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The R-word

06.08.2013
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The opinions expresses in this article are personal and do not (necessarily) reflect that of my employer.

The R-word is a common expression in sociology to offensively indicate a mental condition. There is however another R-word that is commonly used in corporate enrivonments and that can be taken as offensive by the members of your team.

Lingo

When a person becomes a manager (another strange word sometimes), he is given the responsibility of creating value not only with his own tasks, but through the work of other people.

For this purpose, he is entrusted with a set of resources, such as budget (a fixed amount of money to spend over a certain interval of time), physical stuff (such as office space or machines) and, over everything else, people.

So the primary meaning of the word is not necessarily bad, and transmits the fact that the new manager should be the caretaker of what is given to him by the company in good faith; there is the need for a word more specific than people to indicate who a manager is responsible for. However, usage of the R-word can turn pretty ridiculous at times.

Thus, the rest of this article is an argument against the use of the word resource to indicate people.

Commoditization

Colleague: "Everyone can be replaced in a company, that happened even Steve Jobs at Apple and the company is still there."
Coach (who worked at Apple in the 80s): "No f***ing way. Apple would never be the same"

Before its usage for people, I knew of two meaning for the R-word:

  • natural resources, such as coal, oil and gold.
  • Machine resources, such as CPU time, memory, disk space, database connections.  

Both of these meaning of the words have an inherent replaceability. You don't care about which oil you get, to the point that there is a unique price for the oil barrel in the whole world. Oil is a commodity that can be traded without attaching it to a particular source. With machine resources, it is mostly the same and the whole cloud computing trend tries to create a super-efficient market for CPU and memory resources: Amazon prices may even vary with load, reflecting market demand.

However, it is fundamentally not the same with people: you cannot train, coach or delegate to a natural resource like oil. Besides the obvious differences between a passive object and an active entity like a person, programmers are not replaceable in a short time nor their quantity can be leveraged in the same simple way as you can do with budget.

If you're a trader making money, I could sometimes double your budget and get an increase in returns. If you have a productive team and one day I double its size, I will probably destroy it due to the inorganic growth and the impossibility to find an equivalent number of talented people in a short time frame. I would also probably make your project late than it is, due to the communication and training costs that can only go up when expanding a team indefinitely. 

Human resources

The HR departments could have much better names, given what they do.

  • since HR can help colleagues to relocate to a different team or change their responsibilities, they could be called Talent Management. Even when not changing people but training them on soft skills like it happened to me yesterday, we're still talking about caring for employees personal development.
  • Another definition that applies for the bureaucracy concerns is Personnel Management (a good definition by my colleague Michele): HR worries about conformance to the law and regulations (for example in security in the work place and tax concerns) so that you can be free to concentrate on your particular job.

These are wonderful things to do for the employee of a company, and it's unfortunate that the R-word make it seem like people are treated like oil barrels when instead their growth is cared for.

Published at DZone with permission of Giorgio Sironi, author and DZone MVB.

(Note: Opinions expressed in this article and its replies are the opinions of their respective authors and not those of DZone, Inc.)