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DBS academic on the future of employment and workplace relations

"t’s a luxury to be in a field that generates so many interesting areas of work."

Professor Amanda Pyman, head of Deakin Business School’s Department of Management, feels ‘very fortunate’ to be leading one of the faculty’s largest departments.

Seven months into her appointment, Professor Pyman says she’s looking forward to the opportunities and challenges of building on the department’s multidisciplinary programs and research strengths.

‘This is a new department that’s resulted from the merger of two schools and that’s really exciting because we have a wide range of key research strengths. We benefit not only from our size but the multidisciplinary nature of our work which covers sports, arts, leadership, organisational behaviour, human resources, industrial relations, and international business,’ she says.

Professor Pyman’s own study and career journey began with a commerce degree which led to a PhD in industrial employment relations and labour law.

‘My interest in industrial relations really began with an excellent undergrad lecturer – I just found the content fascinating. It was very multidisciplinary in orientation and was a bit like law, economics, history, business and management all rolled into one! The subject was so appealing it encouraged me to do honours which extended into a PhD,’ she recalls.

Following her PhD, Professor Pyman worked as a research fellow at Monash University where she was involved in a large, comparative project that looked at employee involvement and participation across six Anglo-American countries.

‘I was part of the Australia team so I guess that was my first big break in the research space…we did a national survey in 2004 and repeated that in 2007 and then again in 2010.  It was a large body of work that generated many publications in some of the top-rated IR and HRM journals,’ she explains.

In 2005 Professor Pyman moved to the United Kingdom and took up a six-year post at the University of Kent where she broadened her research into the performance improvement of small-medium enterprises (SME) as well as taking on the role of deputy director of Kent Business School’s MBA program.

She returned to Australia at the end of 2010 and within two years, was Director of MBA Programs at Monash – a role she held for three years before her Deakin appointment.

Enjoying the challenge of her new role, Professor Pyman says she’s keen to further develop some of the department’s research strengths and build on its strong industry partnerships and programs.

‘We’ve appointed an Industry Engagement Director and we have a wide range of advisory boards – which include representatives from industry, the arts and the sports. We’re also actively consulting around our engagement plans, how we can extend those relationships to applied research, to alumni and leadership events in the city… a whole range of activities that are designed to enhance our profile and build reciprocal relationships,’ she says.

Enhancing the Department of Management’s industry connections enables its educational programs to be broadened and its industry-funded research pathways to be strengthened she explains.

‘For example we’re working with Deakin Research Commercial around a potential project with the Transport Accident Commission looking at the shortages of skilled IT professionals in Geelong. We’re often approached about a variety of industry-funded projects – this not only recognises our research strengths but provides great benefit for the communities that are broadly defined through our disciplines.’

Employment and human resource management issues are evolving – and often challenging themes across business and management sectors.  Professor Pyman says that in the past three decades there have been significant changes to traditional work patterns and career expectations.

‘This has changed incredibly. In the workforce and employment domain we’ve seen clear evidence and a dramatic shift to the notion of portfolio careers. This means that rather than spending most of your career in one job, you’ll probably stay around three years before looking for a change or a new challenge.’

She argues that the demand of achieving a healthy work/life balance – with flexibility, emotional wellbeing and a dash of international experience – has dramatically altered 21st century career expectations.  

‘Across all sectors, I think we’ve almost seen the breakdown of traditional career paths,’ she observes.

While research into the impact of changing career patterns provides insight into employment choices, Professor Pyman says there is still much work to be done in the information technology (IT) space.

‘There are so many facets to this area of research … especially around the boundaries between private and public spaces and how that plays out in terms of the impact of IT and social media in the workplace for example,’ she says.

‘Take the issue of workplace issues being discussed on Facebook and Twitter. This can reflect a blurring the boundaries between the home space and the work space?  And while organisations have policies around responsible use of IT and their systems, what happens when you’re outside the workplace in private time? These sorts of issues are going to continue to attract interest.’

In addition to leading the Department of Management, Professor Pyman is continuing to work on a number of diverse research projects.

‘From a research point of view, it’s a bit of a luxury to be in a field that generates so many different and interesting areas of work,’ she says.

One of her current projects revolves around an Australian workplace relations survey that’s looking at the link between the ‘employee voice’ and performance. 

‘It’s about involvement, participation and decision making.  It’s a huge dataset (from the Fair Work Commission) and we are one of a few research teams who were given access to it. Another project is investigating the role of trade unions and union leaders in the UK, Australia and New Zealand in the traditionally fragmented and poorly paid retail sector. 

‘This is a really interesting sector and it’s becoming more organised. However it’s very transient because of high staff turnover so we’re looking at how unions actually make gains for employees. Also, there are partnerships in the UK between large retail organisations and the unions which may, on the one hand, provide innovative ways of operating, yet, on the other, compromise individual employees’ and their interests.’

Professor Pyman says she enjoys the broad terrain that comprises human resource management and industrial and employment research.

‘It’s challenging, it’s complex and it’s exciting.   And if you dedicate investment, time and focus, there are real practical benefits.  That’s why I’ve stayed in academia … I have the opportunity to practise what I preach in teaching and research. I see my role here as very relevant in an employment, business and management sense – and most importantly, people are an essential part of that focus. And that fascinates me and excites me.’

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