Why did I start a PhD again? Professionalization of human resources management in social enterprises: isomorphism or innovation?

Few weeks ago, I got an amazing new: I had the grant to start my PhD. After having worked so hard on the project, it was suddenly becoming true… But, at that moment, I had in the back of my head that little but persistent question: why am I doing that PhD again? By spreading the good news, I had to explain what I was going to do for the next four years. And that’s how I remind myself why I choose that adventure. Social enterprises are part of the solution to the tensions, social or environmental, caused by the actual economic system. By combining social purpose and economic activity, entrepreneurship spirit and commitment for a societal mission, social enterprises appear as a credible alternative to an unbridled capitalism.

But what make the heart of those social enterprises? Human beings! They are at the heart of any organization but maybe more strongly in social enterprises. Indeed, social enterprises are brought, by their purpose, to produce services rather than the goods, the workers being then the often unique image of the organization (Davister, 2006, 2010; Laville & Sainsaulieu, 1997; Borzaga & Solari, 2001). Moreover, the specific governance and the actors’ diversity (volunteers, people in socio-professional integration, associate personnel…) require different organizational models and specific management.

At the present time, the social enterprise sector is undergoing important changes: diversification of social demands, increased complexity of legal and institutional frameworks, transformation of public funding ways (contractualisation, setting up competition between providers in a quasi-market) (Dees & Elias, 1998; Mertens, 2010). At the same time, we may observe a professionalization of social enterprises (Bode et al., 2006; Comeau & Davister, 2008; Davister, 2010; Petrella & Richez-Battesti, 2010). The movement toward professionalization, which is affecting the entire sector of social enterprises, is bringing along with it other changes that may be observed particularly with regard to evolutions in human resources management practices (Davister, 2010): increasing formalization of procedures, developments of senior staff training, replacement of volunteer positions with salaried positions, a changeover from a militant attitude on the part of directors toward a managerial attitude, etc.

In this context, my research project consists of studying the processes of the professionalization of human resources management in social enterprises. In particular, this research aims to understand in what ways, how and under what conditions the specific aspects of social enterprises have an impact on the practices leading toward professionalization of their human resources management. Will this professionalization take the form of a simple repetition of what has been done before or are other pathways conceivable? And under what conditions might this take place?

Thus the central debate is indeed conducted around a series of two-sided questions. On the one hand, increasing pressure exercised by the context (conditions of intervention on the part of public authorities, demand for profitability, legal frameworks, social norms, entering into competition, etc. ) may favor the adoption on the part of social enterprises of practices of human resources management and change management similar to what has been observed in classic private businesses (Méda, 1999; Laville, 2000; Demoustier, 2000; Laville & Nyssens, 2001; Bidet, 2003; Bode et al., 2006). In other words, is there in social enterprises a process of “institutional isomorphism” such as that observed in many other socioeconomic contexts (Powell & DiMaggio, 1991), including the field of “nonprofit” organizations  (DiMaggio & Powell, 1983; Bode et al., 2006; Evers & Laville, 2004)? And what are the factors that have caused this process to appear? On the other hand, the specific aspects that characterize social enterprises (democratic governance, social purpose) and their human resources (volunteers, people in socio-professional integration, associate personnel) push them to show that they can be innovative in terms of human resources management (Borzaga & Solari, 2001; Comeau & Davister, 2008; Meyer, 2009). This research is thus intended to test the capacity for innovation of social enterprises and to understand what factors allow them, outside of conventional models (Pichault & Nizet, 2000), to develop new modes of human resources management, or to manage “in a different way” the professionalization of human resources management. If you are interested in the theoretical frameworks of my research, feel free to contact me.

As you can see, I could speak for hours about that topic. I think this is a quite good reason to start a PhD. Without falling in an idealistic approach, my passion for that topic and the feeling that there is a need there made me take that decision and I must say, I am quite happy with it!


Bidet, E. (2003), « L’insoutenable grand écart de l’économie sociale: isomorphisme institutionnel et économie solidaire », Revue du MAUSS, n°21, 162-178

Bode, I., Evers, A. & Schulz, A. (2006), “Work Integration social enterprises in Europe: can hybridization be sustainable?” , in: Nyssens, M. (Ed.), Social Enterprise, at the Crossroads of Market, Public Policies and Civil Society, London & New York, Routledge, 296-309

Borzaga, C. & Solari, L. (2001), “Management challenges for social enterprises”, in: Borzaga, C. & Defourny, J. (Eds.), The Emergence of Social Enterprise, London, Routledge, 1-28

Comeau, Y. & Davister, C. (2008), « La GRH en économie sociale : l’inclusion des travailleurs en tant qu’innovation ‘socialement responsable’ », Revue internationale de psychosociologie, 33, vol. XIV, 203-223

Davister, C. (2006), « La gestion des ressources humaines en économie sociale », Les cahiers de la Chaire Cera, vol. n°1, Liège.

Davister, C. (2010), « La gestion des ressources humaines », in : Mertens de Wilmars, S. (Ed.), La gestion des entreprises sociales, Liège-Belgium, EdiPro, 287-366

Dees, J.G. & Elias J. (1998), “The challenges of combining social and commercial enterprise”, Business Ethics Quarterly, vol. 8, n° 1, 165-178

Demoustier, D. (2000), « Les organisations d’économie sociale, acteurs de la régulation socio-économique ? », RECMA-Revue internationale de l’économie sociale, 275-276

DiMaggio, P. J. & Powell, W. W. (1983), “The iron cage revisited: institutional isomorphism and collective rationality in organizational fields”, American Sociological Review, vol. 48, n° 2, 147-160

Evers, A. & Laville, J.-L. (Ed.) (2004), The third sector in Europe, Cheltenham, Edward Elgar.

Laville, J.-L. (2000), « Le tiers secteur. Un objet d’étude pour la sociologie économique », Sociologie du travail, vol. 42, 4.

Laville, J.-L., & Nyssens, M. (2001), The social enterprise: towards a theoretical socio-economic approach, In C., Borzaga & J., Defourny (Eds.), The Emergence of Social Enterprise (pp. 312-332), London, Routledge.

Laville, J.-L. & Sainsaulieu, R. (1997), « Les fonctionnements associatifs », In Laville, J.-L. & Sainsaulieu, R. (Ed.), Sociologie de l’association, des organisations à l’épreuve du changement social (pp 271-303), Paris: Desclée de Brouwer (coll. Sociologie Economique).

Méda, D. (1999), Qu’est-ce que la richessse ?, Paris, Aubier

Mertens, S. (Ed.). (2010), La gestion des entreprises sociales, Liège, Belgium: EdiPro.

Meyer, M. (2009), « Innovations en GRH pour une double performance : le cas des entreprises d’insertion par l’économique », Innovations, n°29, 87-102

Pichault, F. & Nizet, J. (2000), Les pratiques de gestion des ressources humaines. Approches contingente et politique, Paris, Seuil, Collection “Points/Essais Sciences humaines”

Petrella, F. & Richez-Battesti, N. (2010), « Régulation de la qualité dans les services à la personne en France : l’économie sociale et solidaire entre innovation et isomorphisme ? », Management & Avenir, n°35, 273-292

Powell, W. W. & DiMaggio P. J. (1991), The new institutionalism in organizational analysis, London, The University of Chicago Press

Charlotte Moreauis a PhD student at the Centre for Social Economy and the LENTIC (HEC Management School – University of Liege, Belgium).She is researching in human resource and change management in social enterprises and institutional theory. Specifically, the title of her PhD in management science, beginning at October 2011, is Professionalization of human resources management in social enterprises: Isomorphism or innovation? 

Email: charlotte.moreau@ulg.ac.be


One thought on “Why did I start a PhD again? Professionalization of human resources management in social enterprises: isomorphism or innovation?

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