The Problem with Human Resources

I just read a piece in The New York Times Sunday business section called “The Pull of Heavy industry.” It features Alex Kummant, the CEO of Amtrak. When asked about what keeps him up at night (besides his 4 month old), he said, “human resources issues.” Normally, that would’ve just rolled off my back as an unsurprising comment. But, it didn’t. In fact, it got me to thinking that one of the problems human resources executives face today is the very nature of the term, human resources.

Ask yourself this question: Have you ever heard of a VP for Financial Resources? Not likely, They’re simply VP for Finance, or Chief Financial Officer. The word, finance, stands on its own. Therein lies a seemingly innocent, yet elephant-in-the-room sized challenge for HR: Getting beyond the word ‘resources’ and focusing on human issues. “Human Resources” conjurs up all of the standard people management challenges, ranging from benefits administration, labor and leadership development, to recruitment, training, and compensation. As much as these disciplines are needed, do they really do justice to the human issues that deeply influence how well organizations perform? Issues like personal happiness and fulfillment that are the backbone of motivation? Issues of self-actualization and purpose which, unlike any financial incentive, fire the imagination and lead to unstoppable energy?

When we unleash the uniqueness and potential of individuals, we unleash value-creating instruments unlike any others. But doing so isn’t a human resources challenge; it is a human challenge and meeting it promises to be one of the great adventures of the 21st century.

1 Comment
  • brandsinger
    Reply

    I like your line of thinking, Larry. “Human resources” sounds dry and slightly paternalistic… as if the organization is leveraging people rather than looking to their needs. On the other hand, what HR bureaucrat is capable of delving into human happiness? and what employee can really benefit from a bureaucracy that makes self-actualization its goal? Not sure your issues are within the scope of the modern organization’s capabilities.

    August 27, 2008 at 3:43 am

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