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Maintaining Human Machines

On August 31, 2010, in Editorial Advisory Board, Paul Hebert, by Paul Hebert

Paul Hebert is a founding member of the HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board. As the Managing Director and lead consultant for I2I, an influence consultancy, he guides companies in their alignment of the behavior of their employees with the goals and objectives of the company through incentives and rewards. Full bio

Paul Hebert | Founding Member, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board

Paul Hebert | Founding Member, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board


Just as the manufacturing-focused company of the past needed to know the best factory design, machine maintenance schedules, upgrade and purchase requirements for the automatons that created their products. Today’s (and tomorrow’s) HR department needs to adopt similar expertise – but focused on the new machines – the human ones.

Business back in the early part of the 20th century really didn’t care about employees. Machinery and assembly lines were the focus of production and the nexus of value. Henry Ford is (in)famous for wondering why workers brought their heads to work when all he really needed was their hands and feet. Mr. Ford, along with many others, took the industrial age and put it on steroids. The moving assembly line and interchangeable parts created mass production and the need to reduce variation, reduce customization, and reduce costs. The goal was to put everything into a process that could run almost without intervention. Or as little intervention from humans.

This worked so well in the plants it became the dogma for the rest of the organization. Including the personnel department – soon to be renamed Human Resources.
But even with a name change – the hangover from the industrial revolution still remains in the HR department.

Most of the work done in those cubes and offices is to streamline, control, process-ize and reduce variations in the way in which employees are treated. Some of that is driven by government regulations – but I submit, most is simply because that’s “what we know how to do.”

The industrial revolution elevated the machine over the “man.” The process, and the machines that chugged away within it, created the value for the company. People were extensions to the machine – the tail to the dog.

Value = People

But that changed about 20 years ago. Humans are now the nexus of value at almost every company. But most companies still manage their business and their people like Henry Ford did over 100 years ago.

That is the disconnect.

In the past HR was required to manage “human” resources in order to make the machines and the processes more cost effective.

The key today, and in the future, is to understand how to maintain and get the most out of humans in order to drive business results.

Humans require a much different maintenance manual. For the future HR needs to be expert at psychology – not just a dusting off of old theories like Maslow but an understanding of evolutionary psychology, social psychology and all the theories. HR folks should know about Deci and Cialdini. Top level HR professionals should have a strong understanding of behavioral economics and the way in which humans make decisions – rationally and irrationally. Names like Airely, Tversky and Kahneman should roll off the tongues of new HR professionals as easily as EFCA and COBRA do today.

HR also needs to transfer that knowledge to the front-line management who are tasked with managing the workforce. Too often however, stuck in the industrial age mind-set, the focus is still on creating systems and processes for management – eliminating the key fact that humans are infinitely variable. Management is a messy process – one that doesn’t play well with rote processes, forms and rules. Those are “operations” concepts – not human ones.

HR is the place where efficient production of yesterday’s product/service and innovation for tomorrow’s comes together. How a company creates value is becoming less reliant on the machines in the factory (most of those are now in third-world countries anyway) and more on how the humans get along and produce within the company.

Ultimately, someone will be (in)famous for saying…

“Why do workers need to bring their hands and feet to work – all I need is their brains.”

That’s when we will know that HR has arrived.

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