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Organisational career management: what does the literature tells us?

18 March 2013


This paper critically reviews the literature discussing organisational career development as a strategic human resources management practice and reflects upon the persuasiveness and precision of the articles in capturing appropriate theoretical antecedents and historical evidence to support their contentions. The writers argue that organisational career development and ‘multidirectional’ planning[1] is a worthwhile business strategy and human resource management practice today. The paper analyses their claims.


The literature on organisational career development, called ‘OC-D’, identifies that the concept of a career, what it means and how it is experienced has altered over time[2]. It appears that the idea of what a career can be has shifted from a singular, bureaucratic[3], linear, rigid[4], upward 'ladder' based[5] and organisationally prescriptive and paternalistic model[6] centred on a quest or “tournament” metaphor[7], to a new, less restrictive and more complex “post-bureaucratic”[8] path-based model that is more diverse in the social groups[9] and organisational levels that it targets, than its predecessor, which is perhaps under-acknowledged as being white, male and privileged[10] with many papers discussing its focus on the “upper (executive professional) echelons”[11].

The new approach to organisational career development or ‘OC-D’ focuses on strategic alignment of current and future organisational and employee needs and interests[12] and aims to affect and ‘regenerate’ commitment[13] and manage ‘followership’[14]  through targeted HR interventions[15] that deliver a return on investment and mutual outcomes[16]. However, as Josserand et al discuss “...personnel bureaucrats are not easily turned into strategists.” (2006, p. 61).

For the practitioner, new OC-D involves the mapping, analysis and resourcing of mission critical work using systems[17] and adopting a more creative, empirically supported, 'socially real' and selective approach[18] to people management, attraction, retention and engagement within organisations to help meet existing and forecast future human resource needs[19].

Although the concepts of 'career management' and 'career development' are interchangeable in the literature on career planning[20].  'Career development' ('C-D') is the dominant term used to describe both the individualistic, “protean” process[21]  by which an individual can set meaningful career goals”[22]  involving 'boundaryless' changes of occupation, role and employer[23], as well as the “...subset of human resource development... that connects career goals with performance by focusing on interventions that match individual interests and skills with organisational needs”.[24]

Because the practice no longer centres on executive levels, and prefers to focus on mission critical “lynch-pin” roles[25] the contemporary approach is considered to be a democratic departure from its predecessor[26]. The paper examines some of these claims.

It’s evident that contemporary OC-D is intended to be a strategic approach in which the Human Resources area metaphorically manages ‘outward’ into the lived experiences of staff, via targeted interventions and investments that can deliver mission-critical outcomes and ‘upwards’ to the executive level in order to gain legitimacy[27] and ‘buy-in at senior levels; integrate OC-D into business strategy and attract resources and support.

Although the selected papers discuss the 'new' and revived approach to 'OC-D' to different effects, problematically they each tend to focus mainly on the operational aspects of OC-D programs, for example mentoring, social networks, informal learning, educational development and work secondments[28] without explaining their connection to strategy or how they relate to organisational long-run welfare in any particular way. Only one paper (Larsson et al[29]) citing Driver's ‘career concept model’ (1980) and Brouseau (1984) provides a concise and simple framework for achieving this most fundamental outcome.

Driver's 'career concept' model incorporates the existing linear career trajectory, which Sullivan and Manieiro term the 'alpha' career[30], in addition to proposing three additional, structured paths: the Expert, Spiral and Transitory[31] that influence individual career choice. In turn the paths align to recognised forms of business strategy that draw from Chandler’s ‘strategy follows structure’ 1962 approach[32].

“The stable focus on and maintenance of the present strategic position through consolidation and refinement of quality represent what we call an expert strategy. Competitively striving towards maximum growth and market leadership corresponds to the linear strategy. Related diversification to new applications of existing core competencies is more of a broadening, spiral strategy, while the more unrelated transitory strategy pursues immediate targets of opportunities as they arise”[33].

In essence: “[d]ifferent types of organizational culture will fit and support different types of strategies as well as different types of people”.  The value of the model lies in its strategic applicability to both the individual and organisational career planning approaches; and its verisimilitude to business strategy.  

Overlayed by Larsson et al's culture, people strategic triangle, the result is a standard operational level framework for enacting strategic OCD that seems especially useful to addressing the complexity and certainty required to build the business case and obtain  the necessary ‘buy-in’ to properly integrate, resource and roll out OC-D in “post-bureaucratic”[34], ‘flatter’ environments[35] in a strategic way.

In a critical sense, the literature suffers for its failure to cite relevant antecedents and historical developments that help to form a coherent picture of OC-D. Few, if any, papers capture the full breadth of historical information and theoretical antecedents that they ought to. Examples of the problem include that both Gould (1978) and Foot and Venne's (1990) pieces are set against the backdrop of the since rejected, keynesian, post WWII, 1980s welfare state, a point in time that Baruch (2004, p 61); Whymark and Ellis (1999, p 118) and McDonald and Hite (2006, p 420) refer to with vague nostalgia as 'traditional'.  The latter three articles pin-point the 1990-era global recession as the trigger switch to “protean” forms of career management (which in any event were first posited by Hall in 1976, according to Baruch (2004, p 65), and are discussed in Gould, (1978 p 9) - and so the 1990s timeframe cannot be correct. With the exception of Foot and Venne (1990) and Kira and Forslin (2006, p. 77) the balance of the literature appears to overlook the critical role that microeconomic and regulatory reform – for example the dismantling of centralised, trade protection, wage and industrial relations schemes has inevitably had at the firm level, although the majority acknowledge that social diversity[36], technology and globalisation has had an impact. This is a key limitation of the papers and the analysis.

Relevant theoretical and historical antecedents identified in the literature include:

·         Parsons (1909) described as the father of vocational guidance[37];

·         the human relations movement (1920s); exchange theory; Taylorianism / ergonomics and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs[38] ;

·         Whyte’s ‘Organisational Man’ cited in Baruc[39];

·         Hall’s ‘protean’ career theory; (McDonald and Hite citing Hall 1989; Baruch citing Hall 1976 p.65);

·         Microeconomic reform, deregulation and legislation (Kira and Forslin, 2006, p 77);

·         Post world war II welfare state governmental and baby boom / baby bust demographical impacts[40];

·         ‘Boundaryless organizations’ and careers;[41] 

·         Career concept model;[42]

·         Career intelligence approaches – know how and know why;[43] and

·         Strategic management literature[44].

A plausible cause of the problem may be the preference within the management research episteme for referring to publications, conclusions and issues raised in relatively recently published literature (five years or less old). This ‘end of shelf life’ perspective is a critical limitation inhibiting the development of a coherent theory of OC-D since, logically, as each year passes, each new piece of OC-D research loses an additional year of collective provenance and memory to draw from.  One particularly insightful article by Meyer and Rowan (1977) discusses the “gaps” that are deliberately maintained in organisations between the normative, bureaucratic ideal of technical rule and structure and the realised “effects generated by networks of (internal) social behaviour and (external) relationships which compose and surround an organization” (p. 341). Though they do not use the term ‘strategic’ the article predates contemporary analysis of the benefits of networks and the development of interventions that deliver intrinsic and invisible rewards and returns by some thirty years.

Lastly, there is a clear division of emphasis, between the individual and organisational pespectives, which has lead to one form holding sway over the other, on a near cyclical basis since the 1990s[45].  An emerging third approach in which HR works in “partnership” with individuals to develop a lifestyle based and progressive job path during their tenure is only fleetingly referred to by the texts[46], and remains to be developed.  Both phenomena are detectable within Gould's text written in 1978 when more rigid, prescriptive and paternalistic personnel based career management approaches prevailed. Echoing Baruch (2004), Gould (1978) discusses the adverse organisational consequences of career path planning that fails to consider and engage the individual (p.8); the benefits of cultivating “couching and counseling skills” as an HR manager (p. 11) and “rewarding managers for their development of subordinates” (p. 11). Lastly, Gould discusses the sense of frustration a prescriptive approach engenders in employees leading to attrition, from an historical and ‘linear’ O-CD perspective. This suggests that it is social attitudes to career success that have fundamentally changed, perhaps as a result of technological, social, neo-liberal economic and governmental global changes cited by the literature[47]

On balance, OC-D would seem to have a future in helping to plan for, project and  address future gaps in capability and skill and the impacts of changing demographical and lifestyle profiles[48] including challenges posed by an aging 'baby boomer' population[49] however this is subject to adequate systems being developed that can map individuals to roles and future gaps, a strategic approach being enacted and evaluation being conducted to a standard that can demonstrate its value and justify organisational investments – which will not be easy when ‘intangible’ and ‘invisible’ outcomes such as ‘commitment’ are the objective[50].


Baruch, Y. (2004), 'Transforming Careers: from Linear to multi-directional career paths Organizational and Individual Perspectives', Career Development International, Vol 9 issue 1.

Bozeman, B and Ponomariov, B, (2009), 'Sector switching from a Business to a  Government Job: Fast Track Career or Fast-Track to Nowhere?', Public Administration Review, January / February pp 77-91

Bratkovich, J, Steel, B. and Rollins, T., (1990), 'Develop new career management strategies', Personnel World, Vol 69, Issue 9 September, pp 98-108.

Foot, D. and Vennee, R., (1990), 'Population, pyramids and promotional prospects', Canadian Public Policy, Vol 16, No. 4, December, pp 387-398.

Gould, S., (1978), 'Career Planning in the Organization', Human Resource Management, Spring, pp 8-11

Ito, J. and Brotheridge, C, (2005), 'Does Supporting Employees' Career Adaptibility Lead To Commitment, Turnover or Both?', Human Resource Management, Spring,

Josserand, E., Teo, S. and Clegg, S., (2006), 'From bureaucratic to post-bureaucratic: the difficulties of transition', Journal of Organisational Change Management, Vol 19, No. 1, pp 54-64

Larsson, R., Brousseau, K., Kling, K. and Sweet, P., (2007), 'Building motivational capital through concept and culture fit: the strategic value of devloping motivation and retention', Career Development International, Vol 12, No. 4, pp 361- 381

Kira, M. and Forsin, J., (2008), 'Seeking Regenerative work in post-bureaucratic transition', Journal of Organizational Change Management, Vol 21, No. 1, pp 76-91

McDonald, K. and Hite, L., (2005), 'Reviving the Relevance of Career Development in Human Resource Development', Human Resources Development Review, December pp 418 - 439

Meyer, J. and Rowan, B., (1977), 'Institutionalized Organizations: Formal Structure as Myth and Ceremony', American Journal of Sociology, Volume 83, No. 2.

Sullivan, S. and Mainiero, (2006), 'The changing nature of gender roles, alpha/beta careers and work-life issues: Theory driven implications for human resource management', Career Development International, Vol 12 No. 3, pp 238-263.

van Veldhoven, M. and Dorenbosch, L., (2008), 'Age, Proactivity and Career Development', Career Development International, Vol 13, No. 2, pp 112 -131

 Whymark, K. and Ellis, S., (1999), 'Whose career is it anyway?' Options for career management in flatter organisational structures', Career Development International, Vol 4, Issue 2, pp 117-122

[1]Baruch, 2004

[2]Josserand, Teo and Clegg, 2006, p 59; Baruch, 2004, pp 60; Sullivan and Manieiro, 2006, p.240; McDonald and Hite, 2005, p 341.

[3] Josserand, Teo and Clegg, 2006, p. 54

[4]McDonald and Hite, 2006, p 420

[5]Baruch, 2004, p. 60

[6]Gould, 1978, p 8

[7]Baruch, 2004, p. 62 citing Rosenbaum 1978

[8]Josserand, Teo and Clegg, 2006, p. Kira and Forslin, 2008

[9]Sullivan and Manieiro, 2006, pp ; van Veldhoven and Dorenbosch, 2008

[10]Sullivan and Maniero 2006 p. 239; Baruch, 2004, p 66

[11]McDonald and Hite, 2006, p. 424

[12]Larrson, Brousseau, Kling and Sweet, 2007, p 363; Kira and Forslin, 2006, p 77

[13]Ito and Brotheridge, 2005, p. 14; Baruch 2004, p. 70; Kira and Forslin, 2008, pp 78-79

[14]Foot and Venne, 1990, p. 395

[15]McDonald and Hite, 2006, p. 429

[16]McDonald and Hite, 2006, p 420 citing Preskill, 2005

[17]McDonald and Hite, 2006, p 423 citing Gutteridge, Leibowitz and Shore

[18]Rowan and Meyer, 1978, p. 341

[19]McDonald and Hite, 2006, p 423 and 427; Kira and Forslin, 2006, p. 77; Bratkovich, Steele and Rollins, 1990 p 98; van Veldhoven and Dorenbosch 2008, p 114

[20]Van Veldhoven and Dorenbosch, 2008, p. 116

[21]McDonald and Hite citing Hall 1989; Baruch citing Hall 1976 p.65

[22]Gould, 1978, p 9; Kira and Forsin, 2006, p. 80

[23]Baruch, 2004, citing DeFillippi and Arthur, p. 60

[24]McDonald and Hite, 2005, p. 420

[25]Bratkovich et al, 1990, p. 106

[26]Sullivan and Manieiro, 2006, p 241

[27]Meyer and Rowan, 1978, pp 343-344

[28]McDonald and Hite, 2006, pp 427-430; van Veldhoven and Dorenbosch, 2008, 117

[29]2007, p 363

[30]2006, p 76

[31]Larsson et al, 2007, p 363

[32]Larsson et al, 2007, p 365

[33]Larson et al, 2007, p 364

[34]Josserand, Teo and Clegg, 2006; and Kira and Forslin, 2008

[35]Foot and Venne, 1990, p. 387; Whymark and Ellis, 1999, p 117; McDonald and Hite, 2006, p 422; Baruch, 2004, p 60

[36]Sullivan and Manieiro, 2006, p.  and Gould, 1978 p. 8

[37]McDonald and Hite, 2006, p. 419

[38]Kira and Forsslin, 2006, p 78

[39]2004, p 67

[40]Foot and Venne, 1990

[41]Baruch, 2004, citing Ashkenas (1995) and DeFillipi and Arthur, 1994

[42]Larsson et al, 2005, p 361

[43]McDonald and Hite, 2006, p 428

[44]Baruch, 2004, pp 363 and 365 citing Chandler, Schein, Ansoff and Porter

[45]Baruch, 2004 p. 60

[46]McDonald and Hite, citing Conlan, 2006, p 421; van Veldhoven and Dorenbosch, 2008, p 117

[47]Baruch, 2004

[48]Sullivan and Manieiro, 2006; Vennee and Foot, 1990

[49]van Veldhoven and Dorenbosch, 2008, 117; Kira and Forsin, 2006; Bozeman and Ponomariov, 2009 p. 78

[50]McDonald and Hite,. 2006, 430