A Model for Valuing Workers at Least as Much as Technology
Claretha Hughes used to live near a town called Hurt, a whistle-stop in southern Virginia with a population of about 1,300 at last count. Within a two- to three-mile radius of the small town were plants for four major manufacturers: fabric maker Burlington Industries; Timken, which makes ball-bearings and alloy and steel components; the pharmaceuticals giant Abbott Laboratories; and Lane Furniture, which was founded in nearby Altavista.
In a scene repeated across America in recent decades, Burlington and Lane closed shop. But as the companies left, the corporate heads placed a value on their inventory before it was liquidated or transferred. Not so for the employees who were left behind with no other training, according to Hughes, an expert in organizational development and workforce development.
“Organizations sell or relocate their equipment after going out of business, yet undervalued employees are often left without a severance or anything else,” Hughes said. “The employees should have transferable skills to seek employment as opposed to having to go back to school. I believe that companies should value their technology. But they need to raise the level of how they value their people, as well. It’s about humans.”
Hughes, an associate professor of human resource and workforce development, spent 20 years working in corporate America and consulting for corporations. She noticed that as technology and machines became a continually growing part of the workplace, the people who worked around the machines, operated the machines and performed maintenance on the machines became undervalued.
“I’m arguing that businesses should value their employees to the extent that they value their equipment,” Hughes said. “They can probably keep employees longer if they understand their value to the organization.”
Her 2012 book, Valuing People and Technology in the Workplace, proposes a framework that will allow managers to get the most out of their workers by valuing them on the same level they value technology.
“This book focuses on the other 99 percent of workers who do not fit into the executive or board member ranks within organizations,” Hughes writes in the introduction to the first chapter. “Where does their value within the organization reside? As economies around the world sit at the precipice of collapse, younger workers are beginning to rebel against excessive unemployment and what they perceive as unfair distribution of wealth. Technology in the workplace that is valued more than people is the true culprit. Technology has been displacing workers for generations.”
The book details what she calls the “Hughes Value Creation Model for Organizational Competitive Advantage,” which is based on five values: location, use, maintenance, modification and time, as well as three organizational perspectives: cognitive, behavioral and cultural.
“In all organizations you have people using technology and you want your people to be the most efficient and effective, and produce your product in the least amount of time so that you make the most amount of money,” Hughes said. “It’s a dilemma to determine their inspiration. This book is trying to figure out ways that you can look at the entire organization — both the technology and the people, using those five values.”
Hughes used the model successfully for over a decade in industry. She hopes it will help companies improve their productivity by emphasizing the importance of the human worker in the company. This is not a book about how people should be more like machines, she said. Rather, the book provides guidance that can help employers and managers value their employees the same as they value the machines, instruments and tools that make up their company.
Each value relies on the fact that no matter what technology is brought into the workplace, people must interface with it, Hughes said. In her book, the five values represent “opportunities for examining the similarities between technology development and human resource development,” Hughes writes.
Regarding the “location value,” businesses carefully consider where they house equipment in order to keep
it running efficiently. Managers must think the same way for people, because if a person is comfortable in the workplace, his or her performance improves, providing value to the organization,
“For example, before hiring someone, start thinking the same way you do with technology. Put them in a right place and they may take
off immediately,” she said. “That increases your company’s efficiency and effectiveness.”
In terms of the “use value,” Hughes stresses the importance of employees effectively using their knowledge, skills and abilities on the job. The value relates to the quality factor in a worker’s productivity.
The “maintenance value” encourages companies to maintain optimal job performance by their employees. Further, as the expectations of both workers and managers are better understood, modifications to knowledge, skills, abilities and performance are made to better achieve those expectations. This is the “modification value.”
Finally, the “time value” is the most important of all the values, according to Hughes, and understanding how to manage time makes an organization more effective and builds the morale of team members.
Michele Halsell, director of the Applied Sustainability Center at the University of Arkansas, said she finds the book valuable in two significant ways. First, it provides a comprehensive review of education and management theory and integrating these as they relate to human resource development in organizations. Second, it provides a new perspective for looking at human resources as an investment that enhances organizational competitiveness.
“What I appreciated about the book is that she has a pretty exhaustive set of management theories as well as adult-education and human-resource-development theories. It’s all in one place,” said Halsell, who prior to coming to the university worked in marketing at Tyson Foods Inc.
Hughes makes it abundantly clear that organizations that value employees the same way as technology will be successful, Halsell said.
“Companies routinely invest in software upgrades. They really think they give a lot of thought to deployment of software and hardware,” Halsell said. “What she is suggesting is that companies need to invest at least as much time and resources into the development of people as an asset of the organization. It sends a strong signal to people about their value. A machine doesn’t have any feelings, but people who feel valued and feel that they are making a contribution to the organization usually try to do their best.”
It’s been several years since Hughes lived in southern Virginia, outside the little town of Hurt. Hurt grew to more than 1,400 residents in the 1990s but now has dropped to an estimated 1,290. Hurt’s population is at its lowest level in four decades. Hughes was no longer living near there when the plants closed but she knew many of the workers who were laid off, who had never been taught other skills that could help them get jobs elsewhere. A community college was established in Lane Furniture’s former corporate headquarters. Hughes wonders what the students there are being taught in terms of career and technical education because jobs are much fewer in the area.
“When the facility closes, where do they go with their skills?”
she asks. “A person shouldn’t have to move to take their skills. When the business is gone, the former employees have nothing. My idea
about undervaluing employees was established years before the companies left. I just noted the difference in the investment in technology versus what was being invested in the uneducated and undereducated employees.”
For Valuing People and Technology in the Workplace, Hughes received the R. Wayne Pace Book of the Year Award from the Academy of Human Resource Development. The award is presented to the author of the outstanding human resource development book that advances the theory or practice of the profession. The book also has been nominated for George R. Terry Book Award, given by the Academy of Management to a book judged to have made the most outstanding contribution to the advancement of management knowledge.