Personnel Today published a piece yesterday by group production editor Tony Pettengell, entitled Are employees business’s greatest asset, or just their cheapest? The core of Tony Pettengell’s rant is the dramatic insight that technology has recently reduced people to button pushing minions.
I wrote about this last October, in a magazine article entitled Your boss doesn’t care about training, but let me summarise here where Tony gets it wrong.
Starting with the first plough, invention has always multiplied human endeavour: from the wheel to the spinning jenny to Scientific Management to IT. In the past, it was possible to use an invention to grow faster than neighbouring companies/economies by ensuring you had it and they didn’t. That was possible in a slower, less mobile world.
Now, however, the technology and processes of rapid growth are commodities, openly available in the marketplace. The only way for organisations to differentiate themselves is through their people and the unique difference they can make.
This means that everyone can do their job better by knowing what they’re doing and being engaged in it. It does not mean that, as Tony patronizingly puts it:
exploitable people with limited educations will still be essential, if only to drive buses, deliver parcels, clean toilets and pack boxes.
Despite Tony’s depiction of a Britain teaming with Untermensch, bus drivers and toilet cleaners need more education than he seems to realise.
If the HR community is not taken seriously, it is not for recognising that employees make the difference between success and failure. It is because they can’t back up their claims more substantially. However, stories of good talent management exist – see October’s Computer Weekly Insurer drives efficiencies with IT skills framework – and they are increasingly common. In this case, Norwich Union has improved efficiency in the IT department by altering its management structure and the development and deployment of its employees.
It is by quoting real life instances such as this, where success has been proven, that the HR community will be taken seriously in showing that people are our greatest asset. Another step in the right direction, of course, is to get the facts rights. Saying for example that –
In the private sector, at least, people are definitely not our greatest asset. They are, however, our cheapest.
– won’t win you any prizes with the CFO, not when payroll at the month end typically accounts for 60% of an organisation’s costs.
The challenge organisations face today is to make best use of their only asset which is not a commodity – the one that designed and built the inventions we rely on in the first place. People remain our greatest asset.
Disclosure: I am an Executive Director of InfoBasis, which provides skills management software to Norwich Union. That software, however, is not the subject of the article quoted.