Benchmark: the individual’s contribution to business growth

Some time ago, an acquaintance of mine harshly criticized the term human resources, describing it as rather disrespectful of people. In my opinion, this term has a utilitarian value which is at the base of the business-oriented western culture that values the parties involved, acknowledging the deep interaction between them. If the business grows, the person grows as well and if the person grows then so does the business.

Alessandro Mazzeranghi, MECQ S.r.l.

After having spent so many fine words on this topic, let’s see how this mutual interest between people and business is pursued and how it could be better pursued. The issue demands great attention in order to avoid any waste that would be harmful to all.

INDIVIDUAL TALENT. The Gospel maintained that we are not all equal, that each one of us was gifted with different talents and in quite different degrees. Therefore, everyone will be asked to bear fruits according to the talent he or she was gifted with. By the word talent I mean the innate abilities that every person is endowed with. It is only with practice and training that these abilities are later developed and honed. Any manager in the field of human resources knows this concept perfectly and they know how to give each person the position that better suits him or her within the company organization according to his knowledge and skills. But from that moment, the individual that has been given this new position will reduce contact with the human resources department, while he will intensify his relationship with his direct supervisor or manager.

BRINGING TALENTS TO LIGHT. If I had written what follows in the late Eighties I could have been seen as a capitalist, an enemy of the proletariat as well as many other things that older people among us might easily remember. Nowadays instead, this is a well-known concept. Growing the skills and competences of the staff is a matter of common interest between the company and trade unions. The heading for this paragraph might be: putting your colleagues’ talents to good use and developing them. At a time when the maximum amount of flexibility is requested, mainly when facing unforeseen and impromptu demands, it is important to work with “capable people” who can compensate for the lack of “specialized people” who were the main industrial option (resource) before 2000 (just to put a time limit); a perfect resource that was constantly available only at the cost of sacrificing a larger number of workers. If once we had a great quantity of specialists available who remained underused, we now have only a few persons both capable and flexible. In the event of an unlikely but possible issue, they have to interrupt what they are regularly doing to make good use of all their skills and expertise in order to provide a solution. “This darned flexibility” (as a worker called it) reduces fixed costs but requires people with “a different mind-set”; here is where the main obstacles arise and this is the start of failure. Therefore, this is a prime example of how we should best manage and use human resources. Yet this is far from simple.

IS IT A MATTER OF APPROACH? Surely, the first step is to select those individuals who are flexible by nature and capable of solving issues by finding their own method rather than using specific competence. The second step is to optimize this ability that we could call “a problem-solving ability”. Therefore, a different type of approach to the selection of the staff comes to light. I am not just talking about staff that is immediately or in the near future destined to managerial positions (in this case, problem-solving as well as flexibility are essential skills), I am also talking about all those people who will work at intermediate levels as middle managers. Selecting is not difficult; it should be easy to understand the skills to be looked for in a person to be hired for a position that involves at least a small portion of decision-making responsibility. What is difficult instead is bringing these innate talents to light and developing them to an adequate level of efficiency.

ASSESSING THE POSSIBLE CONSEQUENCES OF AN ACTION: NOT EVERYONE IS CAPABLE OF DOING IT. The key question of the problem-solving and decision-making ability is: what could be the undesired consequences of a particular action that would otherwise be beneficial? Those who have a strong inclination to managerial thinking are also inclined to find the ideal solution that will allow them to pursue a definite target easily and effectively, but at which price? We often end up misidentifying and miscalculating the possible undesired consequences. Yet, we should know that most of our actions can have negative consequences and for this reason, we often think on a cost/benefit basis.

There is always a cost, of course, but we tend to consider the evident and easily measurable cost only (e.g. in order to produce a given document I need six hours of work ...). In doing so, we ignore the unwanted and unnecessary costs, but these have to be considered too, as they are part of those “possible undesired consequences”. I could make a concrete example related to the continuous improvement of production: a machine in production can have several jams as it works with an old motor that limits fine adjustments. The whole machine is about twenty years old, including the electrical part of the industrial automation system. Following a technical analysis (that proved to be impeccable) it was discovered that a modern drive unit with speed control would be able to optimize the machine’s performance and eliminate jams. So the motor was replaced without, however, considering compatibility issues (even at a programming level) between the state-of-art inverter and the old PLC that controls the machine. And so when you try starting the machine ... nothing happens and the company will suffer damage due to lack of production. In other words, an undesired consequence of a seemingly justified action has generated unexpected damage.

THE AIM OF HUMAN RESOURCE DEVELOPMENT . You might have noticed that discussing the unexpected and undesired consequences of our actions is not a very “popular” topic in the industrial world. Yet some of the worst industrial accidents in the past happened due to the inability to take these consequences into account, even if the subjects in question were cautious and diligent. Only a few people are aware that sometimes, catastrophic losses for the business could be avoided if the people responsible for the mistake causing the disaster had a different and more effective way of reasoning. Two classic examples: Bhopal and Chernobyl. I do not want to debate the issue of major disasters here, but I would like to discuss the delicate topic of flexibility that is increasingly required in the industrial context together with the problem-solving ability. This involves complex implications in the way decisions are made.

WE OFTEN DEFINE THE ABILITY TO MAKE DECISIONS AS A MANAGERIAL ABILITY, but this definition might be incorrect as it should be a widespread and existing human feature more or less self-evident in all adults. As children, our decisions are confirmed or corrected by parents, but when we become adults we per force become independent, at least in our private life. But this is different at work; why? We should not think that it is the people’s fault: rather, it is the system’s fault, as it convinces people that their role at work is to follow orders without raising questions. Perhaps I should have used the past tense here, but the prevailing culture existing in today’s business (at any level although there are exceptions) is still this one. Therefore, it is not about teaching but about changing the perception of work, not about shaping individuals but about making the person grow, about increasing the perception of the role he or she carries out in he company, and last but not least, about building self-confidence as well as the ability to take on responsibilities without experiencing useless and paralyzing fears. At this point, I would like to conclude with a question: how many workers, specialists, clerks or managers really know what the company expects of them, how important their task is (it goes beyond mere salary) and how important their contribution is in order to ensure the survival and the growth of the company? My overall impression is that, at least in Europe and in companies like ours that are not high-technology based, only a few people have clear and defined ideas on such a delicate topic. So there is a lot of work to be done and the initiative and the commitment must start from the company’s top management.

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