Why we should not fear calling people ‘resources’

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The corporate world is infamous for its proliferation of impenetrable and annoying jargon. The ‘C-suite’, the ‘sausage factory’, ‘core competency’, the old classic ‘blue sky thinking’ and the ubiquitous ‘journey’ are all ingrained in business vernacular.

An offensive term?

One word that crops up regularly is the word ‘resources’, referring to people. This is most commonly heard in the context of ‘human resources’ departments, academic institutions and in project based work, where each project will include team members who have been chosen to fill a particular skills gap. For instance, you might need a Java resource and a Python resource for a software development project.

Resource management is a key part of project portfolio management, and ‘resources’ is a catch-all term that applies to all business assets. This includes capital, equipment, machinery, conference rooms, vehicles and people. However, for some, referring to people as resources doesn’t sit comfortably – they feel it dehumanises individuals and undervalues the qualities that make them unique.

Critics of the word argue that people are not productivity factors and that managers use the term to disassociate themselves from difficult decisions that have an impact on employee’s lives, like making a person redundant. They may assert that the word drives a wedge between managers and drones. But it isn’t as clear cut as that.

The most precious resource

My personal opinion is that the term is not as offensive as all that. Employees are a company’s most valuable resource and it is right to think of them in this way, and certainly better than viewing them as a cost. The most enlightened managers have started to understand what can be realised by managing this precious commodity properly, so that there is a collective sense of working towards a desired end or goal.

By looking at people as resources, you can consider how best they can be developed to achieve their personal goals, as well as those of the company.

Their value is immense, not diminished in a world where the use of AI is increasing and humans across a wide scope of sectors are increasingly working alongside machines. As well as their special skill set and rich experience, they have an understanding of how the organisation works, the systems in place and the dynamics of the team. This knowledge helps businesses get stuff done in the fastest, most efficient way.

One defence for the use of the word ‘resources’ when referring to people is that it reduces complexity. The more complicated the project you are managing, the more helpful it is to go back to basics with terminology. When project managing a team of five, of course you can refer to each person by name. But, when you are responsible for the flow of 20 or more projects, for a number of clients, involving multiple teams, thinking of people as a resource types keeps things simple. 

Beyond the label

Is it right that an individual has the same label as a photocopier? Well, yes, in a way. Although ‘resources’ is an abstract term, it makes sense for a project manager to think of all resources as essential parts of an organic whole. When the photocopier breaks down, or a person calls in sick, the whole system is compromised. The gap must be filled.

Clearly, however, there is a distinction to be made between people and other types of resources. While it is easy to replace a photocopier like-for-like, people are not interchangeable. Their personalities, emotional intelligence and communication styles vary and these factors can be just as important as their skills and qualifications when it comes to fitting into a team.

So, as a manager, while you may think of individuals as resources as you plot and adapt your plans using resource planning software, you should also invest time in making sure that individuals feel valued. A good manager will get the balance right – taking time to get to know team members, making an effort to dig beyond the CV highlights, and to find out what attributes make them distinct.

Having this one-to-one employee engagement will feed back into the resource planning process, as you can more effectively identify which human resource is a perfect fit for a specific project, team or task.

It’s also possible to invest further in human capital when you understand what makes them tick. Armed with this insight, you can develop their education and training in a way that will help them to feel supported as an individual. This has the happy side-effect of making them more productive as well, so it is a win-win situation.

Getting the balance right

It’s likely that employees will be thought of as resources, as long as we have challenging projects to carry out and commercial objectives to meet. However, this doesn’t prevent us from creating a work culture that celebrates individual contributions to successful projects and to achieving the wider company vision. Managers should not be judged on the use of the word, but on their commitment to support their company and enable individuals to realise their potential.

Ivar Veenpere, co-founder, Ganttic
Image source: Shutterstock/gpointstudio