In knowledge intensive work, the human perspective is paramount. In recognition of increased individuality in work cultures, the most forward-thinking companies are now renaming their HRM HC (for Human Capital). As capital is invested instead of consumed like resources, the new name reflects a renewed view on the relationship between the employee and employer. Employees are not a resource to be used up but an investment that grows in value. Or perhaps the employee is seen as investing time and knowhow in the value creation of the firm.
Viewing employees as a resource makes the relationship between the employee and employer exploit. Viewing employees as capital redefines this relationship as investment. If the goal of work is to create something new, success lies in creating organizational relationships that support this kind of thinking.
It may seem nit-picky to get hung up on terminology. Surely no one actually thinks of employees as something to exploit. But the thing is that language is a reflection of culture. Words carry history and always convey more than their intended meaning. In striving for release from dated definitions of human interaction in work cultures, a lot of ground can be covered simply by recognizing poor vocabulary and changing the way things are defined.
How should we then describe the relationship between employer and employee in modern, learning-centered organizations? The answer lies in thinking about how value is created in information intensive work. In fact, the relationship between employer and employee is only one of many important ones. The value of work is created in a multitude of different interpersonal settings that transcend organizational boundaries. The employee is no longer subservient to or dependent on the employer. Rather, there is mutual dependence between many individuals taking part in value creation. The employee needs the organization just as much as the organization needs the employee. The customer needs the organization just as much as the organization needs the customer.
As the requirements and content of work have dramatically changed, so has the meaning of what it is to be an employee. Individual learning is a prerequisite for value creation in knowledge intensive work. The role of the employee is not to obey orders but to create value through development of thought. The responsibility of the employee is to find the best conditions for learning, the best boss to learn from, the best pal to work with. The role of work processes is not to try to minimize human error but provide room for thought. Human error itself, development of thought and learning are at the core of knowledge intensive work. The traditional role and meaning of the employee has become obsolete and the typical definitions of the employee-employer relationship along with it.
What to call employees then? How to properly rename HR? The point is that the most important aspect of work relationships is context. All structures that predefine work relationships may limit them only to certain contexts and decrease the potential that each individual has to interact, learn and create value. It is also of utmost importance exactly who chooses to do the work and whom they choose to work with in each given situation. Value is tied to learning, which is tied to personal meaning. The best expert on how individual learning, experience of meaning and fruitful collaboration at work happen is the individual herself. An organization wanting to recognize the importance of context and the importance of the individual could choose to get rid of all titles or predefinitions of interpersonal structure that are contained in traditional work roles, departments and other organizational structures. What are we left with then? What do you call this organization, how do you define it? Maybe just people, working together?
Thank you, again, Esko Kilpi