Manoeuvring paradoxes within international nongovernmental organisations: the human resource partner role and its nexus positioning
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date30/11/2021
Carlier, Dominique Marie
International nongovernmental organisations (INGOs) work across the globe to offer humanitarian and development assistance to communities in need. Effective management of human resources is crucial for INGO program delivery in the communities in which they work, particularly given they predominantly work in challenging economic, political and social environments such as post-conflict countries prone to civil unrest and/or recovering from natural disasters. The past decade has seen increasing attention among academics and practitioners on the use, implementation and effectiveness of Human Resource Management (HRM) in the domestic nonprofit sector, with some consideration of how this might extend to nonprofits working internationally, such as INGOs. This increasing attention reflects shifts within the sector toward professionalisation, and demand for increased efficiency and accountability. One strategy used by INGOs has been to establish human resource partners (HRP) in line with Ulrich’s (1997) business partner model. However, little attention has been given to how HRPs are positioned strategically within INGOs, and how they have transitioned into the new roles. This qualitative study aims to address this gap by exploring the role of the HRP within the INGO sector. Specifically, I examined what activities the role entails and for what purpose it has been positioned within organisations, how HRPs manage the role, and how they acquire the knowledge and develop the skills needed to be effective in their role. Through semi-structured interviews with 14 HRPs in 11 different INGOs based in the United States (US) and the United Kingdom (UK) I identified a central theme of embracing organisational tensions which are inherent in the HRP role. While some tensions are related to managing HR as a function, other stem from INGOs organisational processes becoming global and more complex such as managing standardisation versus localisation while responding to the expectations of multiple stakeholders. Using a grounded theory methodology I identified five approaches reported by HRPs as crucial for embracing these tensions in their role, ‘HRP as the Engaged Focal Point’, ‘HRP’s International Project Embeddedness’, ‘HRP’s Constant Balancing Act’, ‘HRP’s Agile Entrepreneurial Mindset’, ‘Networking HRP and Pay-it Forward’. These approaches which call for certain activities and/or capabilities help reframe the HRP role as centrally positioned (‘Nexus’) within the INGO sector and manoeuvring paradoxes. Organisational tensions and the five approaches to embracing them are analysed using Smith and Lewis’ (2011) categories of paradox: ‘Performing’, ‘Organising’, ‘Learning’, and ‘Belonging’ to create 4 roles enacted, most often simultaneously, by the HRPs. Taking into consideration the complexity of the INGO context, the HRP professional can be understood as a strategic organisational actor able to embrace the multifaceted demands placed on HRM in response to increasing pressures for operational and organisational efficiency. The research findings contribute to the tensions-focused body of literature such as the paradox theory from the perspective of the HR practitioners to also include HRM, organisational and project management research, each approached through a paradox lens theory. Specifically, the study contributes to HRM research focused on INGO management and demonstrates HRPs as key organisational and ambidextrous actors in supporting INGOs’ continuous change toward operational efficiency and accountability. By building on paradox theory the study contributes to enhancing the role of the HRP as a key strategic partner to an INGO HR leadership in the making of ambidextrous HR architectures. Practical implications include guiding HR leadership how to optimize the central positioning of the HRP role within the HR structure and how to champion it across organisational stakeholders in embracing organisational tensions inherent to the project-based INGO. Future research may look at what best HR structures support the role of the ambidextrous HRP positioned to manage paradoxes, including looking at the added value of the HRP role embedded across the international project management cycle. The study concludes on a final reflection on HR leadership proactively engaging with the HRP as a key ambidextrous business partner with a key role in balancing organisational fit and flexibility and promoting organisational transformation.