The Human Problems of an Industrial Civilization

Table of contents

The author, Elton Mayo was able to show his ground-breaking work in this book. It is an apt title for it captures what Mayo is trying to say from the onset. The human problems arising from the industrial age is not brought about by machines and technology but surprisingly it comes from how man treats his fellow man. Technology is a tool in the industrial age but it is human behavior that dictates the success and failures of businesses. Mayo’s insight seems to be so advanced that one wonders how his ideas was received during his time.

An example of his ideas can be seen in the following statements, “The human aspect of industry has changed considerably […] Whereas the human problems of industry were regarded until recently as lying within the strict province of the specialist, it is now beginning to be realized that a clear statement of such problems […] is necessary to the effective thinking of every business administrator and every economic expert” (p. 1).

Another thing that is interesting about this book is the fact that the author focused his research not on how to maximize production and how to increase the productivity on the basis of correct usage of technology. Mayo went the other route and he set his sights on the human aspect of industry. It was such a refreshing view and its effect no doubt is to reawaken the businessman’s passion for people and reinvigorate the administrator’s basic belief that the most important resource is not the raw materials and the machineries needed to create goods and services; but the people working for the company.

Mayo acknowledged that the foray into the human aspect of industrialization is a fairly recent endeavor.  He traced this development in the early research of England’s Sir William Mather of the firm of Mather and Platt in Manchester. Mather experimented on reducing the weekly hours of working. The result was positive and production increased while there is a significant reduction of time lost. From this experiment Mayo expressed amazement at this breakthrough. For the first time there is now a documented body of evidence that improving work conditions can improve the efficiency of the operations.

But Mayo was quick to point out that the only significant development coming from this discovery is the institution of the forty-eight hour week in the “arsenals and dockyards of the British government” (p.2).  Mayo lamented however that, “…apart from this, the results of the experiment did not lead to any general adoption of analogous methods on the part of the privately owned establishments” (p.2).

Fatigue

According to Mayo the general disregard for this revolutionary idea of the positive effects of improving working conditions continued until the World Wars came. In this special circumstances behaviorists and like-minded individuals were exposed for the very first time on the varying forces and factors that affect a large scale production area such as those that produces munitions for the war. “Apparently no one had ever sufficiently considered the enormous demand upon industry that would be organized by a war-machine organized upon so heroic a scale […] The authorities became aware of the “national lack of knowledge of the primary laws governing human efficiency” (p.2).

Monotony

In the recently described problem of sustained activity and heavy workload, the government created health committees to assure the continuous ability of worker to perform at a higher level. The same health committee was able to discover that fatigue is not the only problem. There is also such a thing as monotony caused by repetitive work. Dr. H. M. Vernon, one of the influential members of the committee and board suggested two possible solutions to this problem: 1) the use of rest-pause (or taking breaks); and 2) creating variety in repetitive work (p.29).

At his point it is good to take a pause and re-examine one of the highpoints of the book. In the description of major concepts or major problems that human beings face in the industrialized world, Mayo was able to build a believable case. Again, one has to remember that this was written from a world view that just came out of the agricultural economy of the old world. In that old way of doing things, management of workers depended on a very crude method of determining what to do and what not to do.

In the agricultural system workers are dictated by nature and the seasons. In other words, summer is the time for planting and winter is the time for rest. Crops mature, gets harvested and a new cycle of planting begins. The seasons of harvest and of the four major climate changes were the only needed time frame which man uses to create a human resource management scheme.

In the industrial age everything was different. When factories were build and warehouses were made, men and women are placed inside shelters that are not affected by weather and climate. Inside these workplaces people can even work on 24 hour shifts 12 months a year, winter, spring, summer and fall. That transition from the old to the new was expertly captured by Elton Mayo in the introductory chapters when he was describing the nature of fatigue and monotony.

No doubt fatigue and monotony are not exclusive in the industrial age but there was no way of bringing it into focus and there is no way of placing it in an environment where it could be studied. Mayo was successful in using the setting of the two World Wars to provide a backdrop and some needed contrast between the farming systems and the industries that sprang up in the 20th century. Mayo could have used other examples to show forth the differences between the two worlds but the readers may not be able to appreciate it as much as when he used the historical development of the early 1900s. By doing so, the readers could see the transition from farm to industries. Then he was able to paint the picture of the new human problems encountered in the new scheme of doing things.

Not Merely Improving Conditions

Elton Mayo was not merely contented in sharing groundbreaking research. Just like every researcher worth his salt, Mayo pushed the newly discovered idea to the limit. In re-examining the Hawthorne experiment, the author was implying that it is not merely the improving of working conditions that affected the efficiency of workers but it is due to a host of other factors and one of them is called “morale”.

In succeeding chapters Mayo was able to explain morale and gave examples to illustrate it. His favorite model though is an organization called the Western Electric Company. He listed the innovative ways that the company tried just to improve efficiency: 1) nutrition (access to an affordable restaurant; 2) access to clinic/hospital; 3) training opportunities; 4) vacation packages etc. This prompted him to say, “…an unmistakable determination to fulfill humane intention to the utmost” (p. 99).

Society and Industry

Surprisingly, the author did not rest in the fact that he had discovered something really revolutionary. Instead of stopping he continued on with his research. It may be an understatement that he was trying his best to get to the bottom of things. After the numerous experiments that brought the readers from a 19th century firm to World War I munition factory and then to an Electric Company, Mayo did not only wanted to be diverse but he also wanted to change the conditions of the experiment. In the latter part of the book he described the effects of the environment or the society in the ability of workers to give a decent output. To have a good feedback Mayo chose areas where delinquency is a problem.

Governments and Industry

To complete his holistic approach Mayo has to tackle the role of governments. He was confident in saying that the form of government is insignificant since human problems in the industrial age remains the same wherever one goes. By reaching this part of the research one can say that Mayo has come full circle and was able to show not only that there is a need to look closely into the human aspect of industry but also that there are many factors to be considered.

Conclusion

The way the book builds its case and the flow of information is very satisfying for both the student and researcher. Mayo was able to slowly build his case using a not so heavy historical approach. By using highpoint in the history of man, he was able to provide a sketch of how human problems in the industrial age came to be.

He was not only able to show the cause of the problems but Mayo was also able to show convincingly the cures for this ills. To make his argument rock solid he was not merely content on using feedbacks from one particular source or even one particular method of study. He brought the readers to insights in human behavior in the late 19th century and demonstrated that it was consistent even after the turn of the century.

By using multiple sources of data the readers can be easily convinced about the assertions made in the book. In so doing the author was able to make it clear what he meant by, “The Human Problems of An Industrial Civilization”.

References

  1. Mayo, Elton(1933) The Human Problems of An Industrial Civilization. In K. Thompson (Ed.)
  2. The Early Sociology of Management and Organizations. New York: Routledge.

 

 

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