Wednesday, July 1, 2009


Resources are working on the issue.

If there's one word that I'd take out of the corporate lexicon, it's ”resources.” It seems harmless enough. After all, you can't complete a project unless you have the resources to do so. Some of those resources are people, some are materiel. Yet wherever I've seen people referred to as resources, I've seen a dysfunctional company.

At first glance, the reason seems obvious: when you dehumanize someone, there's no reason to consider them in your decisions. Do you need 80 hour weeks to get the project done? No problem, we have the resources! Don't have anyone with the skillset to do a job? That's nonsense, just move a resource into the slot! These, and similar, are fodder for a host of TV shows and movies … as well as more than a few real-world companies.

But the damage goes further than that: it separates people from their work, giving them an excuse not to care. That quote at the top of this article? It came from the production support team, not some random manager. Did you notice that it doesn't say we are working on the issue?

In a world of “resources,” there's no reason for an individual to feel responsibility. After all, he or she is just a cog in the wheel. To be replaced or re-assigned at the drop of a hat. And once you adopt that attitude, it really doesn't matter what you produce. It's a short step from there to ignoring broken windows.

This is not news, and it's not an issue confined to the software industry. One of the essays in a rather obscure book on railway locomotives, first published in 1959, discusses the effects of crew assignment on the well-being of the trains themselves. Not surprisingly, the engines that “belonged” to a single crew or small number of crews were consistently in top shape. Engines from a “common pool,” which would be crewed by whomever was available, were consistently in the worst shape.

Even on an assembly line, the home of interchangeable jobs, people are not interchangeable. You can't take a person with ten years of experience threading wiring harnesses, and drop him/her into a welding station. Or vice versa. Unless you actually want to lower product quality and create unhappy workers.

The real issue is why the belief in “resources” persists, even among the people so labeled. I suspect that it comes from a feeling that humans can adapt to anything; that “specialization is for insects.” While that may be true in the long run, in the short run it's just wishful thinking. And being told “you are not a beautiful or unique snowflake” is bound to leave a few psychic scars.

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