Hawthorne experiments


The research carried out at the Hawthorne plant of the Western Electric Company during the period 1927-1932 was important in showing that scientific management, a concentration solely on the physical aspects of routines and procedures, was inadequate.

In the most famous part of the research, Elton Mayo a sociologist from Harvard, conducted (or perhaps did not!) a series of experiments on the effects on production of various levels of illumination. Six female employees were placed in a separate room from their colleagues with the same production equipment and carried on working as the experimenters varied their working conditions. To the amazement of the researchers (remember this was in the early days of work research), no matter what they did, production went up.

The conclusion was that the changes in production had nothing to do with changes in conditions but were due to the fact that the employees were being treated as special people. They were being involved. No longer just workers, they were selected people trying to help the company with production research.

Further research was carried out in the bank wiring room of the same company with a group of fourteen men. The discovery here was that the group set its own production targets, had a form of solidarity and that incentives had little impact on production. The Hawthorne studies are taken to be the beginning of the human relations movement in the study of management.

No single study has had such an effect on subsequent management thought and practice. It represented a cataclysmic break with traditional theory. For the first time, man's social and individual nature was seen as important to the functioning of organisations - not that the lessons were learned by everyone, especially not all in the motor industry.

After Hawthorne, the human relations movement became something of a fad. Malcolm McNair tried to put it in perspective, saying,

"the very avidity with which people ... have seized on the fad of human relations itself suggests the presence of a considerable guilt complex."

He went on to argue that business is not primarily about keeping people happy and that friction can have its uses, that:

"... without friction it is possible to go too far in the direction of sweetness and light, harmony and avoidance of all irritation. The ... emphasis on bringing everyone along can easily lead to a deadly level of mediocrity."