The new economy and urgency to maximise shareholder value put HR and training issues centre stage, according to Will Hutton, chief executive of the Industrial Society.
Speaking at Training magazine's conference last week, Hutton urged the profession to seize the moment and lobby business leaders on the need to build ethical organisations where developing people is seen as vital to sustain brand reputations.
Clearly frustrated by the febrile nature of the new dot.com economy, Hutton warned of the danger in trivialising what employees contribute to an organisation when all the current focus is on share price.
He said these were remarkable times with nine major established companies leaving the FTSE 100 index and being replaced by low turnover, no profit Internet companies which were no better "than inner city used car firms".
"But the good news is that at a time of great change and pressure we have to keep our heads and initiate change proactively and not just respond to market disasters."
Hutton believes organisations do need to become more accountable, more ethical and treat their workforce and stakeholders properly.
"If you accept this argument," he said, "then HR and training moves to centre stage. Everyone is under pressure to behave more decently and if they don't, sooner or later they will catch a cold."
He cited BNFL, the banks, Monsanto and BT as businesses suffering a slump in reputation as a result of not behaving ethically and paying enough attention to the value of their human capital.
Hutton's own organisation, The Industrial Society, intends to practise what it preaches by campaigning for more organisations to conduct social audits to establish how customers, employees and other stakeholders view them. The findings of the society's own social audit will be made public this autumn.