HUMAN RESOURCES AND SUSTAINED
COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE: A
G 93-19 (239)
PATRICK M. WRIGHT
Texas A&M University
GARY C. MCMAHAN
University of Southern California
Texas A&M University
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Human Resources and Sustained Competitive Advantage:
A Resource-Based Perspective
Patrick M. Wright
Department of Management
Texas A&M University
College Station, TX 77843-4221
Gary C. McMahan
Center for Effective Organizations
School of Business Administartion
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, CA 90089-1421
Department of Management
Texas A&M University
College Station, TX 77843-4221
Human Resources and Sustained Competitive Advantage:
A Resource-Based Perspective
This paper integrates the theories and findings of micro-level organizational
behavior/human resource management research with the macro-level resource-based view of the
firm, specifically presenting a firm's human resources as an important potential source of
sustained competitive advantage. Unlike practice-oriented discussions that assume the role of
human resources as a source of sustained competitive advantage, we use the theoretical concepts
from the resource-based view of the firm (Wernerfelt, 1984; Barney, 1991) to discuss how
human resources meet the criteria for sustained competitive advantage in that they are valuable,
rare, inimitable, and nonsubstitutable. The implications for developing human resources as a
source of sustained competitive advantage are discussed, particularly examining the role of HR
practices and managers in this process.
Human Resources and Sustained Competitive Advantage:
A Resource-Based Perspective
The field of strategic management has undergone tremendous growth in popularity among
both academics and practitioners over the past twenty years. Since the emergence of strategy as a
recognized area in the field of management, industrial organization strategists have relied on a
single framework (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) to structure their research
(Barney, 1991). Many recent contributions to the strategy literature have emphasized the
external portion of this framework, focusing on the environmental determinants of firm
performance (e.g., Porter, 1980; 1985). While models such as Porter's have been well received
by practitioners, these models have relatively little usefulness to them (Hamel & Prahalad, 1989),
principally because these models focus primarily on the environmental determinants of firm
performance and say little about determinants over which the manager has influence.
A recent entrant into the theoretical discussion of strategic management is the resource-
based view of the firm (Barney 1991; Conner, 1991; Wernerfelt, 1984). This view of
competitive advantage differs from the environmentally-focused strategic management paradigm
(e.g., Porter, 1980; 1985) in that its emphasis is on the links between the internal resources of the
firm, its strategy, and its performance. That is, the resource-based view of competitive advantage
is firm-focused while models of strategic analysis such as Porter's have an industry environment
focus (McWilliams & Smart, in press). However, theoretical discussion is lacking regarding
which specific resources are capable of serving as sustained competitive advantages, and in what
circumstances resources are likely to generate a sustained competitive advantage.
The purpose of this paper is to provide a theoretical discussion of the circumstances under
which human resources can be a source of sustained competitive advantage and the role of HRM.
As we will show, the discussion of human resources as a source of sustained competitive
advantage has been dominated by a perspective focusing on HR practices, and this discussion,
while practically useful, is theoretically deficient. In order to achieve our purposes, we first
present a summary of the resource-based view of the firm. We then use this conceptualization to
discuss the role of human resources in sustained competitive advantage by examining the
conditions under which human resources are valuable, rare, inimitable, and non-substitutable.
Finally, we discuss implications of a resource-based analysis of human resources by examining
how human resources can provide sustained competitive advantage and discussing the role of HR
practices in developing this advantage.
The Resource-Based View of the Firm
The resource-based view of the firm has its roots in the organizational economics
literature, where theories of profit and competition associated with the writings of Ricardo
(1817), Schumpter (1934), and Penrose (1959) focus on the internal resources of the firm as the
major determinant of competitive success. Central to the understanding of the resourcebased
view of the firm are the definitions of resources, competitive advantage, and sustained
Resources within the Resource-Based View
According to Wernerfelt a resource is "anything which could be thought of as a strength
or weakness of a given firm...those tangible assets which are tied semipermanently to the firm"
(1984: 172). Barney expands this definition to include "all assets, capabilities, organizational
processes, firm attributes, information, knowledge, etc. controlled by a firm that enable the firm
to conceive of and implement strategies that improve its efficiency and effectiveness" (1991:
101). According to Barney, resources fall into three categories: physical capital resources,
human capital resources, and organizational capital resources. Physical capital resources consist
of such things as the firm's plant and equipment, technology and geographic location. Human
capital resources include such things as the experience, judgement, and intelligence of the
individual managers and workers in the firm. Organizational capital resources consist of such
things as the firm's structure, planning, controlling and coordinating systems, and the informal
relations among groups within the firm and between the firm and other firms in its environment.
In the resource-based view of the firm, these resources are the sources of competitive
advantage. Barney describes a competitive advantage as occurring "when a firm is implementing
a value creating strategy not simultaneously being implemented by any current or potential
competitors" (1991: 102). According to the resource-based view of the firm, competitive
advantage can only occur in situations of firm resource heterogeneity and firm resource
immobility, and these assumptions serve to differentiate the resource-based model from the
traditional strategic management model. Firm resource heterogeneity refers to the fact that
resources vary across firms. In contrast, in the environmentally focused strategy model, firm
resources are viewed as homogeneous across firms in an industry (Rumelt, 1991). Firm resource
immobility refers to the inability of competing firms to obtain resources from other firms or
resource markets. In the environmentally focused strategy model, resources are considered
mobile in that firms can purchase or create resources held by competing firms.
Sustained Competitive Advantage
Sustained competitive advantage is distinct from the concept of competitive advantage.
Within the resource-based view, a sustained competitive advantage exists only when other firms
are incapable of duplicating the benefits of a competitive advantage (Lippman & Rumelt, 1982).
Thus, a competitive advantage is not considered sustained until all efforts by competitors to
duplicate the advantage have ceased. Therefore, four criteria must be attributable to the resource
in order for it to provide a sustained competitive advantage: l) the resource must add positive
value to the firm, 2) the resource must be unique or rare among current and potential competitors,
3) the resource must be imperfectly imitable, and 4) the resource cannot be substituted with
another resource by competing firms (Barney, 1991).
In the search for sources of sustained competitive advantage, Barney comments that
"...the resource-based model of strategic management suggests that organization theory and
organizational behavior may be a rich source of findings and theories concerning rare,
nonimitable, and non-substitutable resources in firms," (1991: 116). The remainder of this paper
will attempt to answer this call for the integration of organizational behavior theories
and findings with the resource-based view of the firm, specifically presenting a firm's human
resources as an important potential source of sustained competitive advantage.
Human Resources as a Firm Resource
Prior to discussing the potential of human resources for constituting a sustained
competitive advantage, it is important to clarify our conception of human resources. We define
human resources as the pool of human capital under the firm's control in a direct employment
relationship. Human resource practices, on the other hand, are the organizational activities
directed at managing the pool of human capital and ensuring that the capital is employed toward
the fulfillment of organizational goals. This leads to recognizing two aspects of human
First, similar to Flamholtz and Lacey (1981) and McKelvey (1983), we focus on the knowledges,
skills, and abilities inherent in the individuals that make up the organization. Flamholtz and
Lacey's application of human capital theory focuses directly on the skills of human beings in
organizations. McKelvey, on the other hand, seeks to genotypically classify organizations based
on what he refers to as their competencies. In his model, these competencies are found in the
knowledges, skills, and abilities (KSA's) of organizational members. Both of these approaches
recognize the importance of the individual members of organizations as the important resource,
rather than the practices and/or procedures used by the firm.
Second, we go beyond these models by recognizing that the characteristics of individuals
do not provide value to the firm unless they are utilized through employee behavior, broadly
defined. Much of the writing in the strategic human resource management literature has focused
on employee behavior, rather than on employee skills, as the mediator in the relationship between
a firm's strategy and performance (e.g., Jackson, Schuler & Rivero, 1989; Schuler and Jackson,
1987; Schuler, in press). However, Wright and Snell (1991), present an open system model of
the Human Resource System which explicitly notes the interrelationships between employee
KSA's and employee behaviors. According to their model, KSA's are necessary, but not
sufficient for employee behavior to be in line with firm goals.
This paper, consistent with Wright and Snell, distinctly recognizes that although
employee behavior is the most direct way in which strategies are implemented, employees must
have the competencies (KSA's) necessary to exhibit the behaviors. Although this point may
seem obvious, much of the literature on strategic human resource management (e.g., Jackson et
al. 1989; Schuler & Jackson, 1987; Schuler, in press) has focused on employee behavior, and
has virtually ignored employee competencies. In fact, in their delineation of the "Behavioral
Perspective," Schuler and Jackson stated "...the rationale developed is based on what is needed
from employees apart from the specific technical knowledges, skills, and abilities (SKA's)
required to perform a specific task," (1987: 208).
Given this underlying foundation for our treatment of human resources within the context
of the resource-based view of the firm, the remainder of this paper will discuss how human
resources can be an important source of sustained competitive advantage and one over which
managers have control. We will discuss human resources within the criteria of a sustained
competitive advantage, specifically describing human resources as valuable, rare, imperfectly
imitable, and non-substitutable.
Sustained Competitive Advantage Criteria and Human Resources
According to the resource-based view, in order for a resource to qualify as a source of
sustained competitive advantage, the resource must add value to the firm, it must be rare, it must
be inimitable, and there must be no adequate substitutes for the resource (Barney, 1991).
Therefore, in this section we will show how human resources qualify as such a resource by
examining how they meet these criteria.
Human Capital Resources as Valuable
First, in order for human resources to be a source of sustained competitive advantage,
they must provide value to the firm. Steffy and Maurer (1988) pointed out that Firm Specific
Human Capital Theory (Hashimoto, 1981; Mangan, 1983) provides an examination of the
conditions under which human value creation is and is not possible. According to this theory,
when both the demand for labor is homogeneous (i.e., employees are perfectly substitutable) and
supply of labor is also homogeneous (all employees and potential employees are equal in their
productive capacity), there is no variance in individual contribution to the firm. In this situation,
it is not possible to create value through investment in human assets.
However, Steffy and Maurer (1988) noted that, in fact, both the demand for labor is
heterogeneous (i.e., firms have different jobs which require different skills) and the supply of
labor is heterogeneous (i.e. individuals differ in both the types and level of their skills).
Thus, there is variance in individuals' contribution value to the firm. This argues that
human captial can create value for the firm. Traditionally, conceptualizing the value human
capital resources provide has been quite elusive. However, recent work in the area of utility
analysis for human resource programs has provided both a theoretical rationale for the ways in
which human capital resources increase firm value and techniques for estimating this increase in
value (Boudreau, 1983; Boudreau & Berger, 1985; Cascio & Ramos, 1986; Cronshaw &
Alexander, 1986; Schmidt et al., 1979).
The utility formulas provided by Schmidt et al. (1979), and more recently elaborated by
Boudreau (1983), provide a means of estimating the financial value that human resources
contribute to the firm. Schmidt et al., extending the work of Cronbach and Gleser (1965) derived
the following formula for measuring the value of selection programs:
Utility = [(N) (t) (r) (Z) (SDy)] - C
where N refers to the number of hires, t denotes the average tenure of the hires, r is the
correlation between a selection test and job performance, Z is the average standardized score of
those hired on the predictor, SDy is the standard deviation of job performance in dollar values,
and C is the cost of the job selection system.
SDy connotes the dollar value of job performance to the firm and reflects the variance in
individuals' contributions to the firm in dollar terms. The fact that the variance in job
performance has an associated variance in dollar value to a firm was first recognized by
Cronbach & Gleser (1965), but until Schmidt et al.'s (1979) analysis, researchers were unable to
determine the means by which the values for this variable could be generated. Schmidt et al.
solved this problem of valuing SDy by having supervisors make estimates of the cost of hiring
outsiders to perform at levels comparable to the 50th, 85th, and 15th percentiles of job
performance (values representing the mean, one standard deviation above the mean, and one
standard deviation below the mean). Additional methods for estimating this value have
subsequently been proposed (e.g., Cascio & Ramos, 1986). The method of estimating this value
is not important for this analysis. What is important is that there is a consensus that higher
quality human resources result in higher financial value for firms.
Boudreau and Berger's (1985) expansion of Schmidt et al.'s (1979) model more clearly
demonstrates the value of human resources in dollar terms in two ways. First, it explicitly
considers the sales value of human resources (workers) in dollar values. This sales value
represents the value added by human resources in the firm's production process. Second, in
Boudreau and Berger's model, a dollar value enables the firm to trace the value of the human
resource pool as employees leave and new employees are brought in to replace them. This shifts
the focus from the changes in value attributable to human resource practices to the absolute value
of human resources (Steffy & Maurer, 1988). Taken together, the utility analysis literature
argues strongly that human capital resources provide value to firms, as well as providing methods
for estimating this value.
Human Capital Resources as Rare
Second, a resource must be rare if it is to be a source of sustained competitive advantage.
One could easily argue that human resources are not rare, due to the fact that where
unemployment exists, there is obviously an excess of workers. Related to the issue of the
homogeneity of labor supply discussed above, to the extent that all current and potential
employees have the same skill levels, human capital resources could not be considered rare. In
fact, much of the scientific management literature (e.g., Taylor, 1911) is focused on designing
jobs in a way that makes human skills irrelevant to performing a job. Campion (1988) noted that
the scientific management literature calls for designing simplified jobs which require no (or few)
specific skills. To the extent that jobs are designed in this way, skills become relatively
irrelevant, thus, human resources can be characterized as a commodity rather than a rare
However, to the extent that jobs require skills which allow for variance in individual
contributions (i.e., when job-relevant skills are no longer a commodity), these skills should be
normally distributed in the population. Thus, under these conditions, high quality human
resources are rare. For example, as previously discussed, one measure of the quality of human
resources is cognitive ability (Hunter & Hunter, 1984; Schmidt et al., 1979) due to its consistent
empirical support as one of the best, if not the best, predictors of performance in work
organizations (Hunter & Hunter, 1984). For the purpose of this analysis, cognitive ability
measures are useful as a surrogate measure of the quality of the human resource pool.
Although many different characteristics could be identified and analyzed, we will focus
primarily on differences in cognitive ability for the following reasons. First, cognitive ability has
been consistently demonstrated to have a strong positive relationship with individual job
performance (Hunter & Hunter, 1984). In fact, it is usually cognitive ability tests that have been
used in demonstrating the value of selection to organizations in utility examples (Boudreau,
1983; Schmidt, Hunter, McKenzie & Muldrow, 1979). Underlying these analyses are, of course,
the assumption that it is cognitive ability which is responsible for the increased economic value
of the firm, and the test is the method of determining applicants' relative standing on this
attribute. In addition, Snow and Snell (1992) argue that cognitive ability may be the attribute of
individuals which is most important in staffing due to the fact that future challenges to
organizations will require adaptability and flexibility from the workforce.
Second, there is substantial evidence that cognitive ability is a relatively stable attribute
which is normally distributed in the population (Jenson, 1980). In any of the analyses which
follow, one could either substitute other, or add additional, characteristics which are related to
firm performance without diminishing the analysis.
Because cognitive ability is normally distributed in the population, human resources with
high ability levels are, by definition, rare. Thus, it is safe to say that firms with high average
levels of cognitive ability relative to their competitors possess more valuable human capital
resources than those of competitors. For example, in demonstrating how the use of the
programmer aptitude test could increase productivity in the national economy, Schmidt et al.
noted that "Since the total talent pool is not unlimited, gains due to selection in one job are
partially offset by losses in other jobs," (1979: 624). Similarly, because the total talent pool is
not unlimited, firms which have a high level of human capital resources (in terms of cognitive
ability), are gaining this capital at the expense of other firms.
Human Resources as Inimitable
Third, in order for a resource to be a source of a sustained competitive advantage, the
resource must be inimitable. If the competitive advantage gained from having high quality
human resources is easily imitated, then it is not possible for human resources to constitute a
source of sustained competitive advantage. What is necessary for a resource to be imitated?
First, competitors must be able to identify exactly the source of competitive advantage (i.e., the
exact components of the human capital resource pool which are providing the advantage).
Second, the competitor must be able to exactly duplicate both the relevant components of the
human capital resource pool and the circumstances under which these resources function.
In order to discuss the imitability of high quality human resources, the concepts of unique
historical conditions, causal ambiguity, and social complexity, must be addressed (Barney, 1991;
Dierickx & Cool, 1989; Reed & DeFillippi, 1990). In addition, the potential mobility of human
resources must be considered with regard to the imitability of human resources.
Unique history causal ambiguity. and social complexity. Unique historical conditions
determine a firm's place in time and space (Barney, 1991). Within the resource-based view, the
ability of a firm to acquire and exploit particular firm resources depends upon its unique history.
Causal ambiguity exists when the link between a firm's resources and a competitive advantage is
imperfectly understood (Reed & DeFillippi, 1990). If other firms cannot identify specifically the
way in which a firm resource acts as a competitive advantage, it is virtually impossible for them
to imitate the responsible resources. Finally, social complexity refers to the fact that many social
phenomena are so complex as to make it impossible to systematically manage or influence them.
A competitive advantage that arises from the social complexity of a firm's interactions cannot be
imitated. Human resources are perhaps unique in their ability to give rise to and be influenced by
unique historical conditions, causal ambiguity, and social complexity.
It is possible that human capital resources, over time, are imitable in terms of their ability
levels. For example a firm may have developed a workforce which has a higher level of
cognitive ability than its nearby competitors, yet a competitor firm in a different geographic
location might be able to develop a workforce of equal ability. However, the way in which the
human resources act as a competitive advantage may be determined by unique historical
conditions, be subject to causal ambiguity, or stem from social community. To understand this,
the distinction between abilities and behaviors is important. While individuals must have the
abilities to exhibit required behaviors, having the necessary abilities does not ensure that the
required behaviors will be exhibited.
Firms have unique histories, over the course of which particular cultures and norms
develop (Sathe, 1985). Through the culture and norms, human capital resources may be melded
together to create a synergistic work culture where individuals work cooperatively in line with
organizational goals. On the other hand, the culture and norms may reflect a situation of self-
interest and distrust, where the advantages of rich human capital are not exploited. The unique
history of firms is impossible, or at least excessively costly for competitor firms to duplicate.
Thus, to the extent that history is related to a competitive advantage associated with human
resources, this advantage is not, for all practical purposes, imitable and would also be the source
of causal ambiguity. This will occur with team production. Alchian and Demsetz defined team
production as "production in which 1) several types of [human] resources are used, and 2) the
product is not a sum of separable outputs of each cooperating resource," (1972: 779). Because
output is not the sum of the separable outputs of each cooperating resource, it may be impossible
to identify the source of the competitive advantage that arises from team production, i.e., there is
causal ambiguity. Because of the rareness of human resources, it is unlikely that a competing
firm can create a team with exactly the same attributes as the focal firm's team, and cannot,
therefore, imitate its competitive advantage.
Social complexity may arise from transaction specific relationships and the competitive
advantage they comprise may be due to transaction specific human capital. It is possible that
relationships between key personnel such as sales representatives and buying agents will develop
over time and become part of a network that includes a larger group of personnel such as design
and marketing staff, production and distribution workers, and management, as well as final
consumers. A very complex social situation may result and may constitute a competitive
advantage for the firm. Although the relationship may be too complex to dissect, it is reasonable
to speculate that the value of the focal relationship may be due to transactions-specific human
capital (Becker, 1964), that is, the knowledge and trust that are developed over time by the focal
personnel and which have value only in the focal relationship. Human resources and social
complexity are intrinsically linked because social complexity, by definition, must result from
Thus, in theory, competitive advantages stemming from culture or norms, team
production, or transaction specific human capital might be imitable if one were able to identify
and replicate the exact historical occurrences and the interactions, programs, and personalities
within the firm. However, this is highly unlikely due to the many contingencies that exist in
different organizational situations. This is similar to the distinction between field studies and
laboratory experiments. In field studies, a researcher is never able to identify and control all of
the possible contingencies in order to understand the exact causal connections among variables.
In contrast, in a laboratory experiment, the researcher is able to control virtually all
environmental contingencies, thus making the causal effect less ambiguous. The reality is that
firms are not laboratories. Hence, human resource advantages most frequently are characterized
by unique historical conditions, causal ambiguity, and social complexity, and thus, are almost
Resource immobility and human resources. One potential problem with the idea that
human resources are inimitable is the notion that human resources are highly mobile. If human
resources are highly mobile, a competing firm does not have to imitate the human resources of
the focal firm, it can simply hire them away. As we will show, however, these resources are far
from being perfectly or even highly mobile.
First, human resources are not perfectly mobile because there are substantial transaction
costs involved with moving from one employment situation to another (Abelson & Baysinger,
1984). The costs of determining all relevant alternative job situations may be quite high, the
worker must weigh the probability that a future employment situation will be significantly better
than the present employment situation, and the worker must incur nonpecuniary (and possibly
pecuniary) costs of relocation.
Second, with causal ambiguity or social complexity, it may not be apparent which
personnel are responsible for the competitive advantage. Hiring away teams is a possibility, but
even a team's effectiveness may depend on unique historical circumstances or relationships with
other teams (Alchian & Demsetz, 1972). In the limit, hiring the appropriate team might mean
hiring the entire work force which constitutes acquiring the firm. Even then, the effectiveness of
the human capital resources may be tightly coupled to the physical or organizational capital
resources. Thus, unique historical conditions, causal ambiguity, and social complexity strongly
influence the inimitability of human resources. In addition, these same conditions result in
sustained competitive advantages stemming from human resources being immobile.
In addition, it is thrown the combination of social complexity, causal ambiguity, and unique
historical circumstances with imperfect mobility that the value created by human resources is
accrued by the firm. In the absence of these conditions, individuals would be able to capture the
additional rents associated with their higher human capital. However, because their inputs are
usually associated with team production, individuals cannot specifically measure their
contribution, and thus, are not able to capture the rents (Jones, 1984). Thus, these rents accrue to
the firm, increasing firm value.
Human Capital Resources as Non-Substitutable
Finally, a resource must not have substitutes if it is to be the source of a sustained
competitive advantage. This raises the question of whether or not other firm resources, such
as technology, have the potential for offsetting any competitive advantages attributable to human
resources. To the extent that other resources are able to substitute for advantages associated with
the human capital resource of the focal firm, then human resources do not have the potential to
act as a sustained competitive advantage.
In order to address this issue, it is important to note that human resources are one of the
few firm resources which have the potential to a) not become obsolete, and b) be transferable
across a variety of technologies, products, and markets. Although the rapid pace of technological
change has resulted in new technologies which make former technical skills obsolete, (i.e.,
having a short half-life), many human capital resources are quite generalizable. Returning to our
example of cognitive ability as a relevant resource, if a firm has obtained individuals with high
levels of cognitive ability, then constant training in state of the art technological knowledge
ensures that the resource does not become obsolete. In addition, general human capital resources
such as cognitive ability are transferable across a wide variety of technologies, products, and
markets. In fact, Schmidt, Hunter and Pearlman (1981) found that the validity of cognitive
ability was consistent even across extremely dissimilar jobs.
Therefore, we argue that it might be possible to substitute other resources in the short
term, but it is highly unlikely that such substitution could result in sustained competitive
advantage. This stems from the fact that to the extent that the resource offsetting the advantage
of human resources is not, in and of itself, rare, inimitable, or non-substitutable, then it will be
imitated and human resources will once again constitute a competitive advantage. For example,
consider a firm, Firm A, which has the highest ability individuals who are highly committed to
the organization, thus, constituting a source of competitive advantage. What happens if a
competitor, Firm B, develops a new technology which provides productivity increases greater
than the productivity differences stemming from Firm A's highly skilled, highly committed
workers? If the technology is imitable (which is likely because the firm could simply purchase
the technology in the marketplace), then Firm A could purchase the new technology, and its
human resources would once again constitute a competitive advantage. Thus, the only resources
that can substitute for human resources are those resources that are themselves valuable, rare,
inimitable, and non-substitutable.
From this discussion it is clear that human resources meet the criteria for being a source
of a sustainable competitive advantage. Human resources add value to the firm, are rare, cannot
be imitated, and are not substitutable. We now discuss why it is human resources as a pool of
human capital rather than top managers that provide a source of sustained competitive
Top Management Versus Human Resources
Earlier we defined human resources as the total pool of human capital. This definition
distinguishes between treating human resources as an individual (or an elite group of individuals)
or the total workforce. Clearly, most of the writing on human resources as a source of sustained
competitive advantage has focused on top managers, or top manager teams. For example, Barney
(1991) emphasizes that human capital resources refer to the characteristics of individual
managers and workers in the firm, and specifically noted that the managerial team might
constitute a source of sustained competitive advantage. Similarly, Castanias and Helfat (1991)
proposed that top management may constitute a source of sustained competitive advantage.
Consistent with the literature on strategic management, these discussions evidence a bias toward
the strategic decision-making process that is viewed as taking place among top managers. While
it is true that an individual or an elite group of individuals may create temporary competitive
advantage, we argue that a more likely source of sustained competitive advantage is the larger
pool of human capital that constitutes the entire organization.
For a resource to be a source of sustained competitive advantage, it must be inimitable
and this attribute is not likely to be found among top managers. Top management is not likely to
be inimitable because its output is not characterized by causal ambiguity, social complexity, or
unique historical conditions. In fact, rather than being causally ambiguous, the contribution of
top management is likely to be highly visible. This visibility makes top managers highly
imitable. because it makes them highly mobile. That is competitor firms can imitate a
competitive advantage by hiring away top management. High visibility also increases top
managers' mobility through allowing them to demand that the firm incur any transaction costs
associated with changing firms (i.e., moving expenses, golden parachutes, etc.). In addition to its
effect on mobility, high visibility allows top managers to demand the market price for their
inputs, increasing their ability to claim the rents that would otherwise accrue to the firm.
Because top management is likely to be highly mobile and is able to capture the rents that it
generates, it is not as likely to be a source of sustained competitive advantage for the firm.
However top management may create the conditions under which the remainder of the human
capital pool becomes a source of sustained competitive advantage.
The entire human resource capital pool (i.e., all employees), on the other hand, are often
overlooked as a source of sustained competitive advantage because their contribution is less
visible. However, these employees may play a greater role in generating competitive advantage
because they are directly involved in the production of the product or service. In addition,
because of the lower visibility, they are less mobile, and less able to claim the rents from their
inputs. Also, the pool of employees may have advantages that are characterized by social
complexity (e.g., good working relationships, trust, etc.) that are not imitable. For these reasons,
we believe that top managers are clearly valuable and can provide a short term competitive
advantage, but that sustained competitive advantage is more likely to be found in the entire
human resource pool. In the following section we will examine the role of human resources in
sustained competitive advantage and develop some research propositions regarding this role.
Human Resources and Sustained Competitive Advantage The Role of Human Resources in
Sustained Competitive Advantage
We have demonstrated that when the supply of and demand for labor is heterogeneous,
human capital characteristics are normally distributed, firms have unique histories, work
processes are characterized by causal ambiguity and social complexity, and human capital is
transferable across technologies, human resources have the potential to constitute a source of
sustained competitive advantage for a firm. However, the way in which human resources
provide a relative competitive advantage that leads to higher firm performance has been ignored.
We argue that the mechanisms differ somewhat depending upon the nature of the environment.
First, in a static environment, higher levels of human capital should enable a firm to have
productivity advantages relative to its competitors. For example, cognitive ability allows for
individuals in any given job to devise the most efficient strategy for performing the required
tasks, thus, increasing productivity. Thus, given the strong linear relationship between cognitive
ability and job performance (Hunter & Hunter, 1984), a firm with greater human capital
resources in terms of cognitive ability should possess a productivity advantage relative to other
firms. Firms with higher levels of cognitive ability, ceteris paribus, should demonstrate higher
Proposition 1: In static environments, firms with high levels of human capital
resources should possess relative productivity advantages over competitors through the
development of more efficient means of accomplishing task requirements.
Second, under more dynamic and complex environments, the human capital pool can
affect firm effectiveness through increasing its capacity to adapt to particular environmental
requirements. In our analysis of this phenomena, we take the logical incrementalism perspective
offered by Quinn (1980).
According to Quinn (1980), firm strategies develop through a process of an evolutionary
series of decisions aimed at achieving vague objectives that move the firm incrementally in a
desired direction. The top management team is seen as setting the overall strategic direction, but
the specific strategies and tactics arise through the responses of subunits to their environments.
Firms are faced with increasingly dynamic and competitive environments which necessitate close
monitoring and quick strategic responses to environmental changes (Snow & Snell, 1992). Kerr
and Jackofsky (1989) contended that three essential components of strategy implementation
within the context of the logicalincremental view of strategic management are flexibility,
communication, and cohesion. We would expand upon this contention, by arguing that
flexibility, communication, and cohesiveness provide a competitive advantage through enabling
a firm (1) to sense critical environmental variables, (2) develop strategies to react to those
variables, and (3) to implement these strategies quickly and efficiently.
First, human capital can improve the firm's ability to sense changes in critical
environmental variables that require changes in a firm's activities. Because the environments
within which firms exist are becoming increasingly complex and dynamic, the need for the
development of alternative mechanisms for monitoring the environment becomes more
important. High levels of human capital resources increase the firm's monitoring capability by
decentralizing the monitoring to meet the complexity of the environment. No longer is the
monitoring only carried out by a centralized department (e.g., planning, or marketing), but
additional information can be gained by employees who are closer to the actual stakeholder
Second, human capital certainly creates an ability to devise more effective strategies in
response to environmental changes. As Quinn (1980) noted, although top management has the
responsibility for setting the strategic direction of the firm, the many subunits engage in
developing the strategies and tactics necessary to function effectively in their particular
environments. Finally, once responsive strategies have been devised, they need to be
implemented quickly and efficiently. As Snow and Snell (1992) pointed out, this challenge
requires flexibility and adaptability from the workforce. Responses must be evidenced
throughout the entire workforce, and may require quickly learning and applying new skills,
implementing new technologies, and/or reorganizing the way work gets done. Returning to our
discussion of the transferability of various human capital resources such as cognitive ability, it is
clear that high levels of human capital can provide a high degree of flexibility for organizations
to adapt to new technologies and/or environments. In fact, recent research has demonstrated that
the effect of cognitive ability on performance occurs primarily through the acquisition of job
knowledge (Schmidt & Hunter, 1992). Individuals high in cognitive ability are more able to
learn job relevant knowledge (e.g., procedures, etc.) than those low in cognitive ability. An
environment characterized by constantly changing technologies and products requires that
individuals adapt to new technologies through constantly acquiring knowledge. Thus, firms
which possess a high quality human resource capital pool (i.e., individuals having high levels of
cognitive ability) should possess an advantage relative to their competitors with less capable
Proposition 2: In dynamic environments, firms with high levels of human capital
resources possess greater capability to respond to environmental changes through sensing the
need for change, developing strategies to meet the change, and quickly and efficiently
implementing these strategies.
Human Resource Practices and Sustained Competitive Advantage
The idea that human resources can serve as a competitive advantage is not new (c.f.,
Schuler & MacMillan, 1984; Ulrich, 1991). However, existing research has taken a practice-
oriented perspective, emphasizing the value of HR practices rather than the quality of the HR
pool. Schuler and MacMillan (1984) presented a target/thrust matrix to discuss the potential for
capitalizing on superior human resource management as a means of gaining and maintaining a
competitive advantage. In this model, targets of HRM practices represent both upstream and
downstream activities, including the firm itself, its customers, its distributors and servicers, and
its suppliers. The potential thrusts are (1) cost/efficiency or (2) product differentiation.
Ulrich (1991) also discussed how human resource practices can be used by firms to develop
strategies that will lead to a sustained competitive advantage, stating that there must be a focus
on the relationship between human resources, strategies, and competitive advantage. Ulrich
partially relied on the resource-based theoretical perspective in describing human resources as a
competitive advantage by expanding Porter's (1985) model of competitive advantage to include
organizational culture, distinctive competence and strategic unity as mediators in the strategy-
competitive advantage link.
Both Schuler and MacMillan (1984) and Ulrich (1991) provide practice-oriented
perspectives, demonstrating the ways in which they believe that HRM can serve as a sustained
competitive advantage. This perspective focuses on human resource practices that enable a firm
to have a competitive advantage relative to other firms. These authors assume that human
resources can create value for the firm and that HR practices can be the source of sustained
competitive advantage. The focus is on guiding practitioners in the development and structure of
HR practices to achieve competitive advantage.
While these practice-oriented approaches provide valuable recommendations for how
human resource practices can be used for competitive advantage, they are somewhat deficient
from a theoretical perspective, and a theoretical foundation is necessary for moving our
knowledge forward (Wright & McMahan, 1992). Practice-oriented approaches focus on the HR
practices as the source of sustained competitive advantage as opposed to the human resources
themselves being the source. As previously discussed, a resource must be valuable, rare,
inimitable, and nonsubstitutable in order to be a source of sustained competitive advantage.
While recognizing the importance of HR practices, we will show that they are easily imitated
and/or substituted, thus, cannot by themselves be a source of sustained competitive advantage.
Therefore, the source of sustained competitive advantage lies in the human resources
themselves, not the practices used to attract, utilize, and retain.
In making a distinction between human resources as a pool of human capital and human
resource practices, we differ somewhat from both Schuler and MacMillan (1984) and Ulrich
(1991) in our focus. These authors focused primarily on HR practices as constituting a
competitive advantage. This is completely consistent with the orientation towards giving
managers practical tools for increasing organizational effectiveness. However, having discussed
the necessary characteristics of a resource for it to serve as a source of sustained competitive
advantage, we can now show why a focus on human resource practices as such a source is
Remember that in order for a resource to serve as a source of sustained competitive
advantage, it must be valuable, rare, inimitable, and non-substitutable. If one were to focus on
superior human resource practices as the source of sustained competitive advantage, then these
practices must be evaluated against these four characteristics. Clearly, HR practices can be
valuable (e.g., the value from HR programs as demonstrated in utility analysis models).
However, it is virtually impossible for HR practices to be rare, inimitable, and non-substitutable.
For example, a variety of ability tests exist for assessing one's intellectual human capital, which
makes ability testing neither rare, inimitable, nor non-substitutable. Thus, HR practices, in and
of themselves, have little potential for being a source of sustained competitive advantage.
This is not to ignore the importance of HR practices in developing human resources as a
source of sustained competitive advantage. Rather, we argue that although HR practices are not
themselves sources of sustained competitive advantage, they play an important role in developing
sustained competitive advantage through the development of the human capital pool, and through
moderating the relationship between this pool and sustained competitive advantage by affecting
HR behavior as depicted in Figure 1.
As previously discussed, it is through the human resource capital pool and employee
behavior that human resources can constitute a sustained competitive advantage. Thus, it is
possible that a human resource capital pool may exist within the firm and be discovered and
exploited by managers. However, this human capital pool can also be developed and behavior
brought in line with firm goals through human resource practices which are under the control of
managers (Schuler & Jackson, 1987; Schuler & MacMillan, 1984; Wright & Snell, 1991). This
is, in essence, the focus of "strategic" human resource management.
First, these practices are essentially the levers by which a pool of human capital can be
developed. Managers can use HR practices such as the development of selection, appraisal,
training, and compensation systems to attract, identify, and retain high quality employees. For
example, the firm must be able to identify high ability individuals and distinguish them from low
ability individuals. The goal of virtually all selection programs is to ensure that the organization
is hiring only the highest ability individuals. Second, the firm must be able to attract (Murphy,
1986) and retain (Jones & Wright, 1992) those applicants deemed to be of the highest ability.
This is the aim of additional HR programs such as extensive recruitment systems and attractive
compensation packages. Third, the firm must invest in the continuing skill development of its
human capital pool. This requires administering a variety of training aimed at increasing and
maintaining each individual's job related skills, and providing development opportunities for
individuals which broaden their skill base.
Thus, a firm which develops a valid selection system and has attractive HR programs
such as higher than normal compensation packages and numerous development opportunities,
can attract, select, and maintain the highest quality human resource capital pool. While HR
programs are imitable, once a differentially high quality human resource capital pool has been
developed, the firm has a first mover advantage over competing firms (Williamson, 1975),
because high quality human resources are rare, inimitable, and nonsubstitutable.
Proposition 3: HR practices aid in developing human resources as a source of sustained
competitive advantage through creating and developing a high quality human capital pool.
Proposition 4: A firm which is the first in its industry to develop the effective mix of
reward systems and selection systems will have a first mover advantage to the extent that human
resources are not perfectly mobile.
Second, having obtained high quality human resource capital for the firm, the next aim of
human resource practices is to encourage individuals to behave in a way that supports the
organization. As was previously discussed, the human resource capital pool is a necessary, but
not sufficient condition for human resources to act as a source of sustained competitive
advantage. The potential of the human resource capital is realized only to the extent that the
possessors of the human capital (i.e., individual employees) choose to allow the firm to benefit
from the capital through their behavior. Reward systems, communication systems, training
programs, and socialization systems can be developed which encourage employees to act in the
interest of the firm (Schuler, 1992; Schuler & MacMillan, 1984). For example, the Scanlon Plan
is a process through which the firm changes its culture to one of trust between managers,
employees, owners and customers (Frost, Wakely, & Ruh, 1974). The plan utilizes a suggestion
system where employees can propose ideas for better or more efficient ways of performing tasks
and a bonus formula which allows all parties to share the benefits of increased productivity. It is
interesting to note that firms which have had success with the Scanlon Plan inevitably consider
their people to be the source of their competitive advantage (Depree, 1987). Thus, HR practices
moderate the relationship between the human capital pool and firm effectiveness, such that the
pool is only effective when combined with the right practices that capitalize on the advantage
through eliciting employee behavior. In other words, having the correct mix of HR practices is a
necessary condition for the maximal effectiveness of the HR capital pool.
Proposition 5: HR practices moderate the relationship between the human capital pool
and sustained competitive advantage such that the capital pool results in sustained competitive
advantage only when matched with appropriate HR practices that elicit productive employee
This moderating role may explain why, in spite of the fact that most firms stress the
importance of human resources, very few firms have been successful at developing their human
resources as a source of competitive advantage. Sustained competitive advantage is only
achieved by the interaction between the human capital pool and the HR practices. It also may
explain why practices such as selection, training, and knowledge-based pay have been successful
in some firms, yet not in others. Firms can imitate practices that appear to make other firms
successful, but it is only through the use of these human resource practices in a unique context
that human resources can be developed as a source of sustained competitive advantage. For
example, the "Behavioral Perspective" (Jackson et al., 1989) proposed by Schuler and his
colleagues argues that HR practices provide competitive advantage through eliciting from
employees appropriate role behaviors. However, many firms copy the HR practices of
successful firms without the same competitive advantage. The source of the differing success of
the same HR practices likely results from the different human capital pools existing within the
various firms. Some role behaviors may require superior human capital, without which no HR
practices can elicit the necessary behaviors. Again, this illustrates the fact that the relationship
between HR practices and competitive advantage is contingent upon the human capital pool.
The Role of Managers in Developing Human Resources as a Source of Sustained
One of the problems inherent in defining sources of sustained competitive advantage as
requiring value, rareness, inimitability, and non-substitutability is that it limits, to a great extent,
the role of the manager in creating competitive advantage. Although this model attributes to
managers greater influence over firm performance than population ecologists might (Hannan &
Freeman, 1977), Barney and Tyler (1991) state that the resource-based view of the firm assumes
that managers are limited in their ability to manipulate all the characteristics of their firms.
This presents a problem for managers seeking to create a sustained competitive advantage
within their firms. When resources are traded freely on markets, it is impossible for a firm to
purchase resources that will be a source of sustained competitive advantage. Such resources will
be priced by the market at the value to the firm, that is, if a resource can generate excess returns,
any firm wishing to purchase it will have to pay the value of those excess returns in a competitive
market (Klein, Crawford, & Alchian, 1978). Thus, the resource-based view makes it clear that
firms cannot expect to purchase sustained competitive advantages. Such advantages must be
found in the rare, imperfectly imitable, and nonsubstitutable resources already controlled by a
firm (Dierickx & Cool, 1989). The role of managers, then, is to recognize, develop, and exploit
the resources within the firm.
However, as we have discussed, managers can play a role in developing human resources
as a source of sustained competitive advantage through the application of HR systems that
develop the human capital pool of employees and elicit appropriate behavior from employees. In
spite of the fact that the relationship between HR practices and competitive advantage is
complex, a resource-based view of the firm points out the potential for managers to play an
active role in developing such an advantage through focusing on human resources. In fact, very
few other firm resources are under as direct a control of managers as human resources.
Conclusions and Suggestions for Future Research
The purpose of this analysis was to examine human resources as a source of sustained
competitive advantage from the standpoint of the firm. We demonstrated, using the theoretical
concepts from the resource-based view of the firm (Wernerfelt, 1984; Barney, 1991; Conner,
1991), that human resources can be a source of sustained competitive advantage because they
meet the criteria of being valuable, rare, inimitable, and nonsubstitutable. One can conclude that
human resources always are a potential source of sustained competitive advantage. However,
because human resources are characterized by causal ambiguity, social complexity, and unique
historical conditions, not all firms can successfully develop human resources as a sustained
competitive advantage through imitating the HR practices of firms that have successfully
developed human resources.
The resource-based view of the firm suggests the need to integrate human resources into
the formulation stage of a firm's strategy. The resource-based approach provides a framework for
examining the potential for a given pool of human capital resources to carry out a given strategy.
Thus, the resource-based view may demonstrate the fact that strategies are not universally
implementable, but are contingent on having the human resource base necessary to implement
them (Grant, 1991). If the human resource base is not present, then either the strategic
alternative can be eliminated or those in charge of strategic planning can determine whether the
necessary human capital resources can be obtained through human resource practices. For
example, Snell and Dean (1992) found that many new manufacturing technologies such as
Advanced Manufacturing Techniques, Total Quality, and Just-in-Time inventories are
accompanied by investments in human capital.
From the standpoint of researchers interested in strategic human resource management
(SHRM), the resource-based view of the firm provides a framework for examining the role of
human resources in competitive success (Wright & McMahan, 1992). Similar to utility analyses
of employee value (e.g., Boudreau & Berger, 1985) and McKelvey's (1983) view that a firm's
distinctive competence is made up of the skills of the members of the organization, the resource-
based view provides a framework for viewing human resources as a pool of capital.
Finally, the view of human resources as a pool of capital within the resource-based view implies
a change in the treatment of costs incurred in human resource interventions.
Traditionally, costs associated with the development of selection systems and training
programs have been viewed as an operating expense. However, if, in fact, human resources are a
resource through which managers can develop a sustained competitive advantage, then these
costs might be better viewed as an investment in a capital asset (Cronshaw & Alexander, 1991).
Investments in any other capital resource are often considered by managers as means of
generating a potential sustained competitive advantage (Dierickx & Cool, 1989). Our discussion
points out the fact that investments in human capital have the same (if not greater) potential, and
thus, should be treated as capital investments. Flamholtz (1985) argued that, in effect, firms
purchase human assets which generate revenue flows over future accounting periods. Thus,
consistent with the resource-based view of human resources, Cronshaw and Alexander (1986)
stated that it is more realistic to consider outlays for the development of human capital resources
as capital investments.
Developing Sustained Competitive Advantage through Human Resources
Proposition X: Firms without HR practices which define and elicit behavior in line with
firm goals will be unable to realize the benefits of their human capital resource advantages over
Proposition X: Firms utilizing HR practices which define and elicit behavior in line
with firm goals (performance appraisal systems, reward systems, communication systems etc.)
are able to obtain the advantages of the human capital pool to a greater extent than their
We, on the other hand, have attempted to explore the role of human resources in
sustained competitive advantage from a broader theoretical perspective. Thus, we focused on the
pool of human capital as the resource which makes up the competitive advantage, distinct from
the HR practices which are the tools used by managers to develop those resources into a
And while these practices are imitable, the exact context in which they are administered is
subject to causal ambiguity, social complexity and unique historical conditions, thus, limiting the
potential for these practices to result in a high quality human resource capital pool in each
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