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Human resources: a rose by any other name…

Who cares what it’s called, as long as employers realise how important human-resource management is, Peter Wilson AM (FCPHR) says.

Distinguished British educator Sir Ken Robinson once observed that human resources, like natural resources, are ”often buried deep. You have to go looking for them; they’re not just lying around on the surface.”

I thought of the significance of that insight when reflecting on the series of articles by Allan Hawke that were recently published in the Informant. In what was a remarkable contribution to leadership thinking by an eminent former senior public servant, Hawke drew attention to the crucial role of people in the potential of any enterprise to achieve outstanding results.

Recalling his time as Defence Department secretary, Hawke noted the temptation was to think everything relies on ships, tanks and aircraft, but the truth, he reminded us, is that ”people represent about one-third of our investment in capability”.

While ships, tanks and aircraft aren’t natural resources, of course, as defence weaponry they are inanimate resources that, since time immemorial, have relied on human ingenuity in their making, as well as human determination and resolve in their capacity to deliver results in the field.

So while I agree vehemently with Hawke’s claims of the effectiveness of his ”results through people” way, I take issue with his casual dismissal of the term ”human resources” as one that sends the wrong message.

His objection to the term appears to centre on the idea that it sends a subliminal message that the people in an enterprise are reduced to just another economic input or a payroll number. I would be the first to acknowledge that no single two-word phrase is ever likely to serve all purposes, but a simple shorthand term is useful when enterprises are explaining to themselves and others the various parts that make up their productive capacity.

The genesis of Hawke’s objection may well be traced to Henry Ford’s regrettable objection that the trouble with people is they bring a brain to the enterprise. What Ford wanted was automatons who would obediently and tirelessly assemble his cars, and he got them with the invention of robots.

As we all know, robots don’t bring to work what people bring. They don’t bring a variety of abilities and disabilities, or ethnic, generational and sexual differences. To their credit, robots don’t bring irrational emotion, prejudice and self-serving agendas. But robots also don’t bring creativity, insight, generosity, initiative and loyalty, the human qualities that for many enterprises are their competitive advantage; the difference between success or failure.

There are a great number of terms used to describe the business function that has come to be most commonly known as human resource management, or for shorthand purposes ”human resources”, or more simply HR. Other terms used in business include human capital, talent, labour, or just people. In the not so distant past in this country, the function was called personnel.

Hawke doesn’t offer an alternative term though he does refer to the function as revolving ”around the task of mobilising people”. If we extract the military connotations out of that idea, we end up with the discipline of human resource management, or HRM, which exists to bring together the diverse skills and talents of the employees to achieve a clearly stated result.

On the matter of the potential for abuse of the human resources in an organisation, while there are still no doubt enterprises that treat their people as mere economic inputs or commodities, contemporary HRM practice leans strongly to the view that people work most productively when they are motivated, engaged and loyal; in short, when they are happy.

The term that businesses use to refer to this practice varies greatly. As the head of the HR institute, I might be expected to insist that the term human resources be used universally. To be quite frank, I don’t care what it’s called as long as businesses avail themselves of the benefits of the body of knowledge that is called human resource management. The top listed companies in Australia are very conscious of the wisdom in doing just that, and they do it. The great majority of them call their departments HR, but it’s also true that some don’t. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. The same goes for HR.

This article was first published in the The Canberra Times on 4 February 2014.

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Luciana Niven
Luciana Niven

Hear, hear! Strategic HRM should be about changing the definition and measurement of ‘success.’ Power, money and exploiting technology for its achievement are part of our current definition of success.Technology and automation is a tool for humans not our driver! Its been easy to let ourselves be consumed by it. Human Resource Management (HRM) has an important agenda in providing this balance between our tendency to be always be in ‘technology driven ‘over connectivity mode’ and our ability to shut off long enough to connect with our own creative and problem solving ability – important for robust and long lasting… Read more »

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