What we call something guides our way of managing it, as well as how we view it and approach it. Many may call it semantics, but there is a reason for making these subtle changes. At one point in the not-to-distant past, Human Resources was affectionately known as Personnel. Why was it changed to HR? Because there was a desire to change the focus from an asset to a more human approach. The change was initially laughed at by cynics and scoffers, then embraced and lauded for the courage to take such a bold step.

1950s-officeMaking the word human a part of the focus, changed how HR was managed. Over time, how HR is viewed has changed significantly from the dark Personnel days. I don’t know about you, but when I think of Personnel, I imagine some grumpy old person smoking in a room with wood paneling on the walls. The lighting sucks and they have stacks of folders – aka “your permanent record” – sitting on their desks. They were the harbingers of the “boss” and their word was always final. Their authoritative stoicism made them completely unapproachable and that seemed to be used to their advantage.

Enter Human Resources. Things like training and understanding the external needs of the employee became more of a focus. There was a shift, albeit a slow one initially, that took place in the manner by which the organization chose to interact with the employee. It became, at least on the surface, a more communicative and synergistic approach. It was a significant change that was needed.

I see HR in the same place Personnel was, all those years ago. I speak to HR professionals and they feel a bit hog tied by the existing system/rules/whatever regarding what needs to happen next in the evolution of business and the profession we have collectively come to know as HR. The structure of their responsibility to the organization limits the way they can develop the employees. There are obvious exceptions, but most HR professionals recognize and deal with this tension week after week.

We have conferences about how to make HR better, but it’s all done under the idea of Human Resources. Those two words frame our approach, no matter how outside the box we try to think and act. I have a suggestion. What if HR wasn’t HR anymore? What if the name and function were different? Imagine the functional and operational shift that would happen if Human Resources were called Human Development. Let your creative juices flow around the idea that Human Resources would be changed to Talent Alignment.

If we were to change the nomenclature of how organizations interact with the human element, how would we approach that responsibility differently than we do – or are able to do – now? Could we truly unleash human potential while still meeting organizational goals and targets? How can we gain a competitive advantage in our respective markets by becoming profitable, human-centric organizations? What if our focus was self-management instead of self-perpetuation? These are difficult questions and there is no quick and simple answer. The conversation still needs to happen and we need to confront the inefficiencies of how we currently function without fear of bruising our professional egos.

Human Resources has brought an amazing legacy to business through the change it has facilitated from the specter of Personnel. That was a huge step and organizations are better off for having it take place. Business evolution must not and, more likely, will not stop. There will be laggards and leaders in the evolution of business and I think the next iteration of human interaction within the workplace should be the leaders.

What do you think could be some potential “names” for the next step in the evolutionary process of business regarding the human element within the organization?

  • Nigel Barron

    This topic has been discussed at length at the Management Innovation Exchange hackathon, Hacking HR to Build an Adaptability Advantage. Even the elimination of HR has been considered.


  • Such a great conversation on the site you provided. Thanks for adding to this topic Nigel! It is great to see this is being seriously discussed among others and an organization like CIPD is participating in the discussion. I appreciate your contribution!!

  • I’m a fan of the term “Talent Management.” Today it serves as an umbrella term under ‘HR’ but encompasses so much of the traditional activities, like hiring, performance management, compensation and rewards, and transition assistance. Why not broaden it just a little more and make Talent Management the new term for HR? I’m on board. Or, better yet, Talent Leadership.

  • Talent Leadership is definitely a step in the right direction. There have been some suggestions to keep the functions, but ditch the “department” approach. A lively and necessary conversation indeed. Thanks for your comment Alan!

  • WP, if someone in HR feels “hog tied” by the structure of the environment in which they practice then they might very well lack the creativity and capacity to succeed. Anyone who functions via a “label” rather than a mission needs to assess their career path and decide if the angst of not being able to figure out next steps because of the boulders in front of them is worth the effort. Leaders find ways to go off path or turn boulders into pebbles in spite of the policies, procedures and politics.

  • I hear your point Steve, and mostly agree with you my friend. The landscape influences behavior. No one in HR should ever hide behind the label of victim, but there is equal responsibility to create an environment that facilitates the true mission of HR. That isn’t in play in most organizations and it limits potential. It doesn’t hog tie anyone. It does reduce possibilities. I appreciate your candor and comment!

  • Stephanie

    I’m a fan of Talent Management or Leadership, but I also used to work for a company that called their HR department “People Services”, which really lended to the idea that we were to serve the people who made the company run so smoothly. It is a much more service-oriented term and leaves the employee feeling more like an asset versus a “resource” to be managed.

  • People Services…love that Stephanie! I think many people underestimate the affect language and choice of words has on performance. Thanks for sharing your experience!