I like the term Human Resources. But this was not always the case. As a social scientist getting an MBA (too many years ago) I remember thinking how de-humanizing it was to call humans resources. I thought we could get much better outcomes by changing both the name and how it is measured on the balance sheet. Spending some time in the agricultural community recently gave me a couple new perspectives on the term resources and how it can be applied in business.

The world of agriculture has been utilizing “resources” for thousands of years. As populations have grown dramatically in the last fifty years, the utilization of the resources needed to produce agricultural products have created 3 broad classifications of resource utilization. I believe these classifications, and the focus they create, could help us better define “Human Resources” within our own organizations and change the way we approach treating the people we need for production.

  1. The Slash and Burn method of resource utilization is the simple focus on using what is in front of us for a finite period of time, then moving on. In agriculture, this can be very destructive, think rainforest depletion and dust bowl. If I am utilizing resources in this way, I believe that I get what I need and move on to do the same somewhere else.

    Many companies view Human Resources through this lens. They believe they can always find someone else to fill the position, the people should feel lucky to even have a job, and that work sucks and if you don’t like it, be the boss. The truth of the matter is that businesses can and have been successful in this model, but generally leave people and communities to pay the price for short-sited-ness.

  2. The second type of resource utilization is a style more people are familiar with strive to embody both in agriculture and business. Sustainability in the utilization of resources is acknowledging that I need to be able to continue using the resource to produce year after year. This leads to having multi-year production plans, growing the right products for the area, and other practices that take care of the resources so they can produce, hopefully, into perpetuity.

    Many companies have come to understand, often through the painful cost of turnover and losing high value employees, that planning for Human Resources creates more sustainable utilization. Companies come up with great benefits to keep employees, they give good time off, and they generally strive to provide a work environment that does not completely sap the individual. The focus here is great, certainly a step above Slash and Burn, but can still lead to employees feeling like cogs in a wheel.

  3. Less talked about even in agricultural circles is a third type of resource utilization known as Regenerative Agriculture. Simply defined, it is the practice of leaving the resource itself (generally soil) better than the farmer found it. Through very planned grazing, crop rotations, bio-diversity, and intricate mulching practices the process itself actually strives to improve the usefulness of the resource from the beginning.

    In Human Resources, this kind of definition would force many companies to re-design their approach to the people they employ. How would the company leave employees better off than they found them? To be sure, there are companies attempting this process through formally identifying purpose both in the company and individual, building the strengths of the individual (even if it means them utilizing those strengths outside of work or at another job) and being honest and open about the path of the employee long term and where the job fits in that path.

I no longer believe we need a new term for Human Resources. I do, however, believe we can make a conscious decision as to which definition of “Resource” utilization our companies would choose to pursue. Like in agriculture, there are no easy answers to this problem. To be sure, a company that chooses to pursue a sustainable model could be competing directly with one that has chosen Slash and Burn and there is no guarantee against short or even long term success.

These definitions of resource utilization are certainly not the only three available and my friends in the agriculture business might argue a bit about what practices belong in what category and even the viability of one or the other categories in certain commodities. The same arguments apply in Human Resources.

The real question, however, seems to be, how do we balance the fact that, in business, people are both a line on the liability side of the balance sheet and, potentially, a very hard to track part in the asset side of that same balance sheet? I think the answer is less about what we call it and more about the conscious definition we create out of the real business of utilizing people as resources to produce products.

Can businesses leave people better than they found them?
Or are we simply burning our way through people until we have sapped them of their usefulness?
Whatever we call it, we have a choice.