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Business Technology: Our Most Valuable Assets

Ah, credibility: Last week, I talked about cleaning the stables, a reference to one of the labors of Hercules. But in that same column, I made a pretty stupid mess of my own by saying the following: "And all this happened in one day! Just one little spin around the sun." In the spirit of cleaning up my self-made mess, please accept my apology for my absurd blunder in suggesting that our planet Earth somehow manages to do in a single day what actually takes a full year. I should, of course, have written, "Just one little spin around our own axis ..." A number of you kind readers pointed out my confusion/imbecility, and while I thank all those who corrected me, I have to say that my favorite enlightenment came via a reader whose E-mail message bore the subject line, "The Longest Day." Going forward, as part of my effort to rebuild my shattered astronomical credibility, I'll explain in a column next month why the dark side of the moon is believed to suffer from bouts of depression because it is never allowed to face the sun ... JUST KIDDING!

How do you feel about the term "human capital"? Is it an overengineered phrase that sounds compelling but says nothing, or is it an appropriate and forward-looking description of the most valuable assets in a company? Is it misleading in these days of financial shenanigans to introduce a further dilution of what the word "capital" really represents, or does the term enrich management's ability to assess what it has, what it needs, and how much muscle it's able to throw at a project or problem?

It seems like a term that's about to explode onto the scene, and companies seem to be approaching it in a variety of ways: First, how can I leverage my human capital to extract maximum return? This doesn't mean chaining workers to their desks for 18-hour days; rather, it's what tools and training are available to allow these knowledge workers to be as productive and innovative as possible.

Second, if the late '90s were inordinately obsessed with the supremacy of the Internet, the Web, and the biggest and fastest and latest technology of all kinds, is the current period focused more on finding and deploying tools that are expressly focused on unleashing that productivity and innovation from knowledge workers?

Third, a CFO probably wouldn't do his or her career much of a favor by keeping all of the company's cash in a non-interest-bearing checking account; in a parallel way, is a CIO committing corporate suicide if he or she isn't able to tell the CEO whether appropriate portions of the company's human capital are being vigorously applied to the company's highest-priority projects?

Fourth, compensation and incentive packages: Are your company's locked in once a year, or do you have the systemwide flexibility to adjust and monitor those vital carrots in real time to ensure that incentive plans track cheek by jowl with shifting business priorities and objectives?

Fifth, the notion of "knowledge management" has survived numerous attempts on its life over the years. In spite of its own advocates' inability to articulate what it really is, why anyone should really care about it--and despite the inability of most companies to figure out how to collect, organize, and make available all of the remarkably valuable ideas, tips, insights and overall knowledge in employees' heads, the concept has doggedly persisted. There must be something of real value there; has its time come?

Over the coming period of time it takes for our planet to spin around the sun--and that would be a year--InformationWeek will be tracking very closely the idea of human capital, exploring the questions above and no doubt many others. We'd love to hear your ideas and questions on the subject: Is your company using new software products in these areas? Are you changing business processes to try to take fuller advantage of your human capital? What problems are you trying to attack? What benefits do you hope to gain? Please send your responses to the address below.

Bob Evans

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