In my last post I referenced Steve Denning’s Microsoft’s 16 keys to being Agile at Scale in an article at Forbes.com. In this one I am going to pick up on another one of the statements from Denning with regard to how Microsoft views its people:
Agile at Scale> also rests on a deep respect for the talents and capacities of those doing the work, and the teams in which they work, not treating workers as “resources” that are assignable, optimizable and ultimately disposable.
In Section 4 of our book Agile Value Delivery: Beyond the Numbers we focused on three areas:
- Next Generation Agile which I briefly referenced in my previous post which “Suggests that the point at which agile thinking has permeated an organization is the point at which we can stop using the term ‘Agile’ and we will have achieved “next generation agile”
- Human Resources
Under Human and Resources and Finance we discussed the challenges that agile poses for these two critical groups within our organizations, as well as how they might update their approaches to support true next generation agile and true organizational agility.
The origins of viewing people as resources or assets has a long and actually very sordid history that dates back to slavery in the southern USA.
Harvard-Newcomen Fellow Caitlin C. Rosenthal studied the meticulous records kept by southern plantation owners for measuring the productivity of their slaves, some of which were the forerunners of modern management techniques. Her findings were astonishing as discussed in her book “From Slavery to Scientific Management: Capitalism and Control in America, 1754-1911”.
The description for an account entry from the period is shown in the image below:
Account entry for “27 Negros bought this day at public sale” by Charleston, S. C., rice planter and slave owner Sampson Neyle, February 14, 1764. Volume 3. Peace Dale Mfg. Co. Records, Baker Library Historical Collections, Harvard Business School
From the Harvard Business Week article that referenced Rosenthal’s findings:
The evolution of modern management is usually associated with good old-fashioned intelligence and ingenuity—”a glorious parade of inventions that goes from textile looms to the computer,” Rosenthal says. But in reality, it’s much messier than that. Capitalism is not just about the free market; it was also built on the backs of slaves who were literally the opposite of free.
“It’s a much bigger, more powerful question to ask, If today we are using management techniques that were also used on slave plantations,” she says, “how much more careful do we need to be? How much more do we need to think about our responsibility to people?”
The concept of depreciation is also credited to the railroad era, when railroad owners allocated the cost of their trains over time, but Rosenthal notes that slave owners were doing this before then.
Starting in the late 1840s, Thomas Affleck’s account books instructed planters to record depreciation or appreciation of slaves on their annual balance sheet.
In 1861, for example, another Mississippi planter priced his 48-year-old foreman, Hercules, at $500; recorded the worth of Middleton, a 26-year-old top-producing field hand, at $1,500; and gave 9-month-old George Washington a value of $150. At the end of the year, he repeated this process, adjusting for changes in health and market prices, and the difference in price was recorded on the final balance sheet.
These account books played a role in reducing slaves to “human capital,” Rosenthal says, allowing owners who were removed from day-to-day operations to see their slaves as assets, as interchangeable units of production in a ledger, instead of as people.
This hit home a few short years ago for me when someone very close to me was depreciated in exactly that way and let go at the back door while their firm was hiring new grads at the front door using government grants. The software profession in particular is still ripe with that thinking. I’m sure it exists elsewhere.
So maybe it’s time we stopped referring to people as human capital, human resources, or as assets to be depreciated and discarded when they are no longer of value on a “ledger”?
We throw around phrases such as “our people are our most important assets” like its a compliment – once you understand the origins of the phrase, it doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, now does it?
When we go home at the end of the day to our families, would we refer to our own children in this way? Why not? If it’s good enough for the people we work with, then why not for our 6-year old at home?
That may be a harsh way of phrasing it, but you get the point. Maybe it’s also time that we renamed that part of our organization as well.
What do you think? Time to drop the terms resources, assets and human capital from our organizational lexicon are start thinking of and treating people, as well, just people?
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