Strategic Human Resource Management — Italian Style

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Italian firms made massive organizational changes during the 1980s with great success. American business scholars have attributed these successes to the propitious conjunction of technological and market factors, the virtues of flexible specialization, and the peculiarities of Italian industrial organization.1 However, less attention has been paid to the role played by human resource management (HRM). How did HRM contribute to successful strategies? Was strategic change supported by innovative employment systems?

Consider Fiat, the automobile manufacturer, which is probably the most celebrated and studied case of successful strategic change achieved in Italy during the 1980s.2 In the 1970s, Fiat faced net losses, a continuous decrease of market share in Italy and Europe, an outdated product line, manufacturing inefficiency, strikes, and absenteeism. A number of factors contributed to Fiat’s turnaround, including layoffs, employee retraining, concessions from unions, intensive investment in flexible automation technologies, and development of an entirely new product line based on innovative design criteria. New HRM policies played a significant role. In October of 1980, shop stewards, professionals, and middle managers staged what came to be called the “March of the 40,000,” in which they protested the strike that had shut down the firm for five weeks. At that point, the company began to develop new personnel policies for these employees, including merit-based promotions and career paths, incentive pay, and increased autonomy and responsibility for management teams. These new personnel policies not only satisfied the needs and expectations of professional and managerial employees, they also strengthened and unified management and built consensus about work organization, compensation, and mobility within the internal labor market. These changes were an integral part of the new strategy.

The Fiat case illustrates our argument: innovative HRM practices have played a major role in developing and implementing some firms’ strategic objectives. These new practices concern not only the traditional HRM issues, such as labor cost budgeting and control, absenteeism and turnover reduction, recruiting, training, and compensation; they may also take more radical forms, actually changing the objects and focus of HRM policies.

In this article, we will describe the relationship of HRM to strategy and give examples of innovative HRM practices in Italian companies (see Table 1).


1. See, for example, M.J. Piore and C.M. Sabel, The Second Industrial Divide: Possibilities for Prosperities (New York: Basic Books, 1984); and

M.E. Porter, The Competitive Advantage of Nations (New York: Free Press, 1990).

2. A. Camuffo and G. Costa, Strategia d’impresa e gestione delle risorse umane (Padua: Cedam, 1990).

3. M. Thorelli, “Networks Between Markets and Hierarchies,”Strategic Management Journal 7 (1986): 37–52.

4. M. Granovetter, “Economic Action and Social Structure: A Theory of Embeddedness,” American Journal of Sociology 91 (1985): 481–510.

5. N. Tichy, C. Fombrun, and M.A. Devanna, eds., Strategic Human Resource Management (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1984).

6. M. Beer, B. Spector, P.R. Lawrence, D. Quinn Mills, and R.E. Walton, Human Resource Management: A General Manager’s Perspective (New York: Free Press, 1985).

7. C. Hendry and A. Pettigrew, “Human Resource Management: An Agenda for the 1990s,” International Journal of Human Resource Management 1 (1990): 17–43.

8. P.B. Doeringer and M.J. Piore, Internal Labor Markets and Manpower Analysis (Lexington, Massachusetts: D.C. Heath, 1971); and

A.S. Miner, “Structural Evolution through Idiosyncratic Jobs: The Potential for Unplanned Learning,” Organization Science 1 (1990): 195–210.

9. I. Nonaka, “Self-Renewal of the Japanese Firm and the Human Resource Strategy,” Human Resource Management 27 (1988): 45–62.

10. J.A. Pfeffer and N. Baron, “Taking the Workers Back Out,”Research in Organizational Behavior 10 (1988): 257–303; and

K.G. Abraham and R.B. McKersie, eds., New Developments in the Labor Market: Toward a New Institutional Paradigm (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

11. J.A. Pfeffer, Managing with Power: Politics and Influence in Organizations (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1992).

12. Granovetter (1985).

13. A. Camuffo and A. Comacchio, Strategia e organizzazione nel tessile-abbigliamento (Padua: Cedam, 1990), ch. 5.

14. I. Nonaka, Human Resource Management (1988).

15. P. Osterman, Employment Futures: Reorganization, Dislocation, and Public Policy (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1988).

16. M. Crozier, L’entreprise a l’ecoute (Paris: InterEditions, 1989).

17. I. Nonaka, “Toward Middle-Up-Down Management: Accelerating Information Creation,” Sloan Management Review, Summer 1988, pp. 9–18.

18. M.A. Von Glinow, The New Professionals (New York: Ballinger, 1988).

19. R. Katz, ed., Managing Professionals in Innovative Organizations(Cambridge, Massachusetts: Ballinger, 1988).

20. A. Benuzzi, ed., Italtel. Le relazioni industriali dal ’69 agli anni ’80(Milan: Aisri/Franco Angeli, 1991).

21. G. Bazzigaluppi and P. Scopazzi, “Impresa a rete: il caso dell’IBM Italia,” Economia e Politica Industriale 65 (1990), pp. 3–14.

22. G. Cattaneo and S. Rigodanza, “Identificazione e sviluppo delle risorse direttive: il caso IBM,” in Manuale di gestione del personale, ed. G. Costa (Turin, Italy: UTET, 1992), pp. 257–266.

23. Camuffo and Costa (1990), ch. 2.

24. F. Della Valle and A. Gambardella, “Rivoluzione ‘biologica’ e nuove strategie d’impresa nel settore farmaceutico,” Economia e Politica Industriale 69 (1990): 27–41.

25. Osterman (1988).

26. Ibid., p. 65.

27. Ibid., p. 85.

28. G. Tamagni, “Pirelli. Cultura ed esperienza,” L’impresa 1(1990): 53–54.

29. C. Antonelli, ed., New Information Technology and Industrial Change: The Italian Case (Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1988);

R. Locke, “La via italiana alla moda pronta,” Mondo Economico 9 (1990): 78–79; and

R. Howard, “The Designer Organization: Italy’s GFT Goes Global,” Harvard Business Review, September–October 1991, pp. 28–43.

30. Granovetter (1985); and

M. Aoki, B. Gustafson, and O.E. Williamson, eds., The Firm as a Nexus of Treaties (London: Sage, 1990).

31. Camuffo and Comacchio (1990), p. 14.

32. T. Reve, “The Firm as a Nexus of Internal and External Contracts” in Aoki, Gustafson, and Williamson (1990).

33. I. Nonaka, Human Resource Management (1988).


The authors acknowledge Howard Aldrich, Arnoldo Hax, Richard Locke, Paul Osterman, and Jeffrey Pfeffer, participants at the “Perspectives on Strategic Change” conference (Venice, May 1991), an anonymous referee, and an anonymous editor for constructive comments.

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Comment (1)
Andrea Malli
Companies that in the 80s have ridden the economic boom now have found themselves suffering for the Italian, and the global economic recession. The Italian companies were crushed by high taxation and an organization not always in step with the times or not equal to major international organizations.