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Business Technology: Reflections On A Name Game

Sex, politics, and religion are three things we aren't supposed to discuss in public--too unnerving, too emotional, too personal. Sparked by the ideas expressed in the pile of letters that came in response to last week's column, I would like to nominate a fourth topic for that list of no-no's: the term "human capital." The last time I witnessed such immediate and vigorous reaction to a suggestion was when my boyhood pal Mike Coyne tried to, uh, help our 10th-grade civics teacher by saying, "Sir, did you know that one of the plastic things on your fake tie is sticking out?"

Back in the present-day world of business technology, numerous software companies are developing a comprehensive set of applications designed to help customers understand what their employees are doing, evaluate what they're contributing, analyze the possibilities for more-effective deployment, alter the incentives offered for various objectives, and in general help employers ensure that employees are working on those projects most vital to the employers' success. Now, I think most businesspeople would look at that list of deliverables and think, "That's not half-bad. I have a gut feeling that we're on target with all those things, but it'd probably be a good idea to see it in a more structured way." From the side of the software companies building these tools, the outlook is equally positive: an economic climate in which customers are eagerly seeking ways to get the most out of every dollar they spend, and in which those customers are increasingly confident that business technology can be a massive factor in achieving that.

But then comes the sticky part: language. Words. Names. What we call this stuff. This emerging class of software tools is quietly coalescing around a broad term that's just about to crack the surface: human capital. That term alone gets a lot of people squirming, but toss one more word into the mix and it becomes, to some, even more volatile: human-capital management. From a reader: "If the term 'resource' [as in human resources] implies ownership, then the term 'capital' does more so. I predict that companies where management already has a poor view of human relationships in the marketplace will compound their poor view by adopting this derogatory term. ... I am not 'human capital' to be bought and sold, leveraged, or manipulated for the profit of some entity called management."

In this column a few years ago, I questioned the legitimacy of the term "customer-relationship management" because I believed it put the whole thing ass-backward: The implication in that term is that the seller will manage the relationship with the customer. In fact, the whole premise is to recognize the inevitability of the opposite dynamic, and in fact to help make it happen: that the customer will manage the relationship with the seller. In this case, with the term human capital, the dynamic might be right, but the language seems more than a little risky. From a reader: "Since capital is properly defined as owned property, human capital essentially means slaves." Another: "What's lost is the humanness, the resourcefulness, the personality and character that's derived from the humans that work, strive, invent, and dream with the business." And another: "Rather than diluting the meaning of the word 'capital,' I think the new jargon 'human capital' dilutes the meaning of the word 'human.' "

Well, one could say, it's all semantics; the terms don't really matter; this is all some nonsensical word game that has no relevance in the real world. Perhaps. But Human Capital Management, even if it undergoes the inevitable TLA process and becomes HCM, hits awfully close to home with a lot of, well, human-capital units. I think a lot of people these days feel like the guy in the old Johnny Rivers song, "Secret Agent Man": "They've given you a number, and taken away your name." A lot of people feel less connected to their employers than they used to, and while this emergent class of software can help reconnect those people, does the language used to describe those tools help or hinder the cause?

So here's a suggestion for an alternative: People Optimization. Make sense, or is my fake tie sticking out?

To discuss this column with other readers, please visit Bob Evans's forum on the Listening Post.

To find out more about Bob Evans, please visit his page on the Listening Post.

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