A provocatively titled blog over at HBR (here) by Anthony J. Bradley and Mark P. McDonald questions the much used adage, "people are our greatest asset" (PAOGA from now on). The article raises some interesting points, bringing together ideas around staff engagement, emerging social media and culture. The authors argue that the means with which organisations empower their employees is the real driver of performance and should be the focus of corporate leaders rather than on individuals themselves. Amongst the key factors enabling this are; collective intelligence, emergent structures and relationship leverage. At the heart of these ideas is the assumption that organisations embrace social media and networking.
In their critique I think that the authors hit the nail on the head here;
Even great people are not your greatest asset. In fact, great people can be your greatest liability. If Enron wasn't enough evidence of this, the 2008 financial crisis has now given us plenty more. What about Lehman Brothers, AIG and Countrywide? Arguably, these companies employed some of the smartest business people not only in the room but in the world, and yet those same folks took their firms to ruin (or near it) and came close to causing a collapse of the U.S. economy.
PAOGA fails to take into account many of the factors that affect performance and by itself it is a far too simplistic or mechanistic perspective. One of the great mistakes made by organisations is to treat individuals in isolation when it comes to development and reward. As the quote above states, seeking to hire the smartest people is no guarantee of success. Instead greater attention needs to be placed on the interactions between individual and above all the role culture plays on decision making.
The whole idea of likening individuals to other input mechanisms does a great disservice to the contribution people make both positive and negative. It also fails to take into consideration the exponential improvements to productivity and innovation that can be made if you get the magic combination of relationships and culture right. After all, if you treat your people as you do any other asset, you are severely limiting the discretionary effort that they are likely to put in.