Unplugging from the Matrix

Human. Resources.

Let us look at that phrase a little closer.

Human – we are all familiar with the word.  It describes us, you and me, homo sapiens.  We are all human beings.  The definition in the Merriam-Webster dictionary is ‘of, relating to, or characteristic of humans’

Now let us look at resources. 

Resources – Merriam-Webster describes this as ‘a source of supply or support: an available means’

We have come to accept Human Resources as the normal term to describe the profession which focusses on people at work.  Whilst is it accepted as the normal description, does this make it right?

Referring to humans as a resource, or a source of supply feels sinister to me.  It makes me uneasy, and this is coming from someone who has worked in HR all their working life.

When I looked at that definition my thoughts drifted towards the movie ‘The Matrix’.  For those that are not familiar, Keanu Reeves plays a character Neo who frees mankind from an artificial environment ‘The Matrix’ where human beings live a virtual life unaware they are actually being harvested for their energy to feed the machines who have taken over the world.  It is an apocalyptic, bleak future for humankind.  In this movie, humans were literally the ultimate source of supply or resource for their machine masters.

When we bring these two words together it raises some interesting questions.  The terms ‘human’ and ‘resources’ feel incompatible to me.  In any other context would we characterise human beings in the sort of terms that they represent a source of supply or ‘an available means’?  This poses the further question ‘a source of supply or available means for who or what precisely’?

In this context, the words Human and Resources were so joined because human beings were, and in many cases still are, widely recognised as the source of supply or an available means for the organisations who employ them. The labour or work ‘force’.  Again, note the language, work ‘force’.   This way of thinking developed during the industrial revolution seeing humans as a resource to be utilised to meet the goals of the organisation.  The goals of the organisation in turn were, for the most part, to achieve a profit.  Humans are used as available means to do so.

You may be thinking, well that’s capitalism for you!  And to an extent, I would agree with you.  What fascinates me is where a mindset of seeing human beings as a ‘resource’ ultimately takes us?  It is the assumptions and belief systems that underlie a way of seeing human beings in such a way that truly matters.

It changes the way we see other human beings, and it changes the way we act towards them.  It conditions us to see people as mere resources utilised and expendable to meet our goals.  Of course, organisations consume many resources in the pursuit of their goals.  They use capital resources, financial resources, raw materials, energy, and technology to name but a few.  The resources are utilised or exploited to meet the needs of the organisation.  Seeing humans as resources begs the question as to why we would treat human beings any different in this respect?  A resource is a resource is a resource, right?

The scales simply do not feel balanced here for most people working in business.  The scales feel tipped towards the organisation that controls the financial resources, rather than the individual who is considered the source of supply.  The other interesting observation is that a source of supply requires a source of demand for equilibrium to be achieved.  If either the supply or demand side is out of synch there can be no balance.  Without equilibrium, we cannot achieve a sustainable position where supply and demand are in harmony.  Countless numbers of people are experiencing the harsh reality of this with the large job losses seen in many countries due to the impact of the pandemic.

So, what would it need for us to unplug from the matrix?

It requires a fundamental paradigm shift in how we see the interplay between organisations and the people who work for them.  Do we unplug from the matrix and see the relationship between humans and their organisations in a wholly different way?  When I say organisations here, I am really talking about the senior managers who are responsible for leading the organisation.   I am not talking here about a simple relabelling of HR, but as a rethink, in terms of how people are viewed within the organisations they work for.  A different mindset for leadership, not as human ‘resources’ but as something much more powerful and holistic.

This means some deep soul searching about why our organisations exist in the first place, who they are there to serve and what this all means for the organisation’s relationship with their team members and wider communities of which they are a part. It means a more conscious and ethical approach to business and awareness of the impact our activities have on people.

As Neo discovered in the Matrix, unplugging can be traumatic at the time, it can be turbulent and disorientating.  It can feel deeply uncomfortable, defying convention, and decades of conditioning to just adhere to the expected norms.  These are the norms that condition us to see the role of people and businesses in a certain way.  We are literally working against decades of conditioning here, where the dehumanisation of people in workplaces has become normalised.  Of course, one of the greatest ironies here is that reducing human beings to a ‘resource’ and behaving in a way that strips away unique humanity and individuality is completely self-defeating for the very organisations who come to rely on them.

There is a better way, but it does require us to unplug from the Matrix.  This is the individual choice before all leaders at the present time.   Do we stick with what we are familiar with, what we have come to accept as the norm, or do we take the brave steps to shift our mindset towards something more humanity focussed?  This could be something exciting and enlightening.  It could place humanity at the core of every business.

As the wise Morpheus tells Neo in The Matrix ‘I’m trying to free your mind Neo.  But I can only show you the door.  I cannot make you walk through it.’


Kevin Miller
Kevin Miller
My 'Why' is to inspire a movement towards truly people-centred organizations. Organizations which see the person first and the employee second. A Coach, facilitator, and catalyst for positive change, I thrive on the challenge of making the world of work better and more humanized for people in organizations. I love networking and collaborating to share fresh ideas, insights and to learn. I have an in-depth knowledge and practical 'hands-on' experience of leading HR and Organizational Development projects. I am a visionary who rethinks what is possible when it comes to HR, leadership and the future of work, igniting positive change in others. Never forgetting the real reason behind my work, I love spending time with my wife Kelly and my children who are the centre of my world and the reason behind my 'Why'.

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  1. Interesting.
    The concept of “human capital” is nothing more than a technical abstraction, an economist metaphor, perhaps only the suggestive allusion to a powerful reality but with fleeting features. However, despite its vagueness (and the misunderstandings that derive from it), the term has now risen to the role of key word in economic and educational policy, internationally. With it we want to indicate the contribution that the qualification of human work makes to economic and social progress. In this direction, the broadest current definition is that offered by the OECD , which identifies human capital as the set of “knowledge, skills, competences and attributes of individuals that facilitate the creation of personal, social and cheap”. It is evident that this definition has very little to do with the commodification and reduction of man to a mere productive factor.

  2. Love, love, LOVE this, Kevin. You do a beautiful job of digging into the history around why things were set up the way they were and then delving into the need for change. I think the question around why organizations exist in the first place is a long overdue exploration. While I am beginning to see a slow shift in this paradigm, I suspect we won’t see a major change until the leadership who grew up in the command and control era of the industrial age retires. It’s interesting to think of redefining progress in this way. It becomes a re-wiring of what was viewed as progress in the past.

  3. Oh my, Kevin – this is great. Well done. You have provided an effective metaphor for a problem that is far deeper than the name, “Human Resources.” I recently saw an article about how AI is creating a return to the old scientific method (I can’t find it now, but will keep trying.). The reason is that the design of the algorithms that drive AI require that humans behave according to the algorithm. That’s scary.

    I see so many recent articles about how HR is “critical” as organizations return to the new normal. The challenge, as you said, is those in leadership roles who carry the original paradigm.