gid-
dens and Pierson [19, p. 82].
2 Structuration Theory and Empirical HRM Research
Giddens frequently stated that structuration was not intended as a concrete research
program [13, 18], and that his principles “do not supply concepts useful for the actual
prosecution of research” [16, p. 312]. He is also very critical to those who “have
attempted to import structuration theory in toto into their given area of study” [17 p.
213], but prefers those who use his concepts in a sparing and critical fashion [24].
One description of the role of structuration in empirical research is the use of princi-
ples derived from it as “sensitizing devices [17]. Among scientists who have put lots
efforts to clarify Giddens’ theory of structuration, common opinion is that structura-
tion is “fundamentally non-propositional” [1], and that it “does not give us anything
to test or to find out” [10, p.1080. Gregson [21] views structuration as a second-order
theory concerned not with explanation the events or contingencies but with conceptu-
alizing the general constituents of human society. In view of Giddens’ himself, struc-
turation should be seen as a generic theory meaning a meta-theory, a way of thinking
about the world rather than as an empirically testable explanation of human behavior
Gregson [15] even states that the structuration theory operates at too high level to
provide any guidelines for specific empirical settings. Giddens does not accept this
claim and provides some explanation on what he sees as a potential contribution of
structuration to the empirical social research [14,pp. 281 – 285].
I summarize general guidelines for the empirical HRM research:
The HRM research always has ethnographic, cultural aspects. And any HRM field of
inquiry has its constituted meanings before the study. (This is exactly what Giddens
means by ‘double hermeneutic’). An “entry” to such fields means interventions in
already existing meanings. Therefore, concepts in HRM are considered as ‘secon-
dary-order’ concepts as they are always built on existing knowledge and interpreta-
tions. HRM researchers, therefore, have a role of communicators, introducing frames
of meaning associated with certain contexts.
“It is important in social research to be sensitive to the complex skills which actors
have in co-ordinating the contexts of their day-to-day behavior” [14, p. 285]. These
skills influence happenings in the HRM life. It means that HRM events are predict-
able in their course, but such predictability is caused by the actors. Even if there are
unexpected consequences in the HRM study, researchers should always look for
interpretations within the flow of existing events.
HRM researchers cannot ignore time-space constitution of social life. It is not only
historians who are dealing with time and geographers who are dealing with space, but
HRM has to be sensitive to time-space coordination of social life. It implies studying
the contextual features of “locales through which actors move in their daily paths and
the regionalization of locales stretching away across time-space” [14, p. 286].
Later works of Giddens show further elaboration of a “structurationist program of
research” [15, 17]. Thus, 10 aforementioned principles are simplified to just three:
contextual sensitivity, the complexity of human intentionality and the nuances of
social constraint [17, p. 300]. Further he mentions four aspects of structuration that
are mostly generally relevant for social research: reproduction of practices, dialectic
of control, discursive penetration, and the double hermeneutic (ibid, p. 313).
We summarize the key features and implications of the structuration theory for the
HRM research as adapted from Jones and Karsten [24] (table 1).
3 The Transformation of HR: Making Sense through the HRM
The structuring HRM transformation refers to the processes through which partici-
pants influence the developments within the HRM function, and the ways in which
these processes reproduce particular social contexts of work. The structuring HRM
transformation is influenced by participants interpretations of their work, social con-
text, HRM policies and the information technology used to enable HRM transforma-
tion; their access to HRM, organizational and technological resources, and the norma-
tive rules that guide their organizational performance (figure 2).
Table 1. Key features of structuration theory, their implications and potential issues for the
HRM research (adapted from Jones and Karsten [24]).
Feature of structuration
Implication Potential issues
Duality of structure Structure and action are
inseparable and co-existent.
Structure exists only
through action. It never
pre-exists action.
Structure is a “virtual order
of transformative relations”
Rules and resources exist
only in their instantiation
and as a memory traces
orienting conduct.
Material resources influ-
ence social practices only
through their incorporation
in processes of structura-
Essential recursiveness of
Structure is produced and
reproduced in every instance
of action.
Social phenomena are
temporary regularities in
an ongoing process.
People always have the
possibility to do otherwise
Structural constraint simply
places limits upon the feasi-
ble range of options open to
an actor in a given circum-
Compliance with structural
constraint implies choice to
do so.
Agents are knowledgeable
about their actions and
continuously reflect on their
People are aware of their
condition and reflect upon it.
People may not be discur-
sively aware of their
Unacknowledged conditions
and unintended conse-
Production and reproduction
of society is not wholly
intended or comprehended
by people.
Social generalizations are
temporally and spatially
Routine is integral to the
continuity of the personality
of the agent and to the insti-
tutions of society
Individual identity and social
institutions are sustained
through routine.
The seed of change is there
in every act, which con-
tributes towards the repro-
duction of any ‘ordered’
form of HRM.
Time space distanciation Societies “stretch” over
spans of time and space.
The importance of face-to-
face interaction for HRM
and the capability of tech-
nologies to facilitate inte-
gration “at a distance”.
Double hermeneutic Concepts that sociological
observers describe are al-
ready constituted as mean-
ingful by social actors and
can themselves become
elements of the actors’ un-
derstanding of their own
People can reflexively
appropriate the re-
searcher’s understanding
of their condition.
Fig. 2. Structuring of the IT-enabled HRM Transformation,adapted from Orlikowski, [30].
3.1 Frames
A major premise of the social cognitive research is that people act on the basis of
their interpretations of the world, and in doing so they enact particular social realities
and give them meanings [5, 30, 36]. The frames of reference held by people in or-
ganizations serve as implicit guidelines to shape interpretations of organizational
events. Thus, an understanding of people’s interpretations of HRM transformation is
critical to understand their interactions with the HRM system. To interact with the
HRM system, people have to make sense of it; and in this sense-making process, they
develop particular assumptions, expectations, and knowledge of HRM, which then
shape subsequent actions towards HRM. Even if these assumptions, interpretations
and frames of reference are taken-for-granted and rarely studied or reflected upon,
they nevertheless do play an important role in influencing how people think and act
towards HRM.
Borrowing the concept of “schema” from cognitive psychology [3], an individual
“frame of reference” has been described as a “repertoire of tacit knowledge that is
used to impose structure upon, and impart meaning to, otherwise ambiguous social
and situational information to facilitate understanding” [20, p. 56]. A variety of terms
has been used to express the idea of cognitive frames, addressing in parallels notions
of mental models [29]; cognitive maps [11, 9, 25]; cognitive frameworks [5]; scripts
Then, an important issue in understanding the role of frames in management research,
is to see them as pictures or visual aid in understanding and selecting elements of the
thoughts of an individual. In a less profound way, frames are defined as organized
knowledge structures that allow individuals to interact with their environment
Institutional Properties of the Organization
- Meaning Structures
- Power Structures
- Moral Structures
Participants’ Actions:
- HRM professionals
- Line managers
- Employees
HRM Frames
Cultural Assumptions about IT-enabled HRM transformation
1 2
Process of Structuring
HRM Transformation
1 - Organizational conditions for
IT-enabled HRM Transformation
2 – Influence of HRM Frames on
IT-enabled HRM transformation
3 – Frames consequences of HRM
4 – Organizational consequences
of HRM transformation
(Mathieu et al, 2000, p. 274). They include assumptions, knowledge, expectations,
being expressed symbolically through language, visual images, metaphors and stories
(Orlikowski and Gash, 1996). Frames are flexible in time and context (recall Giddens,
1984), and they are structured more as networks of meanings than as linear schemes.
By facilitating decision-making and problem-solving processes of people, frames
allow them to explain behavior of the world around them, to recognize relationships
between components, and to construct expectations for what is likely to occur next
(Rouse and Morris, 1986). Hence, frames have three crucial purposes: they help peo-
ple to describe, explain, and predict events in their environment [11, 29].
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