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What's in a Name? If You're a Magazine, Plenty

February 22, 2012

"What's in a name?" asked Shakespeare's Juliet. Not much, she concluded: "That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." And yet, as Personnel Journal approached its 75th anniversary in 1997, the answer seemed less obvious to me. Would a magazine by any name be read as well?

First published in 1922 (initially as The Journal of Personnel Research), the magazine had been serving the personnel field longer than any other. We liked to say that we invented the field. Certainly the magazine's history gave us credibility. And yet suddenly what had been a great asset became a great liability.

It happened as leaders in the profession began to realize that managing employees strategically could provide a competitive advantage. We certainly saw that happening in the course of our reporting and writing. And as it happened, the term "personnel" sounded anachronistic—something to describe a function more about administration than strategy. Then, although the magazine's content was staying current, our chief competitor changed the playing field. The American Society for Personnel Administration changed its name to the Society for Human Resource Management and the name of its flagship publication to HR Magazine.

To outsiders, it must have seemed that we had been outmaneuvered. Inside, the story was more complex. In truth, we had already considered a name change. Over time, market pressure—from readers and advertisers—led us to conclude that a new name was necessary. The perception was growing that we were behind the times.

But we believed that choosing any name with "human resources" in it would make us seem more like followers than leaders. And there was another consideration: Was "human resources" a moniker that was going to last?

Finally, I confess to a bias: I didn't like the term "human resources." I still don't. Although resources certainly can be protected and nourished, more often they are exploited (or, at best, used), and I thought the connotation was counter to what the reconsidered personnel function was supposed to be all about. (I also found it telling that no matter what the function was called, I never heard of any organization in which employees were called "human resources."

For all those reasons, we decided to forgo using "human resources" in any new name. We worked, briefly, with a naming firm. However, they were more accustomed to naming pharmaceuticals than magazines.

After pursuing several directions, we decided ultimately to focus less on the name of the function and more on what the function was about: people. (That name was, for obvious reasons, not available.) That direction ultimately led us to Workforce (which later would be changed again to Workforce Management). Workforce was direct, unambiguous, timeless, even powerful.

Was it the right decision? For the short-term, yes. The new name allowed us to move forward, and we got very little push back from readers or advertisers. Over the long term? Well, whether a different name would have been better is probably unanswerable. But I still believe that what the function is called is much less important than what it does. And if any function can help unleash the force of employees to move the organization forward, it will have done something great. In other words, if I had it all to do again, I'd make the same decision.

Allan Halcrow is the former publisher and editor-in-chief of Personnel Journal and Workforce (1984 to 2000). To comment, email editors@workforce.com.