What’s the capital of human?

As with many blogs these days I suspect, this post started with a Twitter exchange this morning. Simon Heath tweeted this image which covers an issue that I really feel strongly about.

As an HR practitioner of getting on for twenty years now, I’ve never actually liked the “Human Resources” description but it’s so ubiquitous a term that I don’t think we really stop to reflect on what it means any more. People know what “HR” does, right? And yet words are so important – as I was reminded when someone sensibly corrected my unthinking use of the term “sheep dip” once. So please, please, please can we stop using the term “human capital”? Under any definition I’ve read, I think it’s horrifyingly de-humanising, summoning up an image in my head of ranks of faceless individuals waiting to do the organisation’s bidding, whatever that might be. The only thing that makes it worse for me is the addition of the word “metrics” after it – as I tweeted in response to Simon.

Human capital metrics.


I’m not against data. Far from it. We need data to help inform our knowledge of organisations. It can help us identify what’s going well, what’s not going so well and how we’re doing in comparison to others, all of which are useful – to a point. But it’s not a silver bullet and the devil is often in the interpretation. As someone once said to me in a completely different context (music production, since you ask!) “knowing what’s wrong is the easy bit – it’s knowing what to do about it that’s hard”.

If you know anything about the organisation you work for, you should have pretty good instincts about the place. If you think your organisation is losing valuable people too quickly, the chances are it is. If you feel your sickness absence levels have crept up lately, chances are you’re probably right. Yes, the data will help you quantify that but it sure as hell won’t tell you what to do about it. If numbers alone were that informative, you wouldn’t need a glossy annual report, you’d just publish your balance sheet. It’s the stories behind the numbers that make the data useful (hence there are whole books on the subject of story telling in a business context!).

This all feels like part of a growing movement to turn people management into some sort of pseudo-science.

To me, it’s clear that managing people well is nothing like a science. Yes, there are (arguably) elements of it where science can help – for example psychology or neuroscience – but ultimately it’s a human-to-human relationship and we all know from experience how wobbly and unpredictable they can be.

It baffles me that there are still organisations that don’t prioritise how they manage their people; that entertain and even encourage bad management practices. I’d ask them: in the twenty first century, what factors affect how we as consumers feel about an organisation? In my view there are two big ones:

  • The quality of the interaction we have with its people
  • What I’d loosely term “organisational behaviour” (do they pay their taxes, look after our communities etc)

My entire perception of many organisations is based solely on one interaction with one of their employees on one day. I don’t need any data, big or otherwise, to tell me whether or not I’d use that organisation again in the future. That decision is made on my experience, which is fundamentally a very human factor. And if you as the boss of that organisation want that human to human interaction to be a positive one, I’d suggest you’re more likely to get that by treating your staff as humans rather than a faceless number to be agglomerated into the pretty charts that get handed out at your management meetings.

It starts with what you call them. Human capital? Human resources? Or just people? I know what I’d rather you called me. I might be just one of your many employees, but I’m the only one with my mix of experience, skills and knowledge. You might want to bear that in mind when you look at your pretty charts.

As a follow up to me hitting “post” on this blog, Simon directed me to his post on “divisive and unhelpful phrases that undermine our efforts to advance the hopes and aspirations of people at work” here: workmusing.wordpress.com.

I enjoyed the reaction to this blog so much I created a Storify that you can find here.

And some other bloggers have shared posts with me on similar or related topics:

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