“Human resources” in a cognitive capitalism





 “Human capital” and related concepts are usually understood as a new type of patrimonial asset for companies, driven by the quality of know-hows identification and transmission, by the monitoring of a “knowledge management” plan, and even by “soft” concepts like corporate culture and values. Like brands, customer relationship management, or corporate image and reputation, “Human capital” is mainly seen by human resources professionals as a new keystone contributing to intangible valorization of the company. But these “intangible assets” remain with few accounting counterparts. Their lack of clear identification by accounting as well as by finance does not help to bridge this gap: everybody states that “Human capital” is capital, but nobody seems able to encapsulate its value and its perimeter.


A hypothesis could be to consider that skills upgrades and propagation are mainly driven by the same types of factors as “network effects” in technologies. So we should reverse the patrimonial approach on human intangible assets: skills are not mainly originated “inside” company’s core business, but are the result of complex interactions involving and indefinite number of stakeholders, from academic institutions to job market trends. Human capital then would be to be considered as the ability of a specific company to capture knowledge externalities rather than building up ownership on human resources.


As long as skills are geared towards the monitoring of internal productivity of the company, their definition is mainly structured by what the company can identify as its own needs. “Positions” are empty frames that can be filled by an analytic view on required know-hows. But, if we define cognitive capitalism as an economic world in which all factors contributing to “reactivity” become much more valuable than factors contributing to productivity, main skills become ability not to produce by displaying internal factors, but to constantly interface capabilities and to continuously reshape the definition of what the core business is. So, the difference between “what the position” is from on side, and “required skills” to fill the position from another side, is seen as more and more abstract and formal, and tend to be replaced by a new ideology of individualized abilities, personal and intimate talents, and non substitutable experience paths. Hiring is then no more “to fill a need”, but to add a radically new functionality.


At job market level, this deep trend is full of consequences on behaviors and representations. To improve level of employability tends to be substituted to identification of long-length career path. Employability as a concept should then be seen as the consequence at individual level of a general virtualization of work factors and conditions. Job markets become more and more dual: companies dedicated to conception and intangible assets accumulation regulate their own job market with implicit deals on employability gains for their candidates and employees. While companies working on production (even if production is defined as a low-qualified service sector, like call centers for instance) and on tangible assets balance tend to increase the substitutability of their own workforce with deeper capitalization on their “internal processes”.