Case Studies

Case studies exploring fascinating additional case studies from the author demonstrating HRM in practice around the world. From the internal vs. external candidate debate to employer branding abroad, learn how companies of all sizes approach different aspects of HRM.

  • Changes in HRD at Hansen Group

The Hansen Group is one of the UK’s largest construction groups. Traditionally, the company has been involved primarily in civil engineering but it has recently begun to diversify, partly through acquiring local government contracts, for example for street maintenance and cleaning and the facilities management of publicly owned buildings, such as universities. Therefore, the company is now involved in a wide range of diverse activities and employs an increasingly diverse workforce, from street cleaners to highly qualified civil engineers.

The three years since the Credit Crunch of 2008 have been incredibly difficult for the construction industry in the UK. As a result of the economic downturn, many construction firms have decreased their spending on learning and development. Hansen Construction has, however, increased its investment in these activities, notably introducing a new apprenticeship scheme for construction team leadersexpanding online learning provision and continuing to recruit and develop significant numbers of graduates. Hansen recognises that talented individuals are the lifeblood of the firm and, therefore, sees investment in workforce development as a key dimension of its employment proposition. This approach is felt to be in line with its commitment to sustainability in its corporate activity.

The learning and development team at Hansen drives learning and development innovations, provides analysis of business learning requirements and manages the delivery of cost-effective learning solutions to support the achievement of business goals. Learning solutions at Hansen include traditional off-the-job classroom programmes, short courses, online learning interventions, workbooks and mentoring. The firm has recently recruited two new team members specifically to design in-house e-learning solutions, and to upgrade the company’s online learning management system.

As well as the learning and development team located at the company’s headquarters, Hansen employs a further 12 learning and development professionals who are located throughout the country and work directly with particular business units and clients, many of whom have diverse needs in respect of employee development.

Traditionally, training needs for Hansen staff have been identified centrally and on the basis of the employee group. This has been consistent with its traditional approach to training for large groups in classroom settings. However, with an increasingly diverse workforce, the company has sought to introduce a new performance management system that focuses on individual performance and the competencies behind that performance.

In 2010, the L&D team sought to supplement its traditional classroom-based training programmes with a series of bite-sized (typically half an hour) interactive learning modules for construction site staff that were linked together to form part of a meaningful programme of activities. These were known as ‘toolbox talks’, and were delivered by site managers, using materials developed to support them by the central team. The talks are mainly devoted to site management and health and safety issues. In addition, a significant part of Hansen’s revised approach to learning and development is to increase the amount of on-the-job coaching employees receive and to create a coaching culture within its management community.

Hansen has made significant investment in technology-based learning (or e-learning), particularly software that enables e-learning specialists within the learning and development team to produce online training programmes, several of which are compulsory for all employees. The learning and development team is exploring other technological solutions, such as the use of mobile phones and DVDs, to deliver learning to its maintenance workers, street cleaners and other employees who do not have ready access to the Internet.

Historically, the evaluation of learning and development interventions at Hansen has tended to focus on the initial reactions of employees by asking them to complete evaluation forms after having attended a training programme. However, as part of the wider changes to learning and development at the company, longer-term evaluation of interventions is now in place. This involves the learning and development centre asking the manager sponsoring any new programme to define what a positive outcome would look like in order to determine an appropriate metric for assessment, such as employee engagement or productivity, and involves contacting recipients of training 3–6 months after they have completed a programme and asking them whether they are doing anything differently as a result of what they have learned.


  1. Why do you think that Hansen Construction has increased its investment in learning and development activities despite the tough economic climate?
  2. What are the likely benefits associated with the introduction of an individualised performance management system, and an associated competency framework, to inform learning and development at Hansen?
  3. What are likely to be the benefits of introducing the ‘bite-size’ training programme delivered by site managers, a renewed focus on coaching and substantial investment in e-learning at Hansen?
  4. Explain why you think Hansen has decided to change the way it evaluates learning and development interventions.
  • Learning and Development at Choc Co.

Choc Co. is one of the world's largest confectionery businesses with significant market share in many of the world's biggest confectionery markets, including many emerging markets. It has a long and proud tradition, stretching back more than 150 years, including a long history of developing its employees, which has remained part of its ethos during its progress to becoming a global company.

Despite very positive sales figures over the last 12months, Choc Co. has prioritised streamlining the business to make it more competitive and has placed a strong emphasis on reducing cost over the next 18 months. Despite being keen to preserve its longstanding reputation as a firm that is committed to developing all its employees, in respect of learning and development, this ‘streamlining’ activity has focused on:

  • ensuring a clear return on investment in training activities
  • changing the way that learning programmes are delivered and being more creative in developing approaches to learning
  • connecting training activities to the strategic needs of the firm.

The most important driver of the assessment of its training provision at Choc Co. is change. Whilst performing well in the marketplace, senior management continue to express discontent with levels of productivity and employee performance. Moreover, senior management has determined that the company needs to become more flexible and adaptable to respond to change in its market context, for example by an ability to adapt organisational structures to meet new business needs or through the introduction of technological innovation. However, as a traditionally minded employer, and with low levels of employee turnover at shopfloor level, Choc co. appears to have instilled in its workers a mindset of stability and steady progress, which is at odds with competition in a rapidly changing global economy. Therefore, Choc Co. wants to move towards a system of continuous improvement by creating a culture whereby workers are empowered to implement small incremental changes, rather than have substantial change imposed on them from time to time.

Identifying training needs

Traditionally, training needs analysis at Choc Co. has been ‘gap-led’. In other words, training tends to be focused where Choc Co. identifies a gap in capability – for example, where the introduction of new technology requires worker skill to be updated, company policy is changed or a key worker leaves the firm, requiring training to be provided to their replacement. Typically this gap-led identification of need is conducted at a local level, with little reference made to the wider national or international workforce.

Whilst workers can put themselves forward for training courses, including those provided by local education providers, there is no formal channel for doing this and access to such training often comes down to personal relationships and the constraints imposed by departmental budgets. The culture at Choc Co. is very much one in which training needs are typically identified for workers rather than by workers.

Delivery of training

Currently, the company runs a number of large training events each year designed to update manufacturing staff on everything from health and safety changes, business strategy and company performance to the adoption of new production technology. This is sometimes coupled with skills training for these workers as and when appropriate. This has traditionally been done at the specialist training centre at their largest production facility, which doubles as the company’s headquarters. This practice partly stems from a time when the company only operated two production facilities in the country. It now operates across six geographically dispersed locations. Workers tend to view these training events as a bit of a waste of time, particularly when they are delivered by consultants with little real understanding of working processes at Choc Co. It is not unknown for workers to claim that the training they receive is outdated and tells them nothing that they don’t already know.

The head of training and development, responding to a call to cut costs from the HR director, is now of the opinion, however, that such long training programmes, often of up to three or four days, are no longer the most cost-effective and efficient means by which to develop the staff. Such training has the dual problem of requiring regular investment and repeat sessions to cover workers on different shifts or at different plants, as well as leading to undesirable downtime of certain aspects of production. In particular, the head of L&D is keen to reduce a reliance on external training providers to design and deliver interventions to different workforce groups, from senior management to shopfloor workers.

Moreover, the company has historically not evaluated the impact of these events. In the new era of cost-cutting and added value, however, the company is keen to ensure that the impact of all training interventions, however big or small, is measured.

Employee development programmes

A major investment in L&D at Choc Co. is in its manufacturing apprenticeship scheme and graduate development programme, both of which are widely viewed as models of good practice in the industry and beyond. These programmes are, however, under significant scrutiny by senior management to better understand the extent to which this investment provides value to the firm. One particular area under review is the turnover of employees who complete these programmes and then leave to work at other firms.

Ray Barbie, the head of learning and development at Choc Co. recently attended a seminar at a local university on ‘the changing nature of workplace HRD’. He was slightly alarmed to find out that much of the company’s practice was seen as outdated. In particular, he was interested in examining how some more contemporary approaches and techniques in HRD could help the company both reduce costs and better performance through continuous improvement.


  1. What changes would you recommend that Choc Co. make to their current learning and development provision in order to reduce costs and improve performance?
  2. Discuss how e-learning, competency frameworks and improved knowledge-sharing at Choc Co. might help to cut costs and make the HRD activity at Choc Co. more strategic.
  3. How might the firm seek to ensure a return on investment for its learning and development activity?
  • Developing a Learning Strategy at Wellread Books

Wellread Books is a high street retailer established in 1993 as a single bookshop but which has since grown rapidly and is now present on many of the UK’s high streets and in many shopping centres. Until 2005, Wellread served only the book market – particularly specialising in children’s books – but following the appointment of a new chief executive, the company increasingly diversified into a number of ‘related’ areas such as music, DVDs and stationery. These areas have grown to represent a substantial part of each store. Furthermore, larger Wellread stores now have cafés where customers are encouraged to browse books before they buy.

Until 2008, Wellread experienced strong growth and increasing market share in the book retailing sector. Since then, however, growth has slowed considerably, even when accounting for a decrease in consumer spending during the recent economic downturn. More worryingly, its market share has begun to recede and Wellread is losing out to its high street competitors, larger retailers who sell bestsellers at marked-down prices and online book sellers. To understand the deeper reasons for this decline, Wellread commissioned market research to explore consumers’ perceptions of the store and what shoppers wanted from a book retailer. The results were mixed. The research found that Wellread rated highly on the following criteria: friendly staff and welcoming atmosphere. Moreover, the annual customer surveys show that customer service was rated highly among regular shoppers at Wellread, many reporting that they know staff by name and often drop by for coffee and to browse the books. The market research also found, however, that Wellread was rated worse than its competitors on staff knowledge (particularly in the areas of music and film), the range of titles held and speed of service. Of particular concern to the company is the fact that the high levels of ‘footfall’ at Wellread stores appear to translate into comparatively low sales volumes.

The company also recently conducted its first ever employee attitude survey which asked for employee opinion on a wide range of issues, including the company itself, their jobs, why they chose to work for Wellread and what they felt they brought to the company. The survey showed that a core of workers in each store had been with Wellread for a number of years, albeit alongside a quite substantial transient workforce. These long-term employees appeared to be knowledgeable and passionate about books, were committed and often highly qualified. Many were concerned, however, about developmental opportunities within the company. Morale among staff appeared to be high, although this was largely explained by an apparent loyalty to their colleagues and to their store manager. One respondent commented: ‘I don’t really see myself as a Wellread employee, just an employee of this particular store.’

In keeping with the relaxed atmosphere that the company seeks to develop within its stores, it advocates a paternalist approach to employee management. Commensurately, the company allows a fair degree of autonomy to store managers in how staff are managed at a local level, and whilst it promotes regular performance appraisals it is aware that some managers take this process less seriously than others. Where they are conducted, they are generally informal meetings used for employees to raise concerns or to make suggestions. Typically, no formal records are kept regarding appraisals. Wellread has always recognised that business success relies on good customer service and the focus of employee induction has been to instil in employees the importance of creating an accessible shopping environment which runs counter to the popular perception of bookshops as ‘stuffy’ places and booksellers as ‘snobby and condescending’. New employee induction is, however, typically brief and conducted by the store manager, often involving little more than a chat as they ‘walk the shop’. The only demarcation of staff on the shopfloor is between café and store workers. Store workers typically work wherever needed in response to demand. Following induction, training activity for customer service advisors is limited. All shop staff are trained in the use of the point-of-sale technology and given a brief tutorial in the shelving system. Staff are trained as and when necessary if new technology is introduced into the store (for example, there is talk of introducing an Espresso book machine into some stores which can create bound copies of out-of-print books to order). Café staff are given training in using the coffee machine and in basic health and safety.

Drawing on all the information gathered in the review process, Wellread has devised a five-year growth strategy focused on increasing sales and efficiency, improving customer perception and awareness of the brand and differentiating itself in the marketplace.


  1. How might learning and development activities contribute to Wellread’s business strategy? What do you think should be the objectives of learning and development interventions?
  2. Where would you focus learning and development activity for customer service advisors, new employees and store managers?
  3. What types of behaviours would you seek to develop among these employee groups to contribute to the achievement of strategic objectives?
  4. What would be the most appropriate mechanisms through which to deliver these HRD interventions?
  5. How would you develop other aspects of HRM to support the achievement of strategic objectives and how would you integrate these with the training and development activities you would put in place at Wellread?
  6. Develop a ‘competency framework’ to inform staff recruitment and learning and development activities and through which the company can achieve the objectives set out in the growth strategy.
  7. Drawing on Kirkpatrick’s (1987) model of evaluation, what measures and means of measurement would you recommend Wellread uses to assess the impact of its training and development interventions at each level (reaction, intermediate and ultimate level)?

Blitzen engineering and an ageing workforce

The UK, in common with many other advanced economies, has an ageing population, characterised by a declining proportion of young labour market entrants and a growing proportion of workers approaching or exceeding retirement age. This presents a number of challenges to organisations, particularly those who are reliant on an ageing workforce themselves.

Blitzen Engineering is a supplier of specialised automotive components made to the detailed specification of a limited number of prestige car manufacturers. The focus on quality that is the hallmark of their customers has meant the ever-greater requirement for high-quality components delivered over ever-shorter time frames. Given the exacting specification of their products and the high degree of precision necessary in their production, the importance of skilled engineers to Blitzen cannot be overstressed. Strategically, the skill, knowledge and expertise of these engineers represent a key factor in maintaining existing business and winning new contracts. In other words, the engineers at Blitzen are the core reason why the company has managed to remain highly competitive in the face of growing overseas competition and has maintained such prestigious contracts.

A recent staff review at Blitzen has, however, found that the average age of engineering staff is 53. Sixteen of the 25 engineers in the firm are aged between 50 and 60 and one is over 60. No members of the engineering staff were under 30 at the time of the review. Such skewing of the workforce age profile is reflective of the wider UK engineer population (in 2005, 62% of engineering technicians were aged between 45 and 64) and partly reflects a historic reluctance to invest in new technology and associated skills both by employers and government. There is considerable concern that within 5–10 years the vast majority of the engineering department is likely to have left the company.

Blitzen has begun to address what it considers to be a potentially catastrophic situation by seeking to recruit a number of engineering graduates, by attending recruitment fairs at local universities and advertising in local newspapers. Managers have, however, been dismayed at the level of interest in engineering jobs expressed by graduates at the recruitment fairs and disappointed by both the number and quality of graduate applicants. This partly reflects a national shortfall in engineering graduates who actually enter the engineering profession to meet the projected increase in demand for such graduates in the UK economy. Many graduates who possess the skills acquired on engineering degrees – particularly advanced problem-solving and numeracy skills – are highly prized by firms in business services and banking and finance. Consequently, Blitzen is competing in a highly competitive labour market in which the ‘best’ graduates are often either ‘snapped up’ by larger engineering employers (because of their ability to pay higher wages and offer more structured graduate development programmes) or high-profile firms in other sectors. In contrast to their experience in the graduate labour market, the HR manager had recently accepted an invitation to speak at a local further education college and had been surprised at the enthusiasm of many of the students who had attended.


You have been asked to advise senior management at Blitzen on how you might go about addressing the labour market problems that they are experiencing and put together one or more ‘strategies’ for management to consider. In reflecting on these problems, consider what factors are important in ensuring the long-term viability of the company, the interaction between the internal and external labour markets, alternative approaches to sourcing the required labour and how the company might best compete in the external labour market.

Tutor’s notes

The purpose of this exercise is to try and tie in a number of the broad themes and concepts that have been introduced in the first few chapters of this book, principally to place the strategic decision-making process within a firm’s labour market and competitive context. In particular, it seeks to engender an understanding of the ‘degrees of freedom’ (Boxall and Purcell, 2003) that firms have, both strategically and operationally, in designing HR policies and practices, and of how a wide range of factors shape approaches to recruitment, retention, learning and development, job design, etc.

The principal HR concerns are clearly employee retention and recruitment of people with the skills required in order for Blitzen to maintain its current contracts and attract new business in the face of growing competition from overseas suppliers. To link with the strategic issues covered in Chapter 3, a useful starting point is to ask students to consider the HRM strategy that might be most appropriate in Blitzen and to consider the relative merits of each strategic approach to help Blitzen achieve its objectives. Groups of students might be asked to develop a business case for adopting the best fit (drawing on Schuler and Jackson’s (1987) model), best practice and resource-based view perspective in strategy formation and the implications of these approaches for recruitment and retention (in particular, whether they focus on the creation of a strong internal labour market and, if so, how). Comparison of the models could then identify areas of difference or similarity. It might be useful for students to carry out a SWOT analysis for the firm in order to identify the key environmental points for consideration.

The principal issue for the firm is to ensure its long-term viability. In order to reflect on this, students should explore the sources of potential advantage at Blitzen’s disposal, particularly the tacit knowledge and skill possessed by the engineers and the potential problems caused by the loss of that knowledge. Students might devise a range of strategies to address this problem and the advantages and disadvantages associated with each approach (as below, although this is not an exhaustive set of options nor does it suggest that combinations might not be employed). Students might be asked to reflect on the ‘make’ or ‘buy’ dichotomy and where each of the possible responses below fits with these.

Operational response to organisational problem



Persist with attempts to recruit engineering graduates

  • ‘Hit the ground running’
  • Already possess high-level skills and, therefore, lowered investment in learning and development
  • Expense re: reward (particularly in competing with larger employers)
  • Limited availability

Recruit leavers from associated further education courses

  • Possess some limited skills
  • Demonstrable interest in engineering
  • Cheap option re: reward but greater investment needed in learning and development

Invest in new technology with which to replace tacit knowledge of workers

  • Cheap option over the long term
  • Economies of scale associated with automation (and new, larger orders through diversification to ‘mass’ production)
  • Possible threat to quality (associated with existing customers)

Incentivise older workers to remain in employment for as long as possible

  • Resolves immediate threat of skills loss
  • Short-term solution
  • Likely to be viewed negatively with customers seeking long-term ‘partners’

De-skill jobs and simplify the labour process

  • Reduces labour (and therefore production) costs
  • Reflects a change in competitive strategy
  • Possible threat to the quality
  • Reluctance among the existing workforce to contribute to loss of ‘craft’

Students should identify the problem that underpins any of these approaches which are imperative for older workers to actually pass on their knowledge and skills, whether to junior colleagues or in order to develop technology with which to replace them. This raises the issue that knowledge and skill are politically charged and at the heart of tensions in the employment relationship. Students might consider how older workers might be encouraged to share knowledge and the HR practices and policies that might be employed to generate an environment that is conducive to such behaviour (and whether Blitzen has such an environment).

Under each of these approaches, it is clear that Blitzen is required to recruit at least some skilled or semi-skilled labour which raises the issue of how the company can compete. The problems the company faces in recruiting high-quality graduates are outlined in the case study. In response, it has a range of options, principally to try to match or exceed the terms and conditions of labour market competitors (e.g., by stressing the benefits of working for a smaller employer or by stressing particular aspects of its employment offering such as learning and development opportunities) or to focus its efforts on recruiting lower-quality graduates. Students can be asked to evaluate the relative merits of each approach and, in the case of the latter, to think about how an employer might be able to appeal to potential employees even if it cannot compete on employee reward.