Resources don’t write software. People do.

This content is syndicated from Insights You Can Use by Esther Derby. To view the original post in full, click here.


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


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.

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.

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