The Surprising Economics of a People Business
When people are your most important asset, some standard performance measures and management practices become misleading or irrelevant. This is a danger for any business whose people costs are greater than its capital costs - that is, businesses in most industries. But it is particularly true for what the authors call "people businesses": operations with high employee costs, low capital investment, and limited spending on activities, such as R&D, that are aimed at generating future revenue. If you run a people business - or a company that includes one or more of them - how do you measure its true performance? Avoid the trap of relying on capital-oriented metrics, such as return on assets and return on equity. They won't help much, as they'll tend to mask weak performance or indicate volatility where it doesn't exist. Replace them with financially rigorous, people-oriented metrics - for example, a reformulation of a conventional calculation of economic profit, such as EVA, so that you gauge people, rather than capital, productivity. After you have assessed the business' true performance, you need to enhance it operationally (be aware that relatively small changes in productivity can have a major impact on shareholder returns); reward it appropriately (push performance-related variable compensation schemes down into the organisation); and price it advantageously (because economies of scale and experience tend to be less significant in people businesses, price products or services in ways that capture a share of the additional value created for customers).
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Barber, F. & Strack, R. (2005) The Surprising Economics of a People Business, Harvard Business Review, June.