Resources, or People?

Workplace language is interesting. We hear a lot of different jargon and cliches that we wouldn’t ordinarily encounter outside of the office. I think we know some of it is a bit silly and acknowledge it as such, but other workplace language is treated as totally normal.

One of the most common, but perhaps pernicious, examples of workplace language is the use of the word Resources, when we mean People. It really does seem to be workplace-only vernacular too – I’ve yet to hear anyone say “We need some more resources for 5-a-side tonight.”

I understand that it’s a fairly industry-standard term, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t issues with it. Lots has been written on this before – posts like this, and this – and there’s even a day dedicated to the cause.

 

oxforddictionaries.com defines resources as

A stock or supply of money, materials, staff, and other assets that can be drawn on by a person or organisation in order to function effectively

So technically speaking using the word resources to describe people isn’t wrong, and sometimes it makes sense to use the word resources to describe a particular ‘thing’. Resource management isn’t just about people – it could be about laptops, office space, or beanbags.

But 99% of the times I hear ‘resources’ mentioned at work, it’s being used to refer solely to people.

 

The problem is that the word resources seems to imply an interchangeable quantity –

“we need more resource”

“add some more resources”

“this resource is leaving, let’s get another one in”

From a management point of view this is great. It would be fantastic to be able to swap interchangeable resources in and out at will, in order to maintain performance.

 

But of course it doesn’t work like that. People have different skills, personalities, likes, dislikes, attitudes and so on. You cannot simply switch people in and out of a team, and expect things to continue at the same level or pace.

Because in knowledge work, value is generally delivered by teams, not individuals. A team is not just the sum of its parts – it’s the product of its interactions. The relationships between the people in the team determines the success of the team – it’s not about just adding up the raw skills of the individuals in the team.

The word resource obfuscates this fact. It helps us to kid ourselves that we can work in this way – swapping people around. It’s hiding the reality of the situation that when you’re dealing with knowledge work – people are not always going to be completely interchangeable.

That’s not to say I’m not against moving people around between teams on some regular basis. This can keep things fresh, and helps to share knowledge. But I think I’d get better results from trying out a new winger in my regular line-up, than swapping out the entire midfield.

 

I know a lot of people don’t like being referred to in this way, but I don’t think this is just about individuals being sensitive to being called a ‘resource’ – it’s about our cultural definition of how we view and treat our people, and about how we plan and manage work in a realistic way.

Having shared language is really important for building shared understanding, but next time you’re about to use the the word Resources, maybe pause and think; would the word People explain the situation in a clearer, more helpful, and more realistic way?

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