It is time for “Human Resources” to be retired and to return to basics

I was pleased to see that in India’s New Education Policy the “Ministry of Human Resource and Development” was to return to its pre-1985 name of the “Ministry of Education”.  This is not a comment about the new policy but about the use of the term “Human Resource”. The Ministry of Education became the HRD Ministry in 1985 during Rajiv Gandhi’s time as Prime Minister. But this was, in hindsight, both misguided and counter-productive. The intention was to show how “modern” and up-to-date India was. In practice it shifted the focus from the core needs of Education to the cosmetics of being seen to be modern.

News18: The Ministry of Human Resource and Development (HRD) has been renamed as the Ministry of Education following an approval from the Union Cabinet. The name change was a key recommendation of the draft New Education Policy, which has also been cleared in Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting. The HRD ministry name was adopted in 1985, during the tenure of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, as it was changed from ministry of education.

The term “human resource” was first used in 1893 though entirely in a descriptive way. The concept of mobilizing, training and managing personnel and employees in industry grew in the first half of the 20th century. Later it spread into the Military and all Defense Industries as the Second World War demonstrated clearly the need for training, educating and managing large groups of personnel. After the war the concept of managing personnel relationships spread into every branch of commerce and even into government and bureaucracies. It used to be the Personnel Department until it became trendy and fashionable in the late 1970s for corporations to use the term “Human resources” to show how caring they were.

Human Resource: Pioneering economist John R. Commons mentioned “human resource” in his 1893 book The Distribution of Wealth but did not elaborate. The expression was used during the 1910s to 1930s to promote the idea that human beings are of worth (as in human dignity); by the early 1950s it meant people as a means to an end (for employers). Among scholars the first use of the phrase in that sense was in a 1958 report by economist E. Wight Bakke.

It is my contention that the use of the term “human resource” has been misleading and, on balance, more bad than good. It has enshrined the notion of people being just another commodity in the economic cycle. The use of the term “human resource” has helped to apply the same principles to people as those applying to raw materials (cost, security of supply, alternative suppliers, competition between suppliers). Seeing humans as resources rather than “personnel” has encouraged – and enabled – the corporate world to dehumanize people and shift and change to the cheapest resource available. The entire notion of outsourcing, which has became a major area of HR, is based on the same principles of shifting risks of fluctuating production volumes to sub-suppliers.

Personnel and employers once exhibited loyalty, trust, a sharing of goals and commitment. In both directions. Values evolve. Employers have become faceless and so have the resources they employ. Resources, after all, are consumable. They are to be fully utilized and then discarded and replaced. Brand loyalty from customers is highly valued and to be pursued. Employer/employee loyalty is of no relevance if it is not specified in the employment contract. The goals of a large corporation are rarely anything shared by all the cogs in the large wheel. Corporations, instead, have HR Departments to produce Vision Statements which are meaningless and shared by no one. Human resources, for their part, are required to perform to specification, be judged by Key Performance Indicators, are trained (not educated) and are discarded and written-off when non-performing or obsolete.

So I am very pleased to see Human Resource Development in India return to Education. And it is about time that Human Resources returned to being about People.


 

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