Rebuttal: We're not "resources"

Recently a friend/colleague wrote a post about how we, as workers, are not “resources”. If you click over and read his post first the rest of this post will make much more sense.

The underlying point behind his post is that people are not readily interchangeable. He gave many examples of people or professions that are not easily substitutable: Derek Jeter at short stop, Steve Jobs at Apple, Brad Pitt as an actor, Michael Jordon as a shooting guard. This point I agree with wholeheartedly. People are rarely interchangeable, at least in a thought industry, but they are still resources.

If we take a look at the semantics of the terminology “resources” we see that it has many meanings, many of which can easily be tied back to employees. Let’s step through the two most relevant of these.

1. A source of supply, support, or aid, especially one that can be readily drawn upon when needed
When viewed from the perspective of a company employees serve one purpose: to supply a service that the business needs in order to operate. How many times have you been called upon by your employer to complete a task that “just came up”? If it is more than once that you fall into the “one that can be readily drawn upon as needed” category. This definition fits pretty closely with most employees in thought industries.

2. Money or any property that can be converted into money
Employees garner a wage in exchange for a service they provide. Under this arrangement a certain amount of money is invested and tied up in that employee. This is cash the business cannot spend if they wish to continue to deliver paychecks. If the employee-employer relationship is terminated then the cash that was tied up in the employee is immediately available again. To put it another way, the employee “resource” was converted to cash.

For example, let’s say an engineering team has a budget for an engineer slot of $100,000. There are three people vying for this position. John is a mediocre programmer and will work for $55,000. Peter is a very good programmer and will work for $98,000. Greg is the programming equivalent of Derek Jeter or Michael Jordon and will work for $123,000. Greg is clearly the best choice if the team wants the best possible talent, however that option is not cost effective. So the company moves to Option B, Peter, who will fit within the budget and does a very good job. The company has now purchased a resource for $98,000 per year. If this employee discontinues his employment, the company will immediately regain $98,000 per year.

In addition, sports players (e.g. Derek Jeter, Michael Jordon, etc.) are routinely traded in order to deal with financial issues. While each “resource” is valued differently according to their ability, they are still treated as an item that can be converted to cash as needed. This definition also fits with what is found in thought industries.

If I build a fence I can choose to go with the cheapest lumber, nails, and concrete. Using cheap resources will be more cost effective but will likely yield an inferior fence that will not withstand the element for long. Conversely, I can choose the best resources and may find that it is highly inefficient financially but that the fence will still be around 100 years from now. Taking a more modest approach, I can choose median resources that make the fence durable for a long time and cost effective.This is no different for people.

If the Yankees where to pencil Mark Turansky in at short stop they would have a cheap resource but may suffer in the quality of their infield. However, if they were to choose Derek Jeter they would pay considerably more for the resource but would likely recognize a considerable improvement in the quality of their team. These people are “resources” for the reasons named above, however that doesn’t necessarily mean it is prudent to treat them interchangeably.

The problem with using the word “resources” to identify employees is that it objectifies them. This is such a broad term that it could just as easily mean calculators, pencils, or laptops as it could employees. As noted in Mark’s post, Steve McConnell “ranks ‘Weak Personnel’ as the 2nd classic mistake an organization can make when trying to build software”. The word personnel here is simply a narrowing term to indicate that the resources in question are human in nature and not of the inanimate variety. I will agree with the fact that people shouldn’t be treated as resources, even though we are just that. Our particular variety of resources comes with emotions installed, which makes it harder to blindly objectify us without some emotional responses following closely.

We are all “resources”, albeit differently valued ones that come with emotions attached.

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Jason McDonald

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