Resources don’t write software. People do.

December 6th, 2010

Resource

1. a : a source of supply or support : an available means —usually used in plural
b: a natural source of wealth or revenue —often used in plural
c: a natural feature or phenomenon that enhances the quality of human life
d: computable wealth —usually used in plural
e: a source of information or expertise
(Source: www.mirriam-webster.com)

Resource

Economic or productive factor required to accomplish an activity, or as means to undertake an enterprise and achieve desired outcome. Three most basic resources are land, labor, and capital; other resources include energy,  entrepreneurship,  information,  knowhow,  management, and time.
(Source: www.businessdictionary.com)

Sometimes, when I hear people talking about “resources,” I ask if they mean people. Usually, they agree that they are talking about people, but the responses fall into two categories.

Some people have a moment of recognition, as if coming out of a trance, that “resources” isn’t the word they want to use. They know that people do work, and they’ve fallen into a habit, led there by the language of corporations and project tracking software.

Other people respond with a brush off, as if only an idiot would ask such a question.

What happens in the rest of the conversation is interesting. For the second group of people, even when they use the word “people,” they still talk about people as if they were “productive factors”  in a reductionist universe, not living, breathing people.

And that’s a problem.

Productive factors may be fungible. People aren’t. Even when they have the same skills, people aren’t interchangeable. I tried a little thought experiment to see if I could imagine a job where people are fungible. Dishwashers? Are dishwashers fungible? They have no special skills, one is pretty much the same as the other. errrr….Not so much. On the task level, dishwashers might be interchangeable. But if you’ve ever worked in a restaurant, you know that not all dishwashers are the same and that the human characteristics of dishwashers can change the mood of the kitchen.

Productive factors may be required to have specific skills, and those skills are all that matters. The rest of the person is irrelevant. I sat on a panel recently, where one of the other panelist was a resource-thinker. Some of the people attending the panel discussion were training for a second career, and asked about trends in the current job market. According to the resource-thinker, the employment outlook for these folks was entry level work.

Some of these folks had managed dozens of people, run businesses, designed precision parts, taught school, managed inventory, or managed job queuing. All of these strike me as interesting when I consider how a person can contribute to a team or an organization. Apparently, none of that matters if you are a productive factor.

Productive factors don’t have personalities. People do. Even when people have similar technical skills they have unique preferences, qualities, styles. They bring their own experiences, points of view, ability to solve problems and relate to others. To ignore this is to ignore the importance of human communication and group dynamics in getting work done.

Productive factors are utilized. But thinking of people in terms of utilization leads to burn out. The resource-thinker on the panel talked about requiring 90-100% utilization after layoffs. Since he was in big consulting firm, that mean 90-100% billable hours, which are only a portion of the hours actually worked. Oddly, most resource-thinkers realize this about machines, but often forget it about people. When you fail to change the oil in your car, the cost are visible. But the cost of fixing a person (sick time) or replacing a person (after the burned out person leaves) is hard to count, especially on the local budget level.

Productive factors can be allocated–across many many tasks. (People in manufacturing recognize set up and switching time, many people managers do not.) I’ve seen project managers assign people to five or ten tasks in little tiny slices–15%, 10%, 5%–all in one week. There are lots of tasks that only take an hour or so. But assigning people 5%? Micromanagement. Task-switching. Utter lack of understanding of how most humans work. Many project managers reverse engineer their understanding of project management from software tools; maybe that’s where they get such ideas.

Productive factors don’t care about autonomy, mastery, or purpose.

Resource-thinking leads managers to focus excessively on labor rate. Labor rate is not labor cost. Driving labor rates down is very likely to drive labor costs up. Work gets done by people who can figure out how to work together. Managers who have a plug-and-play mentality about people may achieve lower labor rates, but almost certainly have higher labor costs.

Resource-thinking leads managers to ignore that work involves communication, interactions, relationships.

Resource-thinking sucks the soul out of work.

Our thoughts shape our language, but our language also shapes our thoughts. The zeroth step in creating humane workplaces is to start talking about the people not resources.

BTW, first know use of the term Human Resources was 1961.  So much damage done.

17 Comments

  1. Hi Esther,

    I share your frustration and expressed it differently a couple of months ago : http://bit.ly/cjDcHJ

    Hope you enjoy it!
    Eric

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by estherderby, Paul Battley, daverooneyca, Kerry Buckley, Ivo Michalick and others. Ivo Michalick said: RT @estherderby Resources don't write software. Ppl do. http://bit.ly/g2pApJ Words create worlds.// "Pessoas não são recursos!" […]

  3. Ben Linders says:

    Fully agree.

    For those who are still not convinced after reading this story from Esther, try coming home on an evening and call your wife/husband a “resource”, and see what happens…

  4. Bob says:

    You may know of the Human Givens approach – this considers human needs, as well as human resources (a person’s capabilities). Having recently discovered it, I’d be interested to know what you make of it:

    http://www.hgi.org.uk/archive/human-givens.htm

    Thank you for the post,
    Bob

  5. Kenneth says:

    Nice post Esther. Since the AYE conference in November where I was first introduced to the difference between resources and people, I’ve stopped using the R word.

  6. Kenneth C says:

    I think the saddest part of this entire cycle is the fact that it has to be pointed out to people that there is a difference between human beings and machines.

    I am incline to think that by virtue of the fact that most communication is done via email, cellphone, telephone, sms and other electronic medias we unintentionally put ourselves in the position where we feel we are communicating with machines and because most of the communication is done via machines we forget how to communicate on a personal level. One of my pet hates is people wishing their close friends happy birthday on facebook. Whatever happening to wishing them in person?

    Thanks for the article, I really enjoyed reading it :)

  7. Thanks Esther,
    That’s a great article. I’ll definitely keep it in my library of arguments. The resource-thinker is now such an alien to me that I really don’t know how to explain the obvious. Your article will help a lot.

  8. Hi, you pointed me to this blog because I said I disagreed with your tweet that calling people ‘Resources’ is fundamentally dehumanizing.

    First off let me say it’s your tweet I disagreed with, and being only 140 chars it may be that the tweet didn’t get across some of the nuances of your idea.

    However, having read this blog post I stand over my point, I disagree with your characterization of the word ‘Resource’, and here’s why.

    1. I personally have no problem being thought of as a resource either in a work capacity or a private capacity. A resource is “a source of supply, support, or aid, especially one that can be readily drawn upon when needed”. That is an excellent description of something I would like to be.

    2. You allow for only 2 attitudes to the word (those who see the error of their ways, and everyone else who see people as ‘machines’ or ‘productive factors’). You don’t allow for the third category, those who use the word ‘Resource’ as a positive thing, which in no way excludes the humanity of the person involved.

    3. Having decided that anyone using the word resource must mean it in the negative ‘Productive Factor’ sense of the word, you then devote the rest of your post to discussing that negative attitude. That attitude may indeed be harmful, but the problem here is the attitude not the word. To suggest that anyone using ‘the R word’ is somehow betraying some deep rooted belief that humans are interchangeable machines is just absurd. Just as it would be absurd to suggest that eradicating the use of the word would in some way tackle the underlying problem.

    This all smacks of a manager I used to work with who refused to allow the word ‘Problem’ to be used around the office, insisting instead that we use the word ‘Opportunity’.

    Such lexical nonsense is far more dehumanising than simply trusting the intelligence of adults to use words and understand them in context. The notion that somehow we are machines with buttons that can be pushed by the use of specific ‘magic’ words is infuriating and is my signal for getting my CV together.

    I won’t go on any longer, I just wanted to point out that there is NOTHING fundamentally dehumanizing about the word ‘Resource’. While the negative attitudes you describe do exist and are harmful, it’s management consultancy pop psychology to reduce such complex social interractions to expunging words from our vocabulary.

    • Esther Derby says:

      Hi, Richard.

      Sounds like I’ve struck a nerve.

      I also hope to be a resource to others — my clients, colleagues, readers, family, friends. This is about relationship.

      When I hear people (often managers) in corporations talk about “resources,” it is usually not in the sense of being a help and support to others. They are referring to people as productive factors, and that’s harmful. You are right, it is the patterns and habits of thinking that are a problem. Those are the patterns that I hope to change. Language shapes thinking–so calling attention to they way people use language is one way to shift thinking.

      As for insisting that people refer to “problems” as “opportunities” that strikes me as poor management. The motive is not to spark people to think about how language shapes thinking. It is true that some “problem” situations present an opportunity to examine assumptions, thinking deeply, and choose a different path. But I don’t think that’s the results of “problem = opportunity” dictate. In organizations where I hear people in management roles say such things, the effect is that they don’t hear about problems–or opportunities.

      • You and I talked about this in Minneapolis a few years ago. Calling people ‘resources’ doesn’t bother me so much. I think the term ‘resource’ is really more a technical term derived from the project’s view of the person. From the project’s perspective, anything that contributes to project success would be considered a resource to the project. Like Richard, I think the fundamental problem isn’t the word so much as the belief that people can be sliced up and moved around as if they were non-human units of capacity. We have to understand that Human Resources are people with hopes, dreams, thoughts, unique skills and experience, and families… and even from a very practical project perspective… treating them as fungible, interchangeable parts doesn’t increase project performance, it actually degrades it. I generally bristle when we blame words for the underlying attitude. I’m probably too stubborn on this and will use the word in spite of the potentially negative connotation, making sure people are using it correctly, the way it was intended.

        • Esther says:

          Yes, you do generally bristle ;-)

          Of course, it is the underlying belief that people re fungible interchangeable parts that is the problem. Using the term resource reinforces that belief, as do terms such as “full time equivalent.” The choice of word reflects the underlying attitude, and reinforces it.

          Of course, you are free to continue to use the word, and to endeavor to make sure people use the work in the way you believe is correct.

          I suspect changing the language (referring to people as “people”) might have a bigger impact on people’s thinking, though.

      • I’d also suggest that the underlying reason people get treated like ‘non-human resources’ on project plans… isn’t because the planners are bad people or think people are machines… they are just faced with an impossible situation.

        They have a uniquely skilled human being that is needed on 15 projects for any of them to get delivered. Rather than addressing the real issue… that the person is a bottleneck, and the bottleneck can’t be fixed by time slicing the person across the entire portfolio…or that they have a queueing issue or a work in process issue… they just do the math on the person and move on.

        It’s really more a cost accounting problem vs. a throughput accounting problem. Local optimization vs. systems thinking. Managers get delusional about how people can be assigned to work when they can’t hire or train people fast enough to do the work.

        Most of the managers I work with are in broken systems and don’t know how to change the system. They know it doesn’t make sense, but don’t know what to do about it.

  9. Benjamin says:

    Thank you for this great post! I usually react to those people by talking about them as a “management resource” while they are present. This has great effects!

  10. Tobias Mayer says:

    Excellent article. Thank you. The point that stuck out for me was “For the second group of people, even when they use the word ‘people’, they still talk about people as if they were ‘productive factors…'” Changing the language is important, but if the thinking behind the language remains the same we haven’t achieved much more than compliance. People need to be viewed holistically, as complex, intelligent beings far greater than the sum of their skills. As you know, I don’t object to being considered a resource, but I intensely dislike the term “human resources” as it harks back to the days of slavery. I can be a resource to you, but I am not a fungible commodity.

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