Naming HR in a digital age

June 3, 2019 Focus area: Digital Transformation , Scaling Agile

People Operations, Employee Experience and People and Culture departments – we are witnessing a move away from the traditional name ‘Human Resources’. What is behind this evolution of nomenclature? And what does it imply about the practices of Human Resources? This blog gives a brief overview of how HR has evolved in the wake of a digital age and how a change in name expresses that.


It is just a name – or is it?

The first time I actively thought about the name ‘Human Resources’ (HR) was with my previous employer. The company was going through rapid growth in headcount and hence the need arose to dedicate time to ‘people-related’ topics. When it came to naming the new group - that focused on topics like trainings, on-boarding and performance review - HR was almost the ‘anti-word’. The ‘Voldemort’ of the Harry Potter world. Don’t use it, or we will all go down.  

Eventually, this new group was called the ‘People Team’. With this name, the company is not alone in digressing from the traditional ‘Human Resources’. Titles like People Operations, Employee Experience and People and Culture departments are springing up like mushrooms. What is behind this evolution of nomenclature? And what does it imply about the practices of Human Resources?


The beginnings of HR

Let’s start with the foundation of Human Resources. The Human Resources department as we know it was coined around 1900 – following a strike of workers. Its nature was based on compliance, workplace safety and wage management – primarily a transactional role. With the purpose to give workers what they want/need so they would perform. This pretty much fits with the definition of a resource:

“Resource: assets that can be drawn on by a person or organization in order to function effectively.” (Source: Oxford Dictionaries)

A resource needs to function effectively – like a machine that needs to be maintained, serviced and upgraded in order to do the job. The person in charge of the machines makes sure that happens – just like HR makes sure that human resources can function effectively.


Reinventing HR in a digital age

However, a mere focus on functioning is not enough. With technological advance, the way machines are serviced and maintained has become increasingly automated. This leaves the focus on achieving flow in the collaboration between machines and making room for innovation – an essentiality to stay competitive.


From transaction to interaction 

Just like that, Human Resources has also undergone a transformation in a digital age. The routine ‘compliancy’- based work becomes less central and automated away.

HR increasingly assumes a key role when it comes to strategic capability building, people analytics to optimize workforce planning, turnover and recruiting as well as designing a unique employee experience and building the employer brand. In our work as consultants we see that HR departments also become increasingly involved in organizational transformations.

In the war for talent, there is more attention on personalizing the employee experience, putting the right people in the right roles and creating the culture for talent to thrive. HR becomes more about shaping an environment that enables instead of ‘services’ employees. There is a move from transaction to interaction.


From resource to people

Parallel, the jobs employees do in organizations have also been impacted by digitization. Some tasks and attributes earlier done by humans are now replicated by Artificial Intelligence. This coincides with a workforce that increasingly sees a job as an identity and wants to bring as much of their human self to work. Growth, innovation, creativity, empathy and imagination – these are the value adds by employees in a digital age. In short, typical ‘people’ attributes.

The purpose of HR has moved to unlocking the flourishing of our ‘people’ sides. To abolish the tight processes that treat humans as resources. To create an environment for collaboration, in which employees don’t just get what they need to function, but in which they excel and create value out of intrinsic motivation. We are witnessing a shift from resource to people.



A name matters

This shift is exactly what the company I mentioned in the introduction wanted to express with the fact that they are a ‘People Team’. This team is here to make sure employees enter a workplace where they can show their people-side instead of following protocols. Where they can be creative, and innovative and self-organized in the way they want to add value to the company. 

Employees don’t drop by the People Team when they need information about a salary slip. They drop by there when it comes to ideas about learning new skills, using people analytics to solve challenges, introducing new roles or starting cross-department initiatives.

The name signals what the HR department stands for and which role they assume in the bigger picture of an organization. It reflects the department’s perspective on employees and the values they want to show in their daily work. And that is why the name does matter.


Further reading: Building Blocks to Reinvent HR Practices