Human Resources as a Source of Competitive Advantage

1993 Don Wood Lecture Series
Human Resources

This paper was delivered by Lee Dyer at the 1993 Don Wood Lecture in Industrial Relations. The Don Wood Lecture in Industrial Relations was established by friends of W. Donald Wood to honour his outstanding contribution to Canadian industrial relations. Dr Wood was Director of the Industrial Relations Centre from 1960 to 1985, and the first Director of the School of Industrial Relations, established in 1983. The lecture brings to Queen’s University distinguished individuals who have made an important contribution to industrial relations in Canada or other countries.

For business it’s a tough world that’s getting tougher. The reasons are familiar enough: global competition, deregulation, finicky and tough customers, concerned and demanding stockholders, and a dizzying pace of constant change. Rare indeed is the company which has found a comfortable niche in this chaotic world.

So, the search is on for a competitive advantage, preferably one that might prove sustainable over some period of time. Business strategies are being rethought. Core competencies are being identified or, in many cases, built from scratch. Reorganization is rampant. Staid old bureaucracies are being dismantled in favour of more nimble, flexible organizational forms. New technologies and information systems are being created to harness knowledge and tie disparate organizational entities together. And, attention is turning to the human competencies and capacities it takes to bring these transformed enterprises to life.

Enter human resource strategy. Backed by a little theory, a small amount of research, and a lot of old-fashioned trial and error, many variations of such strategies are being frequently prescribed and sometimes tried in these new business environments. While there have been some real success stories, many unanswered questions remain. The key issues seem clear enough. But, there is considerable work to be done before it will be possible to make solid recommendations about employing human resources as critical success factors in the search for competitive advantage.

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