People are our greatest asset – you just can’t say it

I admire Clive Shepherd’s blog, but his recent swipe at the phrase ‘people are our most important asset’ is wide of the mark. I started writing a comment in response, but then realised that it was turning into an article.

You see, people generally are an organisation’s most important asset, it’s just you can’t say so.

Here’s why….

Clive says that people are important to their employers, but not as important as other key assets, for example:

1. the brand/reputation (Nike, Gucci, etc.);
2. fixed assets (property developers, landlords);
3. rights to natural resources (oil companies, etc.);
4. money (banks, etc.);
5. algorithms (Google, etc.);
6. secret recipes (KFC, Coke, etc.);
7. systems and processes (widespread);
8. its customer base/membership (MySpace)
9. patents (pharmaceutical companies, Blackboard – I wish).

He adds:

Now, clearly if any of these organisations was to lose all its employees at once, it would be in a hell of a mess; but without their most valuable asset they’d be worthless.


For a few of these organisations this is true, but certainly not all of them. Yes, for those with large physical assets (property, oil, money) people may not be their greatest asset, but for Nike? Lose the brand, you lose some income. Lose the people, you have no income at all.

But Clive may not have meant exactly this. He may, legitimately, mean that on Nike’s books, the intangible value attached to its brand exceeds the cost of its personnel. That’s true, but the cost of personnel is not the same as their value. While there is no agreed monetary measure for this, there are plenty of different ways of accounting for Human Capital (I count four: Accounting, Operational, Academic and Policy measures).

Furthermore, while Nike has a brand value, that value does not – unlike physical assets – exist independent of Nike’s employees. Intangible assets are usually divided into three types (see Sveiby and Stewart for more on this):

• Human Capital
• Social Capital / Customer Capital
• Organisational Capital/ Structural Capital

These, in addition to an organisation’s physical assets, make up its value. Since the mid eighties the quoted values of listed companies have substanially exceeded their book value (that is, the sum of their physical and financial assets), and the gap between the two is increasing, thanks to the increasing value of these companies’ intangible assets.

How valuable are these intangible assets without the human capital to put them to work?

In some cases, the assets have a re-sale value. They are transferable. This is true of most patents. It is also true, to an extent, of secret recipes (but one should not disregard the know-how required to extract best value from these recipes). What about systems and processes? Opinion is split on this, but there is certainly a very strong case to be made that without an organisation’s Human Capital such Organisational Capital is useless (see Gratton and Ghoshalsee).

In other words, I don’t believe this claim that while people are important, they are not as important as other assets. It may be true for a few organisations holding massive physical assets but it cannot be true for organisations such as software houses which have huge value within their people and very little elsewhere. And in intermediate cases, I do not believe there is a strong case for assuming that other assets maintain their value without the employees to put them to work.

Clive’s case has at least two things going for it, though. It is logical, and it is clearly stated.

The same cannot be said for most other arguments against “our people are our greatest asset”. Let’s look at three.

The most common argument against the phrase runs like this:

1) Executives say ‘people are our greatest asset’.
2) Hypocritically, they do not treat people as if this is true.
3) Therefore the phrase itself is wrong.

The self-confident nonsense of step 3) is dizzying.

Spelt out like this, it’s clear that the fault lies with the bosses for trying to hoodwink their employees, but cloud it with a few fine words and the logic is lost. Human Resources Magazine provides a good example, though, of how easy people find it to shoot the messenger.

A second argument is a truism dressed up as wisdom: “ah yes, people may be our greatest asset, but the wrong person can also be our greatest liability’. Yes – and? That’s about as smart as saying “Yes, you can have a bank account, but as well as being in credit, you can also have an overdraft.” Gosh. I’ll put my euros under the mattress then.

The third argument against ‘people are our greatest asset’ hinges on the use of the word ‘asset’, and with this I have some sympathy, on each of its levels. On the emotional level, nobody likes to be thought of as an asset, an object of production, owned by the organisation to be deployed or discarded as the market or whim dictates.

There’s not much you can say to this – expect that words are less important than deeds. If a CEO uses this phrase publicly, and backs it up with action, then the use of the word ‘asset’ will be forgiven (remembering of course that this is not just about being nice to people).

On the strictly rational level, ‘asset’ should not be used this way. People aren’t assets. They are not owned by their employer and this is the gist of Donald Clark’s comment on Clive’s posting. People can walk off the job; they can stay and remain unengaged. Anna Farmery expresses this well, and suggests the alternative phrase: people are our competitive advantage. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work for the not-for profit sector. Who are they competing with?

So, are people still are our greatest asset? Not for all organisations, no, and they are not strictly assets, and when not support by action, the phrase is worse than useless, but yes, in most organisations in developed economies, even if people’s value cannot be expressed financially, it can be measured, and it is crucial to the organisation’s function.

Does that mean we can use the phrase now?

Sadly, no.

The truth is that while essential true, this clichéd sentence has been so abused that it has lost all credibility. It has almost become a lightening rod for revolt against management hypocrisy. Look at the disdain these diverse people heap on it: Wendy Lynch (human capital researcher), Lee Hopkins (communications guru), Troy Brumley (technologist), Simon Barnes (professional speaker) and David Copperfield (British policeman – although not perhaps his real name).

Experience has taught us not to believe it – including my own.

I once worked for a company with a mission statement that began People are our most important asset… and then completely failed to live up to it. The result: a cancerous lack of trust of senior management. When things went wrong (and of course they did) there was no reserve of trust for the management to fall back on, and the company failed. By then, like many others, I had already left.

So we need a better way to say it. A way that does not fall foul of the arguments above. For the accountants, it should include the sense of an asset, without the negative connotations. For everyone else, it should be positive about the contribution people make, while also making it clear that they are not shackled to the organisation.

Here is my suggestion:

We value our people. Our value comes from them. 

What’s yours?

37 responses to “People are our greatest asset – you just can’t say it

  1. A very generous comment, Clive.

  2. An interesting and thought-provoking post. Having worked for a company with a similar mission statement, attitude and destiny, I too had hitherto dismissed talk of people and assets by those with large leather chairs, as lipservice. Forgive me a quick ramble on a few of the points that stick in my mind.

    I think it depends what one means by asset. If one’s talking about, “…the factor input from which we receive the highest ROI, vis-a-vis land, capital etc…” then I guess that’s an accounting question, and if it’s true (people being our greatest etc., henceforth, “the statement”), then go the hell ahead and say it, preferably with an Excel spreadsheet as proof.

    In support of the statement, I don’t think adding up all the tangble assets and deducting that from market cap to arrive at a figure describing what our people are worth is any good. Stock market valuations are generally an indication of expected future earnings (both dividends and capital gain), so I don’t think it’s possible to treat them as a good representation of what would happen if we sold everything, including the people (presumably into slavery).

    Lastly, I think recognising available replacements is important. Firms in full employment areas need to look after their staff. Firms in areas of high unemployment can rely on a queue of people at the factory gate to take the place of anyone who leaves. Because these things tend to happen slowly, firms optimise the extent to which they look after their staff to attract/retain the right number of people. The same can’t be said for brand, mineral rights, etc., which tend to have a more binary quality (is it possible to have gradations of binary-ness?).

    In answer to your question (and I’m assuming Clive’s response wasn’t): “People are important, but only if we’ve got the other bits in place as well. Given that all the other bits are doing nothing while you’re listening to me, our shareholders would be very grateful if you could all get back to your desks as soon as possible. Please go ahead and feel like a great asset while you’re doing that.”

    Do I win £5?

  3. Chris, thanks for the in-depth comment.

    I think that some marketeers would question the word count in your catchy slogan, but as it is the only offering to date, yes you win. I’m sure that the kudos of victory is enough, and you would not want to dirty your hands with money.

  4. Pingback: Employees are our most valuable asset | More than a living

  5. Pingback: Talent management is not the same as human capital management « Donald H Taylor

  6. A very well developed post showing an unbiased argument. Most absolute statements are not true and definitely debatable. I agree that People being the most important asset varies in different companies.
    Also, it depends on individual. Certain employees add value to the company, always doing more then expected. This are no doubt assets. However in many companies, there are those that under work or do exactly what is given to them too. This are the disposable assets.
    Identifying people assets will no doubt strengthen the company.

    Very well written post.

  7. Pingback: What is Talent Management? « Donald H Taylor

  8. OK, waaay late chiming in here – but this one really gets me going. In fact I have a post with just the latest example of this management hypocrisy (Circuit City last week) over on my blog.

    Also, my experience is that the best companies I have ever worked for (and the ones that valued people the most) never said “people are our most valuable asset” they just did it. This is a conclusion employees will draw from how they are treated – not what is said.

    Finally, interesting tidbit in the WSJ last week about the value of employees.

    Financial services is essentially an employee centric and dependent business. No blockbuster drugs or patent protection. The employees ARE the company. With a putative IPO valuation of $40 Billion, each of Blackstone’s 770 staffers is valued by the market at $50 MM each. This is far beyond other current superstars. (Google is very high b/c of it’s unique market position and high degree of proprietary technology – and the BUBBLE!)

    Google = $13.5 MM/ee

    Goldman Sachs = $3.2 MM/ee
    Moody’s = $5.0 MM/ee

    Anyway, interesting stuff.

    Tom O’Brien

  9. Been wandering around your blog, very thought provoking and insightful.

    All the assets listed were created by people who happened to be the asset of the month. There’s an expiry date and you’re only as good as your last success.

    Success is never final
    – Winston Churchill

  10. Hi Donald,

    I was reading your well-argumented article when sundenly I thought about Jean Bodin “there is no richness except humans”.

    The slogan “People are our greatest asset” it’s true but it is also great rhetoric without strong and coherent HR policies.

  11. Pingback: ‘People are our greatest asset’ disproved? « Donald H Taylor

  12. Pingback: Talent management is not the same as Human Capital Management « Talent Management & TBHRM

  13. l strongly agree that people are an organisation’s important asset and need to be treated as such. Even in the presence of technolgy, human capital is still needed because they carry natural knowledge to help an organisation grow.

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  26. Ron:
    Thanks again for providing opportunities for us to improve our ways of thinking!
    When a person says people are assets, that is his thought. This is his way to tell you what he personally feels about people in his organisation.
    In reality, people are not assets which is not human. In fact, we all should know that organisation is built with people, just like a city is built with citizens.
    Why people are more important than non-human assets? Because they can create and innovate to creat value. If they cannot do so, they must be under poor management and leadership in an organisation.
    To me, people is organisation. Nowadays, business organisations without power of innovation to create value, are all facing the destiny of ultimate failure. The power of innovation comes from people!
    In this respect, People are our most important source of Success!

  27. Pingback: Do values matter? Saffron’s report card from Investors in People | Saffron Interactive

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  29. Very thought provoking. I do find it odd that many of us hear this “people are the greatest asset” message, and I’ll bet that when it comes to budget discussions many of us hear messages that “Salaries are (one of) our biggest expenses”.
    Which is it an Asset of Expense?
    I agree people can be both an asset and an expense. These two items come from different statements (Balance sheet for assets and income statement for expenses).
    What I also find odd is how the determination of the asset is (many times) thrown back to the asset to figure out or prove. Come performance time, how many of you are asked what you’ve accomplished? or do you get shown the data behind “this is what you cost me and this is what you’ve helped me accomplish” (a basic ROI)?
    I would say that well-utilized people have the potential of being a great asset. They also can come at a great cost (expense) but if they are used in a way that their work brings more value than they cost, are they not generating a positive ROI?
    I’ll reference the golden egg laying goose story (I heard it on a Franklin R Covey video, not sure it’s origin); If we had a goose that lays golden eggs, we would know it’s “value” by the money we receive when selling it’s eggs, and we would know the cost of keeping it alive (food, housing, “salary”), If the positive difference between it’s value and cost is higher than any other asset I have, then in a mathematical way, that is my greatest asset.
    Now if I use that goose for some other purpose other than to produce eggs, (a “nice to have,” or “feels like we should be doing this,” misaligned goal) then it’s cost may outweigh the value it brings to the business and it will always appear as a bad expense. Plus if during review time, I ask it to prove it’s worth, I’m never going to respect it enough to treat as anything but an expense that needs justified.
    In order for me to be an asset, you have to treat me like an asset, and during review time, you (as my manager) should be able to talk me through how valuable I am to you.
    * You know what I cost
    * You direct what I focus on
    * You provide clarity on expected results
    * I am accountable for the quality of my work (I do bring something to the table when it comes to the end value),
    * and you should then be able to compare all of the above to see my value as an asset.

    I would be in a dream-work-world to expect that it is that easy for all of us.
    To me, a large influencer of “Are people great assets?” is the goals and ojectives the poeple are striving to acheive. Yes, there is always personal accountability on how hard people are really trying, etc. But that is another 2-pages of typing on the other topic you mentioned “engagement”

    My short thoughts on that are, I agree you can’t measure it, although I do think you can experience it. If you are a manager that sets things up just right, you can have a team that performs better than other teams “because they want to”. That’s for another day.

    I realize I’m typing a reply to an eight year old article, it may never get read. But it was a great experience to translate my thoughts into words and see if they make sense to me. I still think they do and would welcome anyone to help me see things in a different light.

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