You may remember (though you are probably too young) that Human Resource departments used to be called ‘Personnel’ departments, and their job was pretty much restricted to finding, training and retaining (and sometimes letting go) personnel – or ‘people’ as we tend to call them these days.  When the term Human Resources was first used in the corporate context, sometime around the 1950s in the United States, it was part of a deliberate rebranding exercise, intended to flag up the strategic importance of the role and the centrality of the ‘human resource’. People were no longer seen as ‘personnel’ – the individuals who happened to carry out a particular duty for the corporation at a particular moment – they were a core and precious resource, to be nurtured and cared for.

But it is a shame that the well-meaning re-branders chose that particular term. The problem with the word ‘resource’ is – well, it’s obvious what the problem is. It makes it sound as if people are a resource, just like copper is a resource – or cotton, or water or any other essential raw material – whereas people are the essential resource: organisations can hope to survive the absence or the scarcity of any other resource provided that they have the people in place with the wit and energy to carry out the necessary transformation to cope with the new conditions.

The key competence is adaptability

In a changing world, the key competence is adaptability. The most perfect processes will become outmoded or irrelevant; only people are capable of making the necessary transition from what works now to what will work in the new environment. And to do this, people need to be engaged, committed, empowered and enabled. They need to be alert to changes in the outside world and certain that their hunches and feelings about that outside world will be listened to and taken seriously. And the organisation needs to structure itself in such a way that it taps into the ideas and energies of all these people, rather than relying on the wisdom (or otherwise) of the few.

The authors of this article have recently published a book called My Steam Engine is Broken: Taking the Organisation from the Industrial Era to the Age of Ideas. In the book we argue (as you have probably guessed from the title) that the mindset of many organisations is still stuck somewhere around the time of the Second Industrial Revolution in the US in the early 20th century – the era in which many of today’s global giants were either born or began to emerge as mighty industrial concerns: corporations such as the Ford Motor Company, General Motors, General Electric, Proctor & Gamble, Coca-Cola and many others. You can’t necessarily blame people for thinking: if it worked for those guys, why would it not work for us? But the fact is that the industrial mindset really isn’t working in the knowledge economy. The obsession with control, measurement and so-called efficiency continues to create a stressed and unhappy working environment in which creativity is stifled and engagement is destroyed. Our steam engines really are broken, and it is time to stop patching them up and to transform them.

The energy gap

As a part of the Steam Engine project, we devised a short questionnaire exploring what people want from their workplace in key areas such as freedom of action, measurement and assessment of their work, quality of communication, innovation, leadership, and other key aspects of organisational attitudes and behaviours – a total of 10 core ‘dimensions’. The questionnaire also asks for respondents’ perceptions of the reality of their experiences at work across the same 10 dimensions. Please try the survey yourself at How Steam are You? Respondents receive an online analysis of how ‘Steam Engine’ their own organisation is – in a slightly light-hearted way, but with a very serious intent.

Things get even more interesting when we dig down into the data.

Comparison of responses to the two sets of questions – what people want and what they experience at work – is fascinating. In some industries the gaps are small and do not apply to every dimension: there are areas where there is a discrepancy between what people would like and what their work environment actually provides, but there also key areas of agreement, where organisations’ behaviours are in keeping with their employees aspirations. In other cases, there is a woeful gap between what people want from work and what they actually experience, across every dimension.

We call these gaps ‘the energy gap’, because they are a reflection of wasted human energy. If people come to work looking for the chance to use their own initiative, to make a contribution to the best way of achieving the task at hand, to be able to communicate openly with the organisation, to be innovative and to feel that they are part of a diverse but focussed community – and if all of these and other things are denied them, then the result is a wicked squandering of these people’s energies and potential engagement and commitment.

The true task of Human Resources departments is to free up this energy, keeping a watchful eye out for unhelpful, industrial-style managerial attitudes and behaviours and working to create the kind of environment that allows people to do what they most want: to make a contribution; to suggest creative solutions; to give of their best.

Is it too late for another rebranding exercise? ‘Human Energy Departments’, anyone?