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Treating workers like people: A history

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Exhibit at Baker Library examines roots of human relations movement

“The Human Relations Movement: The Harvard Business School and the Hawthorne Experiments (1924-1933),” the first in a series of exhibits to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Harvard Business School (HBS), is on view through Jan. 17 at the School’s Baker Library.

Culled from a massive collection of archived material, including graphs, charts, interviews, and correspondence, the current display chronicles the work of HBS Professor of Industrial Management Elton Mayo and his HBS colleagues, who, in the 1920s and ’30s, studied various factors affecting worker productivity at Western Electric, the manufacturing arm of AT&T. The research was seminal in the development of the human relations movement.

Through black-and-white photos of employees engaged in various tasks, graphs and charts on dated, faded green paper measuring worker performance levels, books detailing research results, letters, and memorabilia from the era, the exhibit tells a comprehensive and vivid tale of the development of the studies, Mayo’s findings, and their lasting effects.

The original studies were started by company officials at Western Electric’s Hawthorne Works outside Chicago, who were attempting to determine how different levels of illumination affected worker productivity at the plant, which manufactured telephones, cables, and transmission and switching equipment. In 1928, Mayo was brought in to help analyze data on further behavioral experiments at the plant, including the monitoring of six female workers producing electromagnetic relay switches in a separate test room. Mayo expanded the research to incorporate extensive interviews at the facility. The results were revealing.

With the help of more than 21,000 interviews, Mayo and his colleagues, including his protégé Fritz J. Roethlisberger, determined that a worker’s productivity had a lot to do with the social dynamic within the workplace.

“Researchers discovered that one thing employees found particularly rewarding were close associations with one another,” said Melissa Banta, the exhibit’s curator, “and that these informal social relationships were key to productivity and job satisfaction.”

Not only did the research lead the way for the foundation of the human relations movement, and later the study of organizational development, the work also charted the course for the use of field-based, empirical research at HBS.

“The results of the study also served to forever change the study of management, introducing a humanist dynamic at a time when the field was dominated by the mechanistic principles,” Laura Linard, director of Historical Collections notes in the foreword of the exhibition catalogue.

Giving character and dynamism to the eight glass display cases in the library’s main entrance hall is the exhibit’s design — much of the material is raised and/or angled, creating a three-dimensional feel. In the two rooms adjacent to the main hall, large black-and-white photographs of workers coiling giant roles of wire or working at endless rows of tables on repetitive tasks adorn the walls, giving the viewer a sense of the worker as merely a cog in the giant factory machine.

The outer rooms also contain replicas of typed interviews conducted by the researchers on yellowed pages that provide detailed insight into the personal lives and thoughts of many of the employees.