Why HR ought be rebranded… to HR
The future of Human Resources lies in Human Resourcefulness.
I’m oft-times accused of being excessively fond of semantics. I don’t deny it. I relish the exquisite aptness that can be evoked by precisely the right word.° And I’m abundantly enamoured by how such words shape meaning and experience.°°
° Though I readily admit: I’m an amateur at this.
°° Indeed, did you know that ‘Abracadabra’ is (likely) an old Aramaic phrase meaning: “I create as I speak”. Magic!
But not all share this verbose lust, nor my penchant for the adverbial or archaic. Most are quite happy with a more pragmatic, simplistic and mundane set of words. Indeed — I’m oft encouraged by my successful peers to write for the comprehension of 12 year olds, like the newspapers.
But 12 year olds are not my audience.
And so here we are. Thank you for joining me.
In this musing, I’d like to dabble in meaning, as it applies to one of the most important functions of any enterprise — Human Resources.
LIKE WATER TO A BIRD
There’s an old Hindu proverb that reflects on ‘the three great mysteries of life: air to a bird, water to a fish, humankind to itself’. I’ve heard modern adaptions of this, wherein the final element is instead: ‘what is language, to a human?’ For words are the building blocks of meaning — they shape our world and our subjective experience.° The more nuanced the distinctions, the more artful.
° For how does one think, without language? Actually, there’s a decent New York Times article on this.
For example, my work is never ‘cheap’ — though it is relatively inexpensive (and always great value). There’s nothing I ‘hate’, and I’m very conscious to avoid the word (for why would I allow such into my psyche?) — but there are things that cloud my empathy and grate against my preference, to which I thoroughly dislike. If need be, I can act swiftly — though never in haste. My preferred filter coffee is not merely naturally sweet — the sweetness is maple-like, with an undertone of hazelnut and mulberry. And so on. Plenty have written on this.° Our world is a veritable treasure trove of insight if one is but attuned to the nuance.
° ‘How to say you’re sorry’ is a great and practical example of how language shapes meaning. Also: the original elements of neuro-linguistics are fascinating (but have since become corrupted by consultants and cheap courses).
But alas — we often lack conscious awareness of how language shapes reality. And so we soldier on, using our most primary, most fundamental, most humantool (that is, language) bluntly and without finesse, none the wiser to the meaning, wonder and pathways we might otherwise evoke.°
° I ought point out the Achilles Heel to this whole thesis: while complex and nuanced language can inspire and elevate (‘come, let me lend a hand to hoist you up, so that we might admire the view together’) — it can also intimidate and alienate. I know. Hence when working across different cultures and languages, we must find a common medium (and branch from there). Having said that, The Book of Life has a lovely homage to untranslatable words: “There are lots of moods, needs and feelings that our own language has not yet properly pinned down. The perfect word (even if it comes from abroad) can help us to explain ourselves to other people — and its existence quietly reassures us (and everyone else) that a state of mind is not really rare, just rarely spoken of. The right word brings dignity to our troubles, and helps us identify more accurately what we really like or find annoying.”
Where does this lead us?
DRUDGERY AND DISSATISFACTION
And defaults. Defaults being the options we choose automatically, in the absence of viable alternatives. The result? A collective dumbing down. Short-hand hacks devoid of nuance. This breeds predictability, and life less rich. In the absence of surprise and delight, we get a spiral of mediocrity and apathy. We become habituated, to the point in which the fundamental issue has merged into the context — it is no longer visible. This makes it ever harder to address any incongruence between the words we use, the meaning it evokes, and the reality we experience.
CASE IN POINT: HUMAN RESOURCES
Wired Magazine’s Backchannel recently published a thoroughly insightful article by Karen Wickre — “Human Resources Isn’t About Humans”. It’s tagline: HR was never meant for you. That’s why it doesn’t work. Wickre’s sharp and astute writing cuts to the core — it is one of the most refreshing articles I’ve ever read in this space.
It was the catalyst for this musing.
A good proportion of my clients are HR directors. These are savvy people who care about the business and the people that make it work. And such, they are mighty effective at bridging the cold shrewdness of business leadership and the warm intuition of people leadership. Paragons!
But alas, not all HR folk are this deft or savvy. And so, what we oft see instead are the worst of either extreme: inhuman ‘computer-says-no’ bureaucratic automatons, or flaky fluff-mongers touting happy-hokey corporate buzzspeak (to no actual effect, while ignoring the real issues). And thus, we end up with a branding issue for HR — a mismatch between the function, and people’s actual experience.°
° And because of this this, it then becomes harder for true HR professionals to thrive in their work. HR becomes synonymous with ‘Hardly Responsive’, ‘Hard Rules’, ‘Human Remorses’. and/or ‘Human Remains’ (and so on).
What’s the solution? Well — it is of course much more complex than what I’m about to propose — but Human Resources, as a ‘brand’, needs a refresh.
I’m not the first to suggest this rebranding — but I’m also not sure if recent efforts have been terribly successful. New titles like ‘People and Culture’, ‘People and Performance’, ‘Employee Engagement’ and ‘Talent Enablement’ brush incongruently with the fact that HR remains a corporate function.° And an incredibly important one to boot. Dressing it up as ‘for the people’ belays the fact that, no: ultimately HR exists in service to the company. And that’s not going to change. Ideally the two elements (the company and the people) can be served harmoniously — but if push came to shove, the company will win. Every time.°°
° And oh, don’t get me started on the ‘Head of Transformation’ title. Or perhaps do — but in another musing. Meanwhile, do see Patrick Hollingworth’s Contrarian’s Guide to Transformation.
°° Of course, the irony is that most companies ‘win’ when they look after their people.
So, given that many folk will see through the ‘we’re a warm people function’ mask — let’s go back to the original issue with Human Resources: those two words.
SUCH AN INCONGRUENT PAIRING
Let’s start with the bugbear: ‘resources’.
‘We’ve hired a new resource’ is common corporate speak. But what do we most commonly associate with resources? Oftimes, a resource is a fuel that is spent in the process of achieving an objective. Coal and gas are natural resources used to generate heat and electricity, for example. Solar and wind are also resources — and while they are renewable and therefore not exhausted in the process of achieving the objective, they are still an inherently lifeless force to be used to fuel a process.
Another connotation of resource is ‘asset’. ‘What assets can we deploy to achieve this objective?’ we might ask, if considering the execution of an operation. An asset is defined as a useful or valuable thing or person. It is also defined as an item of property owned by a person or company. The latter connotation is less helpful.
‘Human’ on the other hand, is a very different word. Oh the evocations! A glance at the thesaurus greets us with words like humane, humanity, fallible and imperfect. Wonderful concepts — particularly when considered in the context of The Conceptual Age we are in the dawning of.°
° As automation and artificial intelligence increasingly replace algorithmic and analytical tasks, the economy of The Conceptual Age will favour workers adept in areas that favour creativity, empathy and meaning (‘human’ concepts that are otherwise difficult to replicate by machine).
You see where I’m going here: the word ‘resources’ ought never have been paired with ‘human’. It has a dehumanising effect, which is difficult to reconcile.
Attempts to remedy this have thus far swung beyond the remit of HR. I’d like to propose something much simpler, and much closer to home.
Well now, that’s apt.
I haven’t come across anyone using this term so far, apart from a few consulting agencies. But these folk don’t seem to be using it in the sense I’m proposing.
Human Resourcefulness ought become the new Human Resources.
We have the benefit of still calling it HR, but with the additions of just six characters, we transform the meaning of the word entirely. Such alchemy!
Resourcefulness is defined (by the Oxford English Dictionary) as the ability to find quick and clever ways to overcome difficulties. Alternative definitions include ‘the ability to cope with a difficult situation or unusual problems’, ‘the ability to meet situations’ and ‘capability of devising ways and means’. Its closest synonyms are ingenuity and inventiveness. Also: imaginative, creative, capable, and enterprising.
By extension, if one is resourceful, they are making the best of what they’ve got. Using resources (time, effort, capital) both wisely and cleverly (therefore minimising waste).
When we consider the fact that, as formulaic and algorithmic work is increasingly handled via computers and robots, and that the bulk of business transactions, processes and relationships will be managed via online platforms — human work needs must be resourceful and imaginative. Ergo: human resourcefulness is what we need.
Thus those who work in Human Resourcefulness have both an explicit and implicit purpose — without hiding the fact that it remains a corporate function. Explicitly, HRfulness exists to ensure that an organisation is being most resourceful with the human element of the business model (in service to the business model). Implicitly, HRfulness also champions innovation, agility, adaptiveness, responsiveness, learning, collaboration, communication — anything that enhances the resourcefulness° of a company’s people.
° That is: the ability to find quick and clever ways to overcome difficulties. Using human ingenuity, imagination and inventiveness.
In fact, all of the existing functions of HR remains true to Human Resourcefulness. Indeed, if one were inclined, there could be a charter of values and principles for Human Resourcefulness to uphold, with keystone behaviours crafted for the role. A future imagining of what HR is and could be.
I think the notion has merit. But I’m also conscious that this may also be a fine example of what the Germans call ‘verschlimmbessern’ — where attempts to improve something only make it worse. It’s not a panacea — merely an attempt to enrichen. A provocation for the pioneering, if you will.
Dr Jason Fox
Writer of museletters
Keynote Speaker of the Year (2016)
Bestselling author of How to Lead a Quest & The Game Changer
Head of The Cleverness