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Esther Derby helps create great work places where people can do their best work and make products their customers value. Not so very long ago, she made her living writing code. She's co-author of Behind Closed Doors Secrets of Great Management and Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great. You can read more of her thoughts on management, organization, teams, and agile methods at www.estherderby.com Esther is a DZone MVB and is not an employee of DZone and has posted 73 posts at DZone. You can read more from them at their website. View Full User Profile

Resources Don’t Write Software. People Do.

01.18.2013
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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)

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.

Published at DZone with permission of Esther Derby , author and DZone MVB. (source)

(Note: Opinions expressed in this article and its replies are the opinions of their respective authors and not those of DZone, Inc.)

Comments

Tom Meier replied on Fri, 2013/01/18 - 4:57am

Nice article! I can image managers who refer to people as 'resources' don't know their staff and thus tend to use this term. I agree, it's best to just avoid this term altogether. I wouldn't like someone referring to me as a human resource!

Mark Unknown replied on Fri, 2013/01/18 - 1:50pm

Note: this was posted in 2010. Oldy but goody.

Lund Wolfe replied on Sun, 2013/01/20 - 5:31pm

It isn't very flattering to be referred to as personnel, or resource, or Java grunt, or man-hours, but it is just a name and business success is the final judge.  There are many factors to consider when determining the qualities and level of quality that provides the best cost/benefit for a particular position.  Depending on the job/position, labor may be an input cost widget that can be minimized.  There are certainly lots of jobs where personnel are not equal and many positions where ability completely and quickly determines business success or failure.  Ability may mean quantity or quality of work.  Sometimes higher quality results in higher quantity.

There are practical problems, too.  Sometimes ability is hard, very hard for humans to judge, even though it would appear to be obvious by many measures.  There may be a sweet spot, where greater ability isn't worth a higher cost or "good enough" is a fairly low bar and an easy slot to fill.  Sometimes a position requires many skills and priorities have to be set for each skill. My gramma was a great cook, but a poor dishwasher.  Business may have to adapt to a lower ability to satisfy the quantity of labor needed from the existing labor pool.

The cost/benefit of greater ability may be better in the short term but not the long term, or it may pay off in the long term but not the short term.

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