Controversies That Shaped the Field of Human Resource Development

The title of this post comes from a recent article by Darlene Russ-Eft at in the Association for Human Resource Development‘s (AHRD) journal Advances in Developing Human Resources, or “Advances” for short. I thought it was worth reflecting on the controversies that shaped the field of HRD because they tend to resurface throughout my reading and writing in the field. (As an aside, this issue of Advances as a whole serves as an excellent introduction to AHRD and the academic field of HRD.)

One controversy I want to bring attention to from Dr. Russ-Eft’s article is the nature of HRD. The topic of “What HRD Is, Now and Future” was discussed in the town hall forums of the AHRD conferences in 1995, 2002, 2003, 2008, and 2012 but seems to arise persistently in all kinds of articles, presentations, and books related to HRD. What does HRD mean? Is HRD the best title for this field? How should we go about thinking about and researching HRD?

At the George Washington University (GWU), the doctoral program is called Human and Organizational Learning. The main campus program emphasizes the three pillars of adult learning, organizational change, and leadership development. The Ashburn campus adds the fourth pillar of culture to the mix, while the main campus sees culture embedded in all three pillars. And the master’s program at GWU recently changed its name from HRD to Organizational Leadership and Learning.

I will not redo the efforts of Dr. Russ-Eft to summarize this controversy but I will offer a perspective on defining HRD based on the 2016 AHRD International Research Conference in Asia and Mena held in Ifrane, Morocco in October.


2016 AHRD International Conference in Asia and Mena. Photo: Dollaya Hemmapattawe

While many definitions abound in our field – and scholars like Dr. Monica Lee (2001) even argue against defining the field in general – a commonly cited definition is McLean & McLean’s (2001). They write,

“Human resource development is any process or activity that, either initially or over the long term, has the potential to develop adults’ work-based knowledge, expertise, productivity and satisfaction, whether for personal or group/team gain, or for the benefit of an organization, community, nation or, ultimately, the whole of humanity.”

In a paper presented at the 2016 AHRD International Conference in Asia and Mena, Dr. Greg Wang and colleagues reviewed existing definitions and theorized a comprehensive definition. This paper by Dr. Wang and colleagues is in press with Personnel Review (I’ve checked the journal multiple times and haven’t seen it published yet but it should be out soon). Until then, there is a draft available through Google Scholar.

Dr. Wang spoke passionately in his presentation refuting McLean and McLean’s (2001) definition and Lee (2001) not wanting to define HRD. Their paper proposed the following definition:

“Human resource development is a mechanism in shaping individual and group values and beliefs and skilling through learning-related activities to support the performance of the host-system.”

A couple interesting points: Wang et al. (in press) capture the “critical attributes” or “cores” of HRD, which they see as the idea of shaping, skilling, and host-system. Shaping refers to a sort of acculturation to the values of the host-system; skilling refers to the process of “learning/unlearning and tooling/retooling” by the host-system; and, the host-system itself refers to the organization, country, or even family that uses HRD for its decided purpose.

I will leave it up to you to read the paper judge whether you endorse their analysis.  Either way, I think this is a valuable contribution to the conversation (or controversy) and should be read in introductory courses and textbooks alongside the perspectives of Lee (2001), McLean and McLean (2001), and others.

From my standpoint, I appreciate its simplicity in describing what may be the bare-bones or “cores” of HRD. At the same time, this act of boiling down HRD to basic attributes makes me wonder about its usefulness in understanding the complexities and ever-evolving nature of those processes.

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