Book Review: Staff as assets: beyond the annual report platitudes: 'The Human Factor' - Susan Jones: Kogan Page, 16.95 pounds

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The Independent Online
Everybody knows how important people are to the success of a business. A glance at just about any company report will tell you the importance the management attaches to 'our workforce - our greatest asset'.

It might seem odd then that so many organisations can shed large amounts of these assets in the drive for profitability. Nor is it just the pariahs of the business world that expose themselves to this paradox. Even the more righteous have difficulties in this area.

For example, the Inquiry into Tomorrow's Company by the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) has published an interim report full of fine words about the need for companies to take an 'inclusive' approach and consider the interests of such stakeholders as employees. The only problem was that companies such as IBM and Blue Circle seemed to stick to the old ways even while putting their signatures to the report.

Of course, they would argue that they need to cut their costs in an increasingly competitive environment. Implicit in this is the idea that consideration of employees is some kind of luxury add-on like charitable donations that can only happen if the financials are right.

Susan Jones argues in The Human Factor that this is the wrong way around. A lecturer and writer on human resources and a member of the network helping to develop the RSA inquiry's ideas, she calls for the adoption of 'collaborative' interpersonal skills based on fairness, trust and respect for people. Although usually regarded as 'soft' - therefore all right to neglect - they are the 'bedrock' of hard financial decisions.

This is all very well - and probably adds grist to the mill of the growing band of human resources professionals, as personnel officers are now known. But since this book was published two years ago the ideas have gained wide currency, and no longer have the power to make readers sit up and pay attention. Moreover, with reports suggesting that human resources departments have little effect on the way companies are run, most will need a lot of convincing of the value of this approach.

More importantly, in apparently rushing out the paperback to cash in on current interest in these issues, no effort has been made to update the text. Consequently, as part of a paean to all things Japanese, Nissan is praised for its commitment to its Sunderland workforce when it has recently had to bite the bullet of redundancies. Most seriously, Robert Horton - famously ousted over his management style - is still chairman of British Petroleum, and talking about the difficulties of developing a 'collaborative' team culture.

These slips are typical of the generalistic overview characterising most of the book, and - to be fair - most like it. Sceptics should skip to the final section, which gives practical tips on actually implementing this high-falutin' stuff - because, as Ms Jones says, shifting from 'the saying and the deluding' to the doing requires a fundamental change in attitudes.