Are You Managing Resources Or Building Knowledge?

Today I am going to write about a topic that has always bothered me. I had not thought that I would write about it, but a post this morning by Seth Godin really triggered this post. His post is really promoting his new book Linchpin (Amazon Link), but it starts with an excellent quote by Andrew Carnegie:

Carnegie apparently said, “Take away my people, but leave my factories and soon grass will grow on the factory floors……Take away my factories, but leave my people and soon we will have a new and better factory.”

I have no idea when Andrew Carnegie said this, but it is something that every company should remember. Employees matter. The question is why companies forget this fact. Godin talks a little about shareholders wanting more tangible assets. What if the company is not a public company? What if your company does not really have tangible assets like a factory? Then your people should matter even more. They should not be “resources”.

The first time I saw people mentioned as resources was during my consulting days. Not all consulting companies talk like this, but when a consulting company gets large enough, there is a tendency to move into this resource management direction. In software related companies, you see this trend quite often. As management looks at their budget, they need to determine what work needs to be done. Due to the financial focus, software engineers become yet another cost in the budget equation. This financial focus then trickles down to the people staffing the work, typically your first level managers, who then need to find the best allocation of people to work. This is the way many organizations staff their software projects.

Don’t get me wrong, there is some question of an engineer’s knowledge when staffing projects, but it seems to be a secondary concern. Earlier, I said employees matter. Why? During the time that an employee works for a company, they gain information about a company’s operations or even just gain some general experience that can help them in their jobs.

In the case of software engineers, the experiences are very valuable. There could be the knowledge gained within the specific products that a company makes, like a content management system, some enterprise software, or even development tools themselves. The other side of experience is the knowledge gained when working with new tools and technologies. In working at various companies, my experience and knowledge could be significantly different than someone else at the same company. I may have more knowledge in content management, analytics and social media integration, but my coworker may have more knowledge of XMPP, messaging (JMS/MQ/ESB) and general network protocols. In this example, can I be substituted as a resource on a project where my coworker was originally staffed?

Most people would quickly say no. However, when the time comes to staff a project you may hear excuses about the timing of projects, the availability of people and “other factors”.

Paper and money are resources because they have a finite capacity or duration of existence. They have no knowledge. People have knowledge, so why are they treated like resources?

16 thoughts on “Are You Managing Resources Or Building Knowledge?

  1. Peopleware, though published a long time ago, is still a highly relevant book for management of software engineering teams. One of its overall themes is that the people matter, especially so for organizations based on knowledge workers like software developers. Treating people as replaceable resources leads to policy changes which might seem minor, but have an outsized effect on their productivity: noise and lighting in the environment, colocation and office arrangement, etc.

    The book makes the point repeatedly that even in organizations determined to treat people as nameless resources, there are arguments which can be made to improve the environment. For example, it generally takes 9 months to bring a new team member up to speed until they are fully productive. This is a cost, it can be quantified, and it can be compared to the cost savings from policies which annoy the employees and lead to turnover.


  2. DGentry

    Peopleware is one of those books that I should read, but never have. You are also touching on the process change stuff that I did not talk about. Small changes eventually add up to something significantly larger. This is a much larger discussion that could be the topic of an entire blog 🙂


  3. I get irritated whenever anyone calls me a ‘resource’. I heard it the first time in a software consulting company that I worked for. But it was a norm in every other company where employees were looked up as just another resource to the company.

    It is nice that you took it up.


  4. According to Wikipedia a resource is:

    “Any physical or virtual entity of limited availability, or anything used to help one earn a living…”

    While knowledge is:

    “Expertise, and skills acquired by a person through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject…”

    The bridge here is application, or the ability to apply a person’s knowledge to the task of making money. In my humble opinion, money matters to shareholders and those who benefit from the survival of a company (e.g. employees, community, etc.). However, it is certainly a travesty to what lengths a company will sacrifice its most important “resource”, the knowledge worker – the person!

    While it is completely rational to conduct various capacity and fiscal planning exercises,it is the inhumane practitioners masquerading as so-called managers who forget their job is not to drive production, rather it is to foster productivity.

    Great read, Rob.
    Warmest Regards,
    Ken Stewart


  5. Very true – and very sad too. Having worked in a software company for so long – where I am considered a ‘resource’ too, all I can say is that this mean term grows on you. In your role of a manager, you begin to look upon your project ppl also as ‘resources’. MIS reports puts you in there as just another number alongwith with the other non-living entities like facilities/rooms/equipment. Resource Management becomes a skill – which can be your forte and lead you to higher managerial positions. Somewhere along the way – these ‘managers’ forget how to involve ppl to appreciate and enjoy their work. It’s just targets and come what may to get to the top.


  6. Ken

    Not sure why I didn’t look at definitions for this, but I guess emotion took over. At least the definitions support my ideas.

    You do mention something interesting however, “…managers who forget their job is not to drive production, rather it is to foster productivity.” The problem with this idea is that we (the entire industry) really does not know how to measure productivity. This means that managers can only look at the tasks completed and then managing against a plan. I may have to write a post about this at some point.


  7. BitsV

    Your comment is very related to what Ken is saying as well. Performance cannot be directly measured just like productivity. So, we default back to the task management perspective, just like I mentioned in my response to Ken. Then, we get those people that manage tasks best moving into management. The initial path may be different, but the end state is the same.


  8. While I agree with the thoughts put forth in the article and the subsequent comments I feel I must point out that knowledge workers in general and people writing software in particular are a limited “resource”.

    “Any physical or virtual entity of limited availability, …”

    Some companies don’t look at their employees as anything other than machines to churn out code. Some treat them well – pay them well, give them a comfortable workplace, give them flexibility in work hours etc. But at the end of the day both are dealing with a limited resource that they have to use to produce.

    So what is being said here is that companies, their owners and their managers should respect their employees and give them a fair deal. Knowledge Building will happen in almost all circumstances but is best fostered in an atmosphere of openness and respect where the individual has the opportunity to explore.

    In such an atmosphere the word “resource” does not have the same negative connotation as in a place where people are not treated well and are mere “resources”. I have worked with both kind of organizations, both as a software engineer & as a manager, and have used the objectionable word in reports and general dialogue. In the companies where people are treated well the word is not offensive to almost everybody, including the so called resources.

    Rob, you posed the question of staffing a project where a more knowledgeable person is being replaced with somebody without the same level of knowledge. What are the factors involved? No manager in his or her right mind will willfully do such a thing unless the first, more knowledgeable person is no longer available. And in such a scenario he or she might not have a viable alternative. Of course if the manager then measures the individual’s performance with the same criteria as that used for the more knowledgeable person then the manager is at fault – not the word “resource”. Or are you saying that our managers are so inept that they don’t see the difference?

    Finally, do you have an alternative word to suggest that would convey the same well understood meaning? “People” perhaps?


  9. Gautam

    “So what is being said here is that companies, their owners and their managers should respect their employees and give them a fair deal.” Amen to that!

    With respect to the substitution of people, the idea stems more from when software engineers are not seen as more than hours for a project. Granted, this is more of an extreme case of the “resources” problem, but it does exist in many environments. Logically, that should never happen. I do not want to go as far as saying managers like these are inept, just that they have to get out of the manufacturing mindset (or however they got there).

    Alternative words may help a little, but it is the concept that needs changing. I would go so far as to say that you include proposed titles of the engineers on the team. That way you know what you might be sacrificing if you do not get the appropriate engineers.


  10. Love the Carnegie quote! And a great reminder about employees being individual assets rather than easily replaceable faceless resources… they do still need to be managed though!


  11. Corrie

    Absolutely agree on still requiring management. I hope I did not make it seem like management was not required at all.


  12. Knowledge as we all know is something intangible and yet no organisation can run without having the right knowledge to run its operation.

    Organisations need to realize that their knowledge employees hold the potential to improve the productivity of their operation. Smarter people uses better ways to get things quicker and better.

    One way for company to embrace knowledge as an important asset is to have them put in knowledge sharing or creation activities sas a part of their employee KPI and overall company strategic agenda.

    This will encourage people to share their expertise and minimize the effect of turnover.

    I really hope that one day organisations will start treating knowledge workers like us as a tangible asset rather than resource.


  13. Zainul

    First, thanks for becoming a regular here. I really appreciate the conversation.

    Now, I am not sure if treating employees as a “tangible asset” is a good idea either, as that could get twisted as well. However, you do have a key phrase here:

    “Organisations need to realize that their knowledge employees hold the potential to improve the productivity of their operation.”

    If employers really understood that, things could change drastically.


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