The Hawthorne Studies is one of the most frequently debated phenomenons in modern work management. Evolved in the 1930’s this represents a progression from pure scientific management determined by Taylor to introduction and influence of behavioral sciences in the management of work, workers and work places. Given the long time that the theory has been in vogue and the intense research in management sciences, Hawthorne effect has provided varying interpretations briefly summarized in three main streams of thought.
One group of researchers considers that the Hawthorne effect has an impact on productivity due to the effect on people’s behavior when they know they are a part of an experiment. (Champoux, 2003) (Nelson & Quick, 2003). Some others deem this to be the changes brought about due to special attention to behavior at the work place. (Jewell, 1998) (Newstrom & Davis, 2002). While yet another interpretation is that it is an effect caused by a novel change in the work environment. (Jex, 2002) (Schultz & Schultz, 2000).
These however appear to be limited explanations of the Hawthorne effect. The most significant impact of the experiments is in establishing correlation between human psychology, behavioral sciences and scientific management. (Franke & Kaul, 1978). This integration has resulted in overcoming the overly simplistic principles of scientific management by Taylor (1911).
In as much as modern management is concerned the Hawthorne experiments established principles for organizing small group processes which remain relevant to this day. (Franke & Kaul, 1978). Thus the impact of these experiments have to be examined in relation to linkages established between worker productivity and social groups at work, attention to individuals and groups and finally creation of a conducive work environment within the group.
These three key parameters can be applied effectively in modern management practices in concurrent spheres which results in improvement in work output once workers feel that management is interested in their welfare and devotes attention to them, increased productivity through a sense of responsibility and discipline which comes from within a group rather than from higher authority, and finally production enhancements resulting from an ideal social environment for the work group. (Mayo, 1933).
Welfare of the worker through greater involvement of management is an important derivative of the Hawthorne Experiments which has applicability in modern management. The focus of the Hawthorne studies in worker welfare was determined by factors such as providing adequate breaks for rest, manipulating work hours and creating ideal environment for productivity through control of humidity and temperature. (Roethlisberger & Dickson, 1939). The implied meaning of such measures was that the management was concerned about and interested in the welfare of the worker.
The workers were not as much concerned of the issue of genuineness of interest or productivity related needs of the management in their welfare. In the modern management context however large scale mobility of the work force is related to two spheres, availability of greater opportunities and a perceived sense of selfish rather than proportionately altruistic interest of the management in welfare of the work force. Where workers feel that the management is interested in their welfare only as a measure of productivity, it may not have a singular impact.
Creating intrinsic sense of responsibility within a group is one of the prime motivators at work which can result in increased productivity. The Hawthorne experiment proved this dictum by manipulating experiments in various ways and also by creating a sense of permanency in the work groups. The groups seem to select themselves and enhance their commitment and productivity. (Mayo, 1933). In modern management creating sense of responsibility may be considered a function of effective group formation as well. This will result in a sense of purpose creating accountability of individuals to the group.
Ironically the John Henry effect, frequently considered as the opposite of the Hawthorne effect supports this premise. Here a control group which is devoid of interventions enhances its efficiency by benchmarking performance based on the experimental group. (Zdep & Irvine; 1970) Thus implying that creation of group cohesion and a sense of responsibility towards productivity may lead to incremental improvements independent of interventions per se. However mere creation of a group may not sustain productivity, this will have to be supported by a conducive community atmosphere within the group.
Social environment of the work group surely has an impact on worker productivity. (Mayo, 1933) (Gillespie, 1991). While work place manipulation has become a norm for greater productivity in modern production houses, it is the management of groups which is critical to the same rather than provision of physical improvement of work place beyond a certain limit. Social environment of the work group has impact at two stages in the modern work place. One is the repetitive nature of work performed by groups similar to those in Hawthorne studies.
The other more complex form is work frequently carried out in a series, where an error in the chain could compound or negate the entire process. Thus the need may be to build much deeper social networking amongst groups to support not just productivity but also creativity and emotional bondage. Some of the areas which could be envisaged in this sphere are software development where relay chain nature of work would imply need for positive social environment within the work group for completion of the task with minimum errors.
A critical examination of the study would reveal that most examinations have focused on the nuances of conduct of experiments rather than the overall impact of these trials. While Elton Mayo had good reason to deliberate on the experiments as this was the first time such scientifically controlled experiments were being undertaken linking behavioral sciences with industrial management, there is a tendency in subsequent works to focus more on the experiments per se rather than findings of the research derived from manipulating the processes of work.
Thus critics are restricted to the integrity of the process of experiments thereby missing the essence of the argument of Hawthorne Experiments. This anomaly would be evident in the argument of novelty at the work place. (Jex, 2002) (Schultz & Schultz, 2000). The case of innovation is seen by some writers as incongruent with the conclusions as it was considered difficult to maintain novelty over a period of two years. Yet recycling newness could create conditions in the experiment which to the workers could bring about change thereby resulting in productivity improvements brought about by transformations in small work groups.
A second critique of the Hawthorne experiments involves political interpretation of exploitation of workers by capitalists. (Rice, Nd). The argument that the management was interested in workers welfare has been interpreted in a way that it was not interest in the employee per se that had involved the management but the need to increase productivity. This may have relevance when attempting to understand the phenomenon of industrial polity in the modern workplace; but will not be relevant to the issue of application of the conclusions as given above in improving worker productivity.
However given the extensive interpretation of the Hawthorne experiments over the years, it can be assumed at this stage that the political bias if any has been removed through the rigor of analysis by a vast body of researchers. One final critique of the Hawthorne studies in relation to modern management would be the underlying lack of importance to the group leader which is implicit in the experiments. The small group was allowed to manage through processes which do not seem to have entailed evolution of a group leader.
This appears highly unusual given the natural proclivity of a primate to emerge in a group of people. In a modern setting of say software development, given the serial nature of work and equity in capability, yet importance of nominating a group leader for work group coordination has been highlighted. Nonetheless despite these and other infirmities, Hawthorne studies will continue to remain significant in modern management for the linkage provided for the first time between scientific managing, behavioral sciences and development of potential through principles of human resources.