May 12, 2012

Humanizing People Isn't Feasible In Many Industries


I had an interesting debate with Diane and Matt today about how people are treated at companies.

A few thoughts:

Treating people like they’re human beings instead of hours to extract value from is an old fashioned concept that’s coming back into fashion. I think it’s because the skills of one employee to another can’t be mapped out 1:1 any more.

In the assembly line, one healthy person was as good as the next. But that comparison isn’t really relevant any more. Even in the past 10 years, I think the scale of relative “valuable-ness” of otherwise-similarly-skilled-employees has grown quite a bit wider. There are several reasons for this; key among them is that productivity depends on more than skill level now. The productivity of a company depends on cultural cohesion, quality/quantity of communication, emotional investment, etc. The productivity of an individual depends on the degree to which (s)he can think independently and take advantage of the tools available. Considering that there are an infinite amount of tools available and there is no limit to independent thought1, the degrees to which a person might be productive is theoretically infinite. All this to say that each person can add something different to a team, and therefore the range of relative values of otherwise-similarly-skilled-employees has gotten much wider.

So far there’s not a lot of debating. Here’s where you might disagree.

I think software engineers have the greatest degree of variance in the level of their productivity. Not a linear variance, mind you, a vectorial variance. This is good because it leads to the greatest amount of innovation. But it’s also good because it means that people aren’t as easily replaceable.

I think this vectorial variance is such mostly because the number of paths available for exploration in technology is growing at an extremely rapid pace. This gives engineers many, many directions to explore and be innovative in. Compare this with an industry that doesn’t progress as fast, say, personal finance2. Financial managers have fewer paths to explore and so, those paths are crowded. I think the probability that a personal finance manager will discover something new in their industry is lower than the probability that a software engineer will discover something new in theirs. This essentially means that financial managers are more like one another, and thus, relatively more replaceable, whereas software engineers are the inverse.

To drive the point home, I think it’s harder to “humanize” people in these slow moving industries. Humanizing is expensive (in the short term at least), so it’s easier to replace. In an industry that moves fast and people aren’t replaceable, however, it’s cheaper to humanize and retain instead.


  1. on second thought, an interesting topic to explore.
  2. just an example, feel free to educate me about the opportunities for innovation in personal finance

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