Why Harvard Business Review says people are NOT your greatest asset

It’s long been said that the greatest strength of an organisation is the people that work there. Sir Richard Branson is famously quoted as saying, “A company’s employees are its greatest asset and your people are your product.”

Human capital is being seen as increasingly important, with investment into education and wellbeing at the forefront of many businesses strategies. What companies get in return is better leaders, more effective managers, better decisions, and a greater return on investment.

But are people actually an organisation’s greatest asset? An article in the Harvard Business Review challenges this sentiment.

People are not your greatest asset. Even great people are not your greatest asset. In fact, great people can be your greatest liability. If Enron wasn’t enough evidence of this, the 2008 financial crisis has now given us plenty more. What about Lehman Brothers, AIG and Countrywide?.” Hrb.org

Looking at these examples it is clear how this aphorism could be challenged. The companies in question had some of the greatest minds working for them and yet they not only ruined the organisations but nearly caused the collapse of the entire U.S. economy. 

But that’s not to say that people should simply be viewed as a liability. Rather, empowerment of people should be seen as the most important asset.

A company is essentially a collection of people who are working together to achieve particular goals. So, it stands to reason that empowering these people effectively with the correct tools, resources and processes will create a more productive environment.


Collaboration is a key component in empowerment. Motivating people to form communities around a common goal enables “mass collaboration behaviours”, ultimately driving success.

The article discusses what these collaborative behaviours are and how social media has created new opportunities to encourage engagement.

Some examples of these behaviours:

Collective Intelligence

Collective intelligence is a powerful tool. The social web has created a platform for individual contributions to be combined into a collaborative collection of information and knowledge.

Emergent Structures 

The idea of unknown and unplanned processes, networks and teams emerging through social engagement is an interesting one. The goal of emergent structures is to gain a better understanding of the true “nature of things” to more effectively organize, guide or interact with a community or its efforts.”

Interest Cultivation

Social media has created an ideal platform for the cultivation of shared interests. A direct result of this is the derived value of a common goal. Using this idea, organisations can engage customers to enhance their offerings and ultimately improve the bottom line.

The Final Thoughts

The Harvard business review is far from claiming that people are not a major asset in organisational success. Quite the opposite – human capital is fundamental. This fact makes it all the more important to realise the value of empowerment of collaborative behaviours which can only serve to further improve the productivity of a company.

“Examine these behaviours in the context of your business goals, major collaboration challenges, core business practices, etc., to determine where and how mass collaboration might empower your people to deliver strategic value to your organization and enhance what is truly your greatest asset.”