The roots of organization change began to grow almost a century ago, when social scientists and business writers first tried to address the human-organizational conflicts beginning to emerge in modern industrial society.
After the Industrial Revolution, large business enterprises increasingly dominated the working lives of Americans; by the middle of the twentieth century they were a defining feature of U.S. culture. Hierarchically structured corporations categorized employees neatly into power levels. They also required people to perform as well-oiled parts, subjugating individuality to the good of the whole. Machines became not only the instruments of economic progress, but a metaphor for how organizations should operate.
This metaphor was quickly translated into theory. Starting in the 1880s, Frederick Taylor developed a method of “scientific management” that even today influences work design. The method involves dividing tasks into the smallest possible units and enforcing strict performance specifications for each employee. One historian writes: “The productivity gains were enormous….[but] Living inside a machine ultimately leads to deep, inbred malaise and resentment, a thorough atrophying of creativity, and the propensity to sabotage” (Kleiner 66).
During the early years of the 20th century, the social sciences began to emerge as recognized disciplines engaging in quantitative and qualitative research. Sociologists and psychologists began to study the “human element” in groups and organizations. During the 1920s, Mary Parker Follett’s visionary work on authority relationships anticipated later theories of participative management and conflict resolution.
At about the same time, between 1924-1932, a groundbreaking series of studies took place at the Hawthorne Electric Works in Chicago. Conducted by Fritz Roethlisberger and others under the direction of Elton Mayo, these studies established a new understanding of the effect of social relationships on productivity. Mayo’s book on the Hawthorne Studies has been cited as “the first major call for a human relations movement” (Shafritz & Ott 10).
In the 1930s and into the 1940s, a growing body of literature explored organizational behavior, human motivation, leadership, and the effect of organization structure on individuals. Perhaps the most influential figure during this period was psychologist Kurt Lewin, who is widely considered the “grandfather” of organization change. Lewin’s theories integrated the individual, organization, and environment, proposing that none could be understood without reference to the others. His Action Research Model provided the first practical application of theory to organization change processes, and this model became the basis for many subsequent theories and applications. In the last few years of his life, between 1944 and 1947, Lewin launched two innovative research organizations:
The Commission on Community Interrelations, organized to investigate group dynamics especially in the context of ethnic, racial, and religious diversity.
The Research Center for Group Dynamics (at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), was organized, in Lewin’s words, to discover “scientific methods of studying and changing group life and the development of concepts and theories of group dynamics.” (Morrow 172)
Lewin was also instrumental in the creation of the National Training Laboratories, a development that will be covered in our next installment. We will also touch on the work of Douglas McGregor on human nature, Eric Trist on “sociotechnical systems,” and Rensis Likert on management styles.
A. Kleiner. 1996. The Age of Heretics: Heroes, Outlaws, and the Forerunners of Corporate Change. New York: Currency Doubleday.
J. Shafritz & J. S. Ott. 2001. Classics of Organization Theory. Forth Worth: Harcourt College Publishers.
A.J. Marrow. 1969. The Practical Theorist: The Life and Work of Kurt Lewin. Annapolis, MD: Basic Books.
Reading List and Links
Elton Mayo. 1936. The Human Problems of an Industrial Civilization. New York: The Macmillan Company.
Mary Follett. 1926. “The Giving of Orders.” Scientific Foundations of Business Administration. ed. Henry Metcalf, Baltimore: Williams&Wilkins Co.
Mary Follet–Prophet of Management: A Celebration of Writings from the 1920s. 1995. edited by Pauline Graham. Boston: Harvard Business School Press. (Reviewed by Martha Babcock, Harmony #6).
J. Ciulla. 2000. The Working Life. New York: Times Books.
Frederick Taylor, “Principles of Scientific Management” online: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1911taylor.html