Human beings, not human resources

Summer 2015 - e-O&P editorial

David McAra

Our prevailing mental model for organisation – that we must appoint a manager to acquire and manipulate resources (including the human ones) to make something happen – has been effective, even if flawed.  The consequences have been astonishing, both good and bad.  So it’s deeply embedded and hard to change, no matter how evident its shortcomings become. 

I think the concept of 'human resources' encapsulates the problem.  So how about this as a working title for this experimental edition of e-O&P: “Working with humans: beings, not resources”?

Binary world views: either / or

For the last few decades, I have found myself trapped in a binary mental model.  When we meet for the first time, I will be wondering which of two world views you hold.  If we are really to talk, this is what I’ll need to discover.  How do you see the world and your place in it?  “Only two world views,” you might ask?  “What a naïve boy!  He’s not scratching the surface,” could be your perfectly valid response.  I know my picture is simplistic and far from complete but these are the only two positions which interest me, at the moment, as a player in the organisational world. 

Mechanism or organism

To describe the two alternatives as simply as possible, you may find an organisation resembles more closely either a machine or an organism.  I know Gareth Morgan lists eight organisational metaphors in his ‘Images of Organizations’ (1997), but as I say, these are the only two that matter to me, at the moment.  For shorthand, I think of them as either Old Testament (machine view) or New Testament (organism view).  Again, at risk of oversimplifying, here’s my account of the difference.  The Old Testament tells me all about the rules I must follow, while the New Testament leaves me to make up my own mind.  “Just be guided by love,” says Jesus in the David McAra translation.  This biblical analogy also expresses something of the process of transition between the two world views, i.e. that it is far from straightforward. 

If you are still with me, half a page in, I imagine you sympathise with the organic (New Testament) view.  Otherwise you’d have found my language vague, wishy-washy and long-winded.  You’d have grown exasperated and gone looking for something more interesting.  But that doesn't matter.  We can only push on the door to see if it is open.

An important distinction

By many criteria, the hierarchical pyramid has been a highly successful model, with its mechanistic processes such as ‘performance appraisal’ and ‘management by objectives’.  Astonishing transformation in material prosperity has been brought about, pretty much world-wide, over the past few hundred years, largely by organisations modelled on the command and control pyramid.  We might want to consider a corresponding spiritual impoverishment but if I seem to hanker for a lost Eden of hunting and gathering, you’d reasonably think me soft in the head.  However, the limitations of the mechanistic model with its appetite for continuous, unlimited growth are becoming ever more conspicuous.  Many innovative approaches are emerging to challenge these limitations, yet the mechanistic school of thought continues to hold sway in the realm of corporate life, blocking the progress of change. 

Mechanics or gardeners?

The differences with the organic model are subtle and profound, hinging upon power and control.  Mechanics can control their machines whereas gardeners are unable to control their gardens.  Gardeners use their knowledge, plan, take actions and expect results but their relationship with soil and plant is respectful, patient and open to the many external influences of the biosphere.  Gardeners are always in dialogue, intervening, inquiring and learning.  Machine minders are too, of course, enhancing their understanding of the subtleties of their machines but their interactions are much more direct, their systems less complex and more closely bounded, the prospect of control, much closer. 

I made the following diagram after a planning meeting of the Deming Learning Network.  We were trying to articulate what we appreciated about our meetings.  Characteristics of the mechanistic worldview are listed in the white boxes on the left.  On the right are the characteristics of the more wholesome, organic culture, which I believe, many groups like ours, committed to learning and development and humanistic principles, are helping to develop.  

From the mechanistic towards the more organic  

Perceiving the distinction

In distinguishing between these organic or mechanistic views, I am not speaking about preferences.  We don’t choose.  It’s a question of how we see.  Your occupation or background will restrict your vision.  If you work in HR, your very job title requires you to see people as ‘human resources’, just sophisticated components, with specifications against which they can be measured.  If you’ve an MBA, you will have learned to master your organisation, as its ultimate authority.  If you’ve spent your whole career in one profession, its codes of practice, laid down in the past, will have guided your actions to achieve the aims of your firm.  These are all ways in which the world is taught as a machine with predictable chains of cause and effect.  “Here is how to succeed.  Act on the world in the approved way to accomplish the desired result.” 

Why does it matter?

Whereas the mechanistic view tends to simplify a situation so that it can be managed, the organic view acknowledges complexity and works with it.  It doesn’t try to predict the future with spurious accuracy.  It majors instead on understanding what is happening and responding effectively.  While a simplistic solution involves compromise, waste and rework, a complex solution, which may appear more costly to administer, is more effective and therefore, a real solution, so the problem it was intended to solve goes away.  While mechanistic approaches are delighted to accomplish percentage points of improvement, organic solutions can often accomplish breakthroughs into whole new levels of performance.

So where have all the gardeners gone?

I believe we are many, individuals and groups, passionate about transforming the world of work.  But we are scattered and splintered and not skilled at recognising and engaging with each other.  If we could discover each other and connect somehow and learn more effectively together, how might we speed our progress? 

AMED aims to provide a ‘home’ for cultivators to make such connections and create critical mass for change. 

Please help to expand my list of thinkers, groups and discussions committed to learning about how organisations can become more humane, where humans will be respected as beings not managed as resources or, God help us, as ‘Human Capital’. 

Please help us to explore how we can join up creatively so we can challenge more effectively the prevailing paradigm of command and control. 

And please challenge my whole premise in any way you wish. 

References

Morgan, Gareth (1997); Images of Organization, Sage Publications, Inc.  California

Toynbee, Arnold J (1976), Mankind and Mother Earth, Oxford University Press

About the author

David McAra has been reading Arnold Toynbee’s history of the world, Mankind and Mother Earth (1976), in which Toynbee sets in a daunting context what David sees as the work of AMED members and e-O&P readers.  “The advance in technology,” he writes, “has vastly increased Man’s wealth and power and the ‘morality gap’ between Man’s physical power … and his spiritual capacity for coping with this power has yawned as wide open as the mythical jaws of Hell.” 

David is a long-standing devotee of AMED’s principles and practices and may be contacted at: david.mcara@gmail.com.  

Contents of Summer 2015 edition

Complete Summer 2015 edition in pdf.

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