The aim of this paper is to examine the line manager’s role in developing a strong human resource management (HRM) system which is distinctive, consistent and consensual. This paper explores the process and outcomes of the line managers implementation of a high performance HRM system in an Irish knowledge intensive firm.
Design/methodology/approach: This study is based on interviews with senior management, HR director, line managers and front-line employees in an Irish organization.
Findings: The findings show support for the important role of line managers in implementing HRM systems to develop a strong HRM system in the organization. However, there is inconsistency across line managers’ communication and implementation of the new system resulted in confusion and frustration among their respective subordinates.
Practical implications: HRM professionals need to be aware of the important role of line managers in promoting a strong HRM system in the organization. In a knowledge intensive firm, where agility and flexibility are essential, different departments may require different nuances to an HRM initiative.
Originality/value: This study contributes to a better understanding of the HRM implementation process in a knowledge-intensive firm in Ireland, by using the HRM system strength model as the theoretical basis for analysis and discussion.
Keywords: HRM System Strength; HRM, Case Study; Knowledge-Intensive Firm; HRM Implementation
During the past few decades, the impact of strategic HRM (SHRM) practices on organizational performance [1,2], in both manufacturing and knowledge intensive firms, has gained extensive research attention. For example, high performance work systems (HPWS) including selective recruitment, extensive training and development programmes, competitive compensation and benefit packages, participation and information sharing, have been widely found to positively link to firm performance. These ‘intended’ HRM practices consist of the HRM policies and practices designed by the HR professionals in order to align with business strategy [3-5].
Recently, scholars argue that it is not enough to have these practices or policies in place rhetorically; only when these practices are implemented, mostly by line managers, can these practices create value for the organization . This is when the ‘intended’ HRM practices become the ‘actual HRM’ practices . In implementing HRM strategies, line managers have the dual responsibility of managing individual employees’ work-related activities and playing a vital role in transforming strategic human
resource management initiatives into practice in the organization [6-12].
They are both ‘employee advocate’ and ‘HRM business partner’ . The increasing HRM responsibility facing line managers is noted in the literature Edgar, Geare and O’Kane (2015) Larsen and Brewster (2003). However, how line managers implement HRM has not been given enough attention Brewster et al. (2013). In order to enable a smooth transition from organizational to employee perceived HRM , organizations need a strong HRM system, where all levels of employees share collective perceptions, attitudes and behaviors . To build a strong HRM system and shape employees’ perceptions of the new HRM system, line managers are the key agents in their capacity to send HRM messages and to implement HRM practices [8,9,15].
This paper examines how different intra-organizational players – senior managers, the HRM manager, line managers and front-line knowledge workers - perceive the implementation process of a new HRM system. The role of each of these in the implementation and ‘actual HRM’ of a new HRM system, in this case, a high-performance work system (HPWS) in a knowledgeintensive
firm (KIF) in Ireland, is analyzed, particularly focusing
on the line manager’s role and how this is perceived. The study
contributes to the research gap on the HRM implementation
process by applying the HRM system strength model  to
qualitative interview transcripts collected in an international
KIF based in Ireland. Our study integrates views from multiple
stakeholders in order to ascertain gaps in the distinctiveness,
consistency and consensus features of a strong HRM system .
In particular, the relationship between the line managers and the
employees is considered, in line with studies by Bos-Nehles and
Bondarouk , Bos‐Nehles, Van Riemsdijk & Kees Looise , and
Kilroy & Dundon , that explored the employees’ perceptions of
line managers’ intentions, performance and styles.
Knowledge-intensive firms (KIFs) have been defined as those
firms where work is primarily intellectual and analytically taskbased;
where jobs are not highly routinized and involve some
degree of creativity and adaptation to specific circumstances;
and where the workforce consists of well-educated and qualified
employees to carry out the tasks and jobs successfully [16-18].
Examples of KIFs are high-technology, R&D-centred companies,
management and IT consulting firms. KIFs operate in a dynamic
and highly competitive environment Alvesson (1995) (2001).
Products and services are more complex, and the rate of
competition has accelerated, with shorter life-cycles  which
require constant adaptability. The telecommunications industry is
a prime example of an industry where competition has accelerated.
The increasing use of internet-based calls, e.g. Skype, Voip
(voice over IP), have raised the pressure for the telecommunications
industry that provide landline and mobile phone services. In
addition, customers’ phone usage has evolved from making
phone calls to sending texts/messages and to “eating data”, which
creates new opportunities and challenges for service quality, and
new pricing models. How telecommunications operators cope
with these challenges and achieve competitive advantage is a
timely question, not only for the telecommunications industry,
but also for other knowledge-intensive industries. This paper
explores data from an Irish case study organization within the
A strong HRM system can ‘help explain “how” HRM practices
lead to outcomes the organization desires’ . In linking
organizational climate and organizational effectiveness, Bowen
& Ostroff  HRM system strength construct presents three
main features which together will impact upon employees’ shared
perceptions of the organizational climate, in turn influencing
organizational effectiveness. These three main features are:
distinctiveness, consistency and consensus. (Table 1) presents and
describes the main features and their respective meta-features for
a strong HRM system based on Table 1.
Four meta-features form the distinctiveness feature of a
strong HRM system, i.e. visibility, understandability, legitimacy
of authority, and relevance . Visibility refers to HRM
practices that are salient and readily observable for employees.
Understandability refers to a lack of ambiguity and ease of
comprehension of HRM practice content. Legitimacy of authority
leads individuals to consider submitting to performance
expectations as formally sanctioned behaviors. Relevance refers
to whether the situation is defined in such a way that individuals
see the situation as relevant to an important goal.
Consistency, according to Bowen & Ostroff , mainly refers
to establishing consistent relationships. Consistency of HRM has
three meta-features: instrumentality, validity, and consistent HRM
messages. Instrumentality refers to establishing an unambiguous
perceived cause - effect relationship in relation to the HRM
system’s desired content-focused behaviours and associated employee consequences. Validity means that the HRM practices
can achieve the goals planned during the designing stage of such
HRM practices. Consistent HRM messages refer to the stability in
the signals sent by the HRM practices.
Consensus of HRM practices refers to the agreement among
employees regarding the intended targets of the HRM system. Its
two meta-features are fairness and agreement. Fairness of the
HRM system is a composite of employees’ perceptions of whether
HRM practices adhere to the principles of delivering three
dimensions of justice: distributive, procedural, and interactional
justice . Distributive justice concerns about the equality of
the outcome . Procedural justice relates to the process or
mechanisms through which outcomes are decided rather than
the actual outcomes [22,23]. Interactional justice is concerned
with the interpersonal treatment people receive during the
implementation of the procedures .
Heffernan & Dundon  investigated employee perceptions of
the fairness of HR practices associated with the high-performance
work systems model. In their quantitative survey across three
organizations in Ireland, employee perceptions of distributive,
procedural and interactional justice mediated the relationship
between high-performance work systems and job satisfaction,
affective commitment and work pressure. The other metafeature
of consensus is agreement which refers to the agreement
among principal HRM decision makers, e.g. HR professionals, top
management team, and line managers. We expected this aspect,
agreement, to be particularly interesting in our analysis of the
multi-stakeholder qualitative interviews with senior managers,
the HR director, line managers and employees in a KIF in Ireland.
The majority of SHRM research has focused on organizational
HRM policies and practices . Some researchers argue that the
focus on the design of HRM policies and practices is not enough,
as it is only when these are implemented appropriately that they
can create value for organizations . Wright and Nishii  have
labelled the implementation of HRM practices as ‘actual HRM’.
The key agents for implementing HRM are the line managers
who interact with front line employees in a frequent and timely
manner. Line managers have HRM responsibilities Alfes et al.
(2013) by virtue of their frequent and direct interactions with
their team members and subordinates.
In project-based organisations, for instance, the project
managers, supervisors or assignment managers are not only
responsible for project-related work (e.g. analyzing project needs,
allocating workload, monitoring project progress, completing
project reports), but also are responsible for team management
(e.g. analyzing training needs, informing subordinates of training
opportunities, managing individual performance, providing
feedback, promoting participation) Keegan, Huemann and
Turner (2012). The line manager’s role in the implementation of
people management practices is of critical importance in shaping
employees’ perceptions, experience of and attitudes towards
their work and organization . A collective perception of HRM
practice is expected where employees share similar experience
of the work practices and have the behaviors desired by their
respective organizations, i.e. a strong HRM system . For the
organization and senior managers, line managers are important,
as they are the implementers of the organization’s HR policies
and practices, e.g. treating employees as resources and/or caring
about their personal experience at work .
For employees, line managers have been shown to play an
important role in how employees experience their work [28-31].
How line managers implement HRM practices has implications
for how employees perceive and align with those practices. In
other words, the strength of the HRM system is heavily dependent
on the line manager’s role. The line manager’s key role in the
implementation of HRM has received increasing attention due to
their relevance in creating a strong HRM system.
For example, based on a European dataset, Larsen and
Brewster (2003) found clear evidence of a greater assignment
of HRM responsibilities to line managers. Other studies show
that line managers play an important role in managing employee
learning and development Gibb (2003), attendance Hadjisolomou
(2015), voice Townsend and Loudoun (2015), conflict Saundry,
Jones and Wibberley (2015), and knowledge sharing MacNeil
(2003). These studies have provided valuable insights on the
impact of line managers’ implementation of HRM on different
employee and organizational outcomes. (Table 2) shows the
expected line managers’ roles in promoting HRM system strength.
For the distinctiveness of the HRM system, line managers
play an important role in informing employees about HR
practices (visibility), explaining how these HR practices work
(understandability), following the instructions from the top
management and HR department (legitimacy of authority), and
demonstrating care for everyone, e.g. providing performance
feedback (relevance). For the consistency of the HRM system, line
managers need to show the causal link between top performance
and rewards (instrumentality). For example, line managers would
seek the opportunity to provide employees with recognition or
reward when they perform their work well or when they have
improved their work efficiency.
Line managers need to provide support for employees’
career development . In addition, to achieve the validity of
HR practices, line managers need to communicate with the HR
department about the feasibility of the HR practices. In sending
consistent HRM messages over time, line managers need to
understand these messages and send them clearly to employees.
As line managers communicate with employees very frequently,
they know their subordinates’ needs and would be able to find the
best way to communicate the message to them more effectively.
The last feature of HRM system strength is consensus including
fairness and agreement. Fairness covers distributive, procedural
and interactional justice. Research shows that the manager can
make a large difference in affecting employees’ perceived justice
. Line managers take charge of distributing work, content
and resources. Their decisions on these aspects are critical in
the formation of employees’ psychological contract, which is an
unwritten contract between employees and employers  trust
[35,36] and commitment . To ensure distributive justice, line
managers should make sure that employees’ work gets recognized
within and across teams. For procedural justice, line managers
should ensure that the resources are distributed openly and fairly.
For example, only those better performers receive rewards. For
interactional justice, line managers should listen to employees and
consider their opinions when making decisions. High agreement
requires line managers to understand, accept and promote the
specific HR practices among employees.
The focus in this paper is on unpacking the role of the line
manager as perceived by the line managers themselves, by the
employees (directly reporting to line managers), and by senior
managers (to whom the line managers themselves report), as well
as the HR Director.
We undertook a single case study [38,39] within a knowledgeintensive
firm in Ireland, a division of a large multinational
organization, where the HRM initiative being implemented
by line managers was a change initiative (introducing a highperformance
work system throughout the organization). The
sample organization, Telecoms1 (pseudonym), is one of Ireland’s
leading telecommunications companies with over 1.5 million
customers. It runs 2G and 3G networks in Ireland. It operates a
Media mobile marketing division, supports a number MVNO’s
(Mobile Virtual Network Operators) and is home to an academy
for accelerating start-ups.
Telecoms1 employs over 900 people and has a retail network
in excess of 70 stores. It has been operating in Ireland for 17 years
and is part of an international group. However, despite being
a division in a multinational organization, Telecoms1 operates
as a standalone business unit in the Irish market, though the
parent is the ultimate budget approver and holds responsibility
for senior leadership appointments. In being a division in a
multinational organization, it could be that practices which are
successfully implemented in the Irish division may influence the
implementation of similar practices in other country contexts.
However, we did not focus on this in our study.
The current CEO was appointed in October 2011 following
previous senior positions within the group. Reporting to him are
five directorates: Business, Consumer, Marketing and Innovation,
HR, Finance & Technology. After the appointment of the new
CEO, Telecoms1 found itself suffering from the effects of the Irish
economic collapse, increased market competition and regulation
that was reducing revenue streams (roaming, interconnect etc.),
resulting in falling profits and market share. In addition, the
consumer wanted new devices, demanded new services and
technology advances. It was with this backdrop that Telecoms1
introduced a change initiative in 2012, its high-performance
work system model, where targets and metrics for employee
performance became paramount.
f) being decisive and promoting better decisions.
The organization’s fundamental goal was to become a highperformance
To achieve these targets and the goal, the first key step that
the senior leadership team took was to launch a new employee
performance management model. This new performance
management model asked managers and employees to agree
with objectives that focused not only on the traditional whatactions,
but also on the how- behaviors. To achieve continuous
performance improvement, line managers were asked to evaluate
“what” employees have achieved to contribute to the company’s
objectives as well as “how” consistently the employee had
demonstrated behaviors. This study focuses on the design and
implementation stages of the new HPWS, and the process of its implementation as perceived by senior managers, the HR director,
line managers and employees.
Telecoms1 has relatively flat organizational structure. The
organization includes the senior management teams (including
the CEO and HR Director), line managers and front-line
employees. The aim of this study was to comprehensively study
the line managers’ role in implementing HRM practice in the
organizations, as experienced and shared by the line managers
themselves and by their superiors (senior management and the
HR director) and subordinates. Therefore, when designing the
study, we firstly mapped out the key organizational stakeholders
in this change management initiative. In this context, the designing
of the HPWS was led by the senior management team including
the HR Director, promoted by senior managers, and implemented
by line managers.
Therefore, we decided to select samples from these three
groups. The first author contacted all members on the senior
management team, and line managers and employees via
his network. To capture of implementation of the HPWS,
qualitative data was collected from senior management (three
Top Management Team Members and the HR Director), line
management (three-line managers) and the employees (four
front-line employees) via semi-structured interviews and a focus
group (with the employees only) in 2014, two years after the
change programme had been initiated. Each interview lasted from
30 to 60 minutes. Table 3 presents the interviewees’ profile.
We appreciate that the very limited number of interviews
conducted cannot be generalizable to all members of the
organization. However, the multi-level snapshot of the interviews
conducted provides an overview of the diversity of individual
players involved in a change management HPWS and shows how
agreement and consensus from Bowen & Ostroff’s  HRM
system strength framework is most challenging in practice.
The qualitative approach allowed us to gather descriptions
of the participants’ experience . The participants were able
to express their views, opinions and values fully putting them
in the position of expert during the interview . Respecting
the individual’s right to privacy was crucial and at no time
anybody was to feel pressurized or coerced into taking part
. All participants were assured what they said would be
treated confidentially. A topic guide [43,44] was used in the
interviews, with all respondents asked to discuss the introduction,
implementation and the outcomes of the HPWS.
The interviews were semi-structured, ensuring that all the
topics were covered across the organizational levels, but that there
was flexibility for the respondents to speak about matters which
were not directly addressed on the topic guide . In this way,
the semi-structured interview process facilitated the collection
of data on the same themes while also enabling an exploration
of issues across the respondents  on the introduction of the
The first author conducted the interviews. His role was to
inform the respondents about the purpose of this study, to assure
them of the anonymity of the study, and to confirm they were
comfortable to answer the questions. The interview was guided by
the interview questions. Respondents were given free rein to speak
about the topic from their own perspective. During the interviews,
respondents often addressed sub-questions in answering on a
topic which could enrich our understanding of their perceptions.
All interview recordings were transcribed verbatim to
retain the integrity of the data . Given that there were three
researchers involved in the study (authors), QSR Nvivo (version
10) was used in coding and analyzing the data. This system
enabled the researchers to review each other’s coding strategies
and validate them. The interviews and focus group data explore
the nature of the participants’ engagement, understanding
and actions they took in relation to the HPWS initiative in the
organization [46,48,49]. During the analysis of the data, the
interview transcripts were coded following the Bowen & Ostroff
 HRM system strength framework, with the interviews
separated out across the intra-organizational levels of senior management, line management and employees (Tables 4-6). This
allowed us to capture the cross-level variation in terms of how
each level perceived the line manager’s role in the introduction
of the HPWS. The respective transcripts were read several times
and coded in line with the nine meta-features under the three
dimensions put forward by Bowen and Ostroff .
The need for the change programme in the KIF was outlined
previously. The HR Director sums this up as: “I think we had started
to accept a certain medal of mediocrity in the business” and a
change in the attitude and culture of performance was required.
Equally, the CEO (SM1-AB) felt that “at the time the culture was
very collaborative, collegiate, and team-focused – all good positive
stuff, but frankly maybe a little bit soft. And a little bit tolerant. So,
we felt there had to be a change in that…we did feel there had to
be a little bit more of an edge to why people were here, you know,
what they were doing. And just that culture, that performance
really mattered”. This distinctive appreciation that a change was
required was replicated across levels, with the line managers and
employees accepting the need for the change program and the
HPWS. As the HR director describes, gaining support from senior
management was the catalyst in ensuring the change program
“I knew once I got them the board into the right frame of mind
and if they were accepting of the model, then you could probably
overcome most challenges after that”. In this section we firstly
outline the line manager’s role, as described by the line managers
themselves, in terms of the strength of their implementation of the
HPWS in the organization Table 5 provides some example quotes
here across the Bowen & Ostroff  HRM system strength model.
The richness of the data collected can be seen through the quotes
shared here Table 5.
As shown in Table 5, all the three main and nine meta-features
of strong HR system were covered by the line managers in our case
KIF in Ireland. Indeed, in our analysis across levels, we found that
all the features were present across each of the levels, suggesting
the foundations of a strong HRM system were present in the
organization. However, the legitimacy of authority (under the
Consistency dimension), and fairness and agreement (under the
Consensus dimension), were included less often in the narratives
concerning the HPWS introduction from the line managers.
Line managers acknowledge the drive for change initiatives
that needs to come from senior managers and then cascaded
down the organization. This support and buy-in from the top are
required in order to encourage the line managers to implement the HRM model (see following quote): “So this came from the top.
I honestly think that this was always going to be [that CEO] wanted
changes quickly. So, I think there was drive and ambition from the
top of this” (LM1-MD).
Senior managers also underlined the importance of the CEO’s
buy-in: “Because if the CEO doesn’t set the right example, well, the
management team doesn’t quite follow it, and then the next level
down doesn’t. So, I think he [CEO] has an extremely important role
as an example I think” (SM3-RM).
Reciprocally, the senior managers recognize the role of the line
managers in ensuring the successful implementation of the HPWS
system in the organization. This is reflected in the following quote:
“A lot ultimately depends on a person’s manager. ... The success
depends a lot
on the quality of the manager or how much they bought into
it. How much they
care about doing that kind of stuff. So, one of the challenges
we’ll always have
in any company is … you’ll have some managers who [are] just
managers, they’re just learning to cope with the whole thing,
they’re able to really coach and help and bring on the people
have with them might be difficult for them. You have others
who are maybe just
not suited to the role” (SM1-AB).
It is also acknowledged that line managers need to mould the
implementation of the HRM model and to tailor it to their team. As
“in terms of how it is implemented and the more meaningful
about …the value of what you’re doing and what you’re
contributing and how
it fits with your workloads and all that. So that’s where [line]
had to make a big difference”.
Similarly, by SM2-EM:
“One of the things that was really interesting was ... there was
a bit of a
diagnosis done around what is the challenge in each area. And
was going on in marketing was very different to business, to
finance, and we fixed our own house.”
We found that the process of implementing the model in
different teams was line manager driven, without any mention
of specific consistent supports for line managers in making
this happen, perhaps due to senior managers recognizing the
differentiated nature of different organizational groups and teams,
where a consistent approach would not be optimal.
The variation across line manager performance was noted by
senior managers. As SM2-EM states:
“it [the HPWS] allowed managers to call other managers and
hold on my team are doing that but your team aren’t’”.
Similarly, at senior management level the HR Director noted:
“They [employees] certainly heard everybody from directors to
managers talking about unreasonable ambition, it became a bit
of a buzzword probably around the place. …So, you would hear
certain buzzwords out of the model that were more pertinent
to some areas than others. But I think it depended on which
directorate you were in, which aspect of the model resonated most
with you.” (HR Director)
On the one hand the HR director acknowledges the variation
in the implementation of the HPWS in different departments by
different line managers (see above quote), while on the other
hand the HR director also appreciates that the aim of the HPWS
change program was to: “ignite a different era, a different culture;
a different way of thinking about the world and it was to unite
people’s innate ambition”. This shows the complexity of achieving
a strong HRM system in practice, where a strong culture and unity
within the department needs to be tempered with the requirement
for flexibility and agility of different departments with different
work outcomes and requirements.
Notably at the line manager level, it was apparent that
there was variation in the implementation of the HPWS across
departments: “I certainly found that there seemed to be a feeling
that people were throwing back to the old model where marking
somebody as ‘development’ was - you don’t want that person
on your team…It made me a little bit cautious about using that
so freely, because I had great people in there that I wanted to
encourage their development not see them… outside the door.”
The employees agreed: “it’s like everything it comes back to
the managers” (Employee 2).
In addition, it was evident that not every role could achieve
“unreasonable ambition”, one of the aims of the new HPWS, again
underlining the variation between departments and roles within
The input from the employees to the system was perceived by
the employees as not being legitimized:
“what I think is a problem with the performance model in
terms of the fairness around it… I still think there’s a culture in
here of the manager comes along with your rating and that’s it...
Even though you fill out your objectives mid-year and year-end”
On the other hand, other employees felt empowered by the
“I now [have] got an actual voice in this model” (Employee
1). This lack of consistency and consensus in how the employees
perceived their input was being received in the new HPWS,
coupled with the inconsistency in the implementation of the HPWS
in different departments, raises a challenge in how organizational
justice is perceived by the employees  consensus feature.
Knowledge workers like fair process: ‘When employees don’t trust
managers to make good decisions or to behave with integrity, their
motivation is seriously compromised’ .
In KIFs, the knowledge workers are the key source for new
knowledge generation, which, in turn, leads to the organization’s
success. Therefore, the employees’ input is particularly necessary
in KIFs. However, the involvement and realisation of knowledge
workers’ input into facilitating the successful implementation
of a HR strategy was not evident in our analysis. Indeed, at the
employee level, some employees felt that the model had already
been in place in some departments before its actual directed
implementation from senior management.
The following quote reflects this: “But I think before they came
in, our Manager kind of had us living it in a way didn’t she for a
couple of years before that? She was big into the high-performance
model and showing off what you’re good at and pushing that way.
… [Our manager] had kind of started to embed in us before we
even got the official high-performance model.” (Employee 3)
In addition, the knowledge workers were very cognisant of
the fact that the HPWS was being implemented differently and
had different implications across different teams: “we’re not doing
projects like other people in the business…We’ve no chance of
actually getting up to a ‘high’ or an ‘outstanding’ performer… The
is, dependent on your role, sometimes you don’t have much
opportunity to get above the standard rating which would be
seen to be a good performer. Once you go [to a different role] …,
if you’re involved in projects for example…, you probably have
more opportunity to get up into the higher performance grade.”
The aim of this study was to better understand the line
manager’s role in the implementation of a new HRM initiative (in
our study, a high-performance model – HPWS). Using Bowen and
Ostroff’s  HRM system strength model as our framework, we
analyzed the views and experience of senior management team,
line manager themselves and front-line employees on the topic
of line managers’ implementation of HRM. We found support for
the role of line managers in actualizing HRM through relaying
expectations to employees is paramount, which is consistent with
existing findings [8,12].
In addition, we found the inconsistency of approaches
between line managers in the organization in our analysis of
front-line employee data. In other words, different line managers
implement HRM in different ways, lacking the intra-group
consistency. This aligns with Kilroy and Dundon’s  study of
the relationship between front line manager types and employee
behaviors, showing heterogeneity. As we argued in the beginning
of the paper, how line managers implement HRM requires
further attention Brewster et al. (2013). Moreover, how line
managers’ inconsistent implementation affects morale, employee
engagement and perceptions of organizational justice requires
further research and unpacking.
This study contributes to HRM research on the line manager’s
role in HRM strategy implementation in three ways. Firstly, by
focusing on how line mangers implement HRM as perceived by
multiple stakeholders including the senior management team, the
line managers themselves and front-line employees, we provide
a more comprehensive report on how variations across internal
organizational levels exist and may be problematic. Our findings
are consistent with other studies on the increasing important
role of line managers in implementing HRM . The multiple
stakeholders’ views around line managers enable us to better
understand the process of line managers’ implementing of HRM.
Secondly, we adopt Bowen and Ostroff’s  conceptualization
on HRM system strength to analyze the role and actions of line
managers, which impact upon the formation of a strong HRM
system. Originally Bowen and Ostroff  proposed their HRM
system strength framework as a higher-level construct, which
provides the basis for organizations to develop strong HRM
systems impacting on organizational effectiveness. Understanding
how such a strong HRM system is developed is warranted. Building
on Bowen and Ostroff  HRM system strength, we identified the
detailed actions taken by the line managers in order to foster a
strong HRM system and compared this with the information we
received from the detailed interviews. By doing so, we contribute
to the HRM system strength research by providing a useful tool on
the HRM implementation via line managers.
From our case study, we found that intra-level variations, i.e.
different line managers’ implementation of a change initiative in
different ways (that is, inconsistency), influence the perception
of line managers’ successful implementation of an HRM system
across three levels (senior management, line management,
knowledge workers reporting to line managers). We therefore
propose a new and important feature which is the consistency
across line managers into the HRM system strength model, which
advances our current knowledge about HRM system strength.
This suggests that future studies on HRM system strength need to
consider these inter-team variant features.
In terms of methodology, our study adopts a qualitative
single case study using multiple stakeholders, which enriches
existing HRM studies, where quantitative survey methods (more
cross-sectional design) and interviews with line managers
only are dominant. Our study differs from existing quantitative
methods which use complex equations to calculate the interrater
agreement in order to capture the shared and collective
climate . Qualitative research design enables us to explore
what is happening and, more importantly, why. It presents
the perceptions across organizational levels, permitting a
comprehensive overview of HRM system strength as experienced
by the multiple respondents. Rather than simply asserting which
dimensions were prevalent across levels in the organization, the
qualitative study enabled us to unpack, understand, and explain
where shortcomings were apparent.
Finally, this study was conducted in the knowledge intensive
context in a specific country context, namely Ireland. It
contributes to our understanding of HRM in KIFs by examining
the line manager’s implementation of HRM. KIFs are important
for the development of the knowledge-based economy, but the
HRM research in KIFs is limited compared to the large volume
of research conducted on manufacturing firms [51-54] or more
routinized service firms such as banks  and call centres .
In the existing studies looking at HRM in KIFs [57-60], a survey
method was commonly used. Quantitative research can fail to gain
a real understanding of the specific workings of HRM systems
from the initial phases of system design to implementation, which
can, however, be addressed by using qualitative research.
This proffers a great chance for qualitative research to enrich
our knowledge about, not only what HRM practices are important
for KIFs, but also how they are implemented successfully to lead
the employees to align their individual goals with organizational
goals. The findings in our study provide useful insights for KIFs,
but may also be useful for a much wider range of contexts such as
the service sector that is not limited to the resource of knowledge
Similarly, while our case study focuses on a KIF in Ireland, other
studies may compare our findings across national contexts, in
order to further unpack the Bowen & Ostroff  HRM system
strength construct in different contexts .
In our study, given the context of the KIF, the role of individual
employees and individual contributors appears under-explored.
The voice of the individual contributor about the change
management process of the HPWS that was introduced in the
case organization was not reflected upon by the other levels
in the organization. We suggest this oversight is relevant for
organizations, particularly KIFs that are constantly striving to
increase competitiveness. To promote a climate of consistency,
the voice of individual contributors and employees needs to be
acknowledged and integrated in a more reflexive way within the
HPWS implementation process.
Given the context of KIFs, it is important to ensure malleability
of the change process and agility to match the process with
the context and individuals involved. In other words, both a
best fit and best practice approach is required, in line with
the bundling of HRM practices to specific departments and
employee needs, cognisant of the cross-over effect this may have
on other departments, comparing their work inputs and reward
outputs internally. Evans & Davis’s  model which proposed
the relevance of internal social structures in the performance
outcomes of high-performance work systems is important here.
Our study appreciates the senior managers’ promotion of
a change management initiative (e.g. introducing a new HPM
system) and the HR manager’s role in working with senior
managers and other human resources in the organization to bring
about the new practices [62-65]. This importance of these roles
was apparent in our findings. The support of a change initiative
by senior management is crucial in ensuring buy-in from others
in the organization. While the literature has emphasized the
line manager’s role in the implementation of HRM practices, the
directional and exemplary influence of senior management cannot
be underestimated. However, that alone is not enough.
The role of front-line employees, the primary subjects of
the new high-performance management system, in providing
feedback and insight to the system may be under-appreciated
and/or ignored by the other levels in the organization. Indeed, a
top-down - rather than a reflexive, top-down/bottom-up – change
management implementation process was apparent in our study.
We question this lack of inclusion of front-line knowledge workers
in the implementation and feedback process of a new HPWS,
particularly one that directly affects them. There are lessons
for practitioners which our study has brought to light. First,
HRM professionals, who are aware of the important role of line
managers in promoting a strong HRM system in the organization,
need to recognize and develop measures to counter the variation
in line manager’s implementation processes, depending on the
respective experience, skillset and functional area of the line
managers in question. Line managers need to implement HRM
in a distinctive, consistent and consensual way to develop HRM
strength , where employees share collective perceptions of
HRM within the organization.
Therefore, in implementing HRM practices, HRM professionals
need to pay particularly close attention to the promoting stage among line managers, where communication and consultation
with line managers is pivotal. This is supported by our finding
that line managers experience less surety in terms of rationalizing
why HRM models are required and being implemented. For line
managers, they need to work closely with HRM professionals
to share their opinions on whether the intended HRM practices
are relevant to their direct employees’ needs. In communicating
with employees, line managers need to take extra care with
interactional justice and demonstrate that they are in accord
with the HRM department and top management, particularly in
KIFs where employees are aware of how other teams are being
This study was exploratory and examined the implementation
of a high-performance model. It aimed to better understand the
process of line manager implementation of a strong HRM system.
It contributes to theory and practice in many ways, primarily in
providing a more nuanced understanding of the line manager’s
role in the implementation of a strong HRM system in a knowledgeintensive
firm. Nonetheless it does have some limitations. It is
based on a single organization operating in one industrial sector,
on a small sample size, in a specific country context [70-73].
The paper set out to present collective insights across
organizational levels, but we acknowledge that it is difficult to
generalize these findings. As was presented in both the literature
review and the findings from the interviews conducted, the highperformance
model is multidimensional, and it is influenced by
internal and external factors. Its success is gauged not in the
short-term but in the long-term. Longitudinal studies including
diary entries across organizational levels over the implementation
period of a new HRM model would be very useful in further
research, in providing detailed data of the nuances across
organizational levels over time [74-76].
The data for our study was collected entirely from one
organization. Although the richness of the qualitative data
facilitated unpacking the line manager’s role as perceived
across organizational levels, the findings shared here need to be
empirically tested in a larger sample and other organizations/
KIFs to see if they can be generalized. In the data collection stage
of the study, the sample was selected based on the first author’s
own network which might have resulted in respondents’ bias.
However, the quotes and interviews that were analyzed did show
heterogeneity across the perceptions of the HPWS implementation.
A future research avenue would be to further consider our
extension to the Bowen & Ostroff  model (including a crosslevel,
intra-level and looped approach) quantitatively, through
deliberately separating out different levels .
We acknowledge that the interview data from the case
organization considered in this paper is limited, due to the small
quantity of interviews conducted. However, small sample sizes are
usual in qualitative research and this research undertaking sought
to consider HRM system strength components  through coding
the interview data with this model in mind. While this paper has
drawn on only a limited number of interviews with employees
across the organizational levels at the knowledge intensive case
firm, it does provide a snapshot across organizational levels of how
key players in a change initiative experienced the process. Future
research studies could focus on a level and gather more interviews
at that level in order to develop further knowledge about how a
change initiative, the introduction of a high-performance model,
is perceived and implemented at a level within the organization
In qualitatively coding the data under the Bowen & Ostroff
 features, it became increasingly evident to the researchers
that the boundaries between some of the features and metafeatures
according to Bowen & Ostroff’s  framework overlap
. There were quotes that were coded under both visibility (as
everybody was talking about it) and understanding (which aspect
of the model resonated with the individual employee). While this
may be considered a limitation, the authors did not find that it
limited the analysis, but rather that it supported the complexity
and comprehensiveness of the model. As outlined earlier in
this section, longitudinal studies on the HRM system strength
construct in relation to the introduction of HRM initiatives
within organizations would be particularly interesting for further
research in this area. Such a study could further unpack the HRM
system strength model in practice [83,84].
This study extends our understanding of the line manager’s
role in HRM implementation via a single case study of a large
knowledge intensive firm based in Ireland. Employing Bowen and
Ostroff’s  HRM system strength model, this study qualitatively
unpacks how line managers implement HRM initiatives, as
perceived by senior management, frontline employees and the line
managers themselves. Line managers’ implementation of HRM is
found to be aligned with all features of a strong HRM system.
Both senior management team members and front-line
employees (knowledge workers) in our study emphasized
the importance of line managers’ implementation of HRM in
promoting a strong HRM system. However, concerns are raised
about the inconsistency of implementation practices among
line managers. How organizations, senior managers and HRM
professionals support and develop line managers consistently in
order to lead to employees’ shared perceptions and experience of
organizational HRM is an interesting and important question for
future research, particularly in the context of KIFs where agility
and flexibility across departments is essential.