Flevy Blog is an online business magazine covering Business Strategies, Business Theories, & Business Stories.

The Journey from the Age of the Tool to the Present (Part 1)

Editor's Note: Take a look at our featured best practice, McKinsey Talent-to-Value Framework (230-slide PowerPoint presentation). Curated by McKinsey-trained Executives Unlocking Business Excellence: The McKinsey Talent-to-Value Framework Toolkit In the dynamic world of modern business, staying ahead of the competition means maximizing the potential of your most critical asset – your people. The **McKinsey [read more]

Also, if you are interested in becoming an expert on Human Resource Management (HRM), take a look at Flevy's Human Resource Management (HRM) Frameworks offering here. This is a curated collection of best practice frameworks based on the thought leadership of leading consulting firms, academics, and recognized subject matter experts. By learning and applying these concepts, you can you stay ahead of the curve. Full details here.

* * * *

Editor’s Note:  The Journey from the Age of the Tool to the Present is a 7-part series, tracing the journey humanity has taken from 2500 BC to modern times on the progress of Human Resources.  This is a very comprehensive narrative that touches upon numerous management philosophies and concepts.  To read the full series, take a look at the author’s profile page found here.

* * * *

journey1journey we have taken to reach the present day situation we have in Human Resources.

>At one time in history, defining talent was easy. It was the guy (usually) with the strongest back and stamina. If one goes back to 2500-3000 B.C. you find the construction of the great Pyramids of Egypt and the employment of people – slaves and others whose HR Manager was the big guy with a big whip as reflected in the picture below:

Moving ahead rapidly to around 300-400 B.C., we find the Vikings and their massive ships being rowed by men as their HR Manager again was the big guy with the whip.

journey2Around this time was also (starting as early as 700 B.C. but in full bloom from 400 B.C until around 100-200 A.D.), of course, the Romans, famous for their innovative and incredibly well designed and engineered construction projects across virtually all the known world. Slaves, criminals or others with greatest talent were the ones who became the Gladiators and trained to wield a sword or other weapon of death to entertain ‘management’.

Still later as in the Battle of Agincourt in France around 1350 A.D. where the British vastly outnumbered defeated the French with their talented ‘bowmen’ and ‘swordsmanship’.

Then of course there was a adjourney3vent of the Industrial Revolution first in Britain in the late 1700’s but getting underway on large scale in the 1800’s – then spreading to America in the later 1800’s and early 1900’s. Ah, civilization! No more sword wielding. Instead even more demeaning treatment of people – again simply reaffirming management’s belief that people were a ‘tool’ to get a job done. If the ‘tool’ did not or could not work too often unrealistic expectations and demands, they simply got rid of the tool and got a new one. Again the talent was defined as those with the strong back, the stamina to work endless hours in horrid conditions while management reaped the benefit of their labours – paying them to work and not think and their work was not valued in an economic sense.

journey4From around 1875 until 1910, an engineer by the name of Frederick Winslow Taylor came into the limelight as an individual who sought to improve industrial efficiency. In reality, it is probably safe to say that it was during this time that ‘efficiency’ became known as a ‘dirty word’ – one which struck terror in the hearts of the workforce as it almost always meant working harder and faster or being laid off. Here is a picture of Frederick Taylor (to the right).

He wrote his well-known book, ‘The Principles of Scientific Management’ in 1911 and in this book he proposed a number of revolutionary work practises, management systems and procedures which were designed to extract the maximum efficiency from industrial activity and the people engaged in those activities. The unfortunate fact is that this somewhat misguided ideas have, as Gray Hamel, noted ‘thought leader’ and authour of ‘What Comes Next’ has said have continued to haunt the industrial community for over 100 years (which, by the way brings us today) – no one really questioning why we continue using the principles laid out by Taylor. No one looking to change the approach to a more humanistic – more people centric approach. Management was content that things were as they should be. People are paid to do a job and that’s it. Do the job and you keep your job. Fail to do the job and out you go. It was simple. Those that were good at what they did – the talented ones were given more until they burned out and when they did, out they went as well.

One of the most frequently told stories was that of the Western Electric Hawthorne Works in Cicero, Illinois which was at its zenith in 1925. Again, in the interest of increasing productivity (which replaced the word efficiency when applied to people and sounded less threatening but wasn’t), plan management commissioned studies to see how variations in lighting and temperature affected output of workers.  They found that by improving lighting and temperature to a more comfortable level, worker productivity soared. They also tried things like giving employees two 5 minute breaks. Everything they did had a positive influence on productivity. Why? Well here is where the concept of the ‘Hawthorne Effect’ came into existence. The fact of the matter was that productivity increased because from an employee perspective they perceived that someone was taking an interest in them – that journey5 someone cared about them even though they didn’t. As a result of this perception it made them happier and they worked a little bit harder and faster. Here is a picture of the plant in 1925 (to the right).

Well as you can see things related to Human Resources were starting to pick up steam. In the 1930’s two of the largest construction projects in America took place – the San Francisco Bay Bridge was built and so was the Empire State Building in New York City. I’ll focus on the Empire State Building. This structure, over 1000 feet tall, the tallest building in the world for many years, was built in one year and under budget. For the first time, management saw, although they did not really recognise it, the introduction of ‘teamwork’ and the ‘bonding’ of people who work together and often have their lives at risk and so depend upon each other in a special way. You will remember many of the famous pictures like the one below:


In 1973, Dr. Marra went to work in Worldwide Product Planning Staff at the General Motors (GM) Headquarters on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, Michigan. At that time, the biggest problem GM had was knowing what to do with all the money coming in the front door. That year they had sold 11.5 million cars and light trucks and had 51% market share. Their feeling was that the Japanese were insignificant and would never be a threat. They were the undisputed automotive experts and the market bought anything they built.

Internally, the culture was nothing short of Draconian in nature. Fear and intimidation ruled the work environment – in the Head Office as well as the factories. There were 450,000 employees at the time. The UAW (United Auto Workers) Union was at constant war with GM Management. People were treated as one step above office furniture. You were told that if you were not prepared to step on people and elbow them aside, you would never be successful in General Motors. At the same time they expected ‘yes’ men (few women to be found at that time, building cars was man’s work) – those who, when their boss ‘do this’, you just shook your head yes and went off and did it. You were paid to work, not to think. If you had a new idea, you were told, ‘It won’t work here’ or ‘We already tried that’ or simply. ‘That’s a stupid idea’. Then in November of 1973 the Arab Oil Embargo hit – a true ‘black swan’ and GM being unable to shift so many toxic paradigms began their downward spiral to having to be bailed out by the government and becoming a shadow of its former self.

Unfortunately, little in the way of advancements were made in the field of ‘Personnel’ until almost 1980.  Read part 2 here.

182-slide PowerPoint presentation
World Class HRM Best Practice PPT Strategic human resource management (strategic HRM) provides a framework linking people management and development practices to long-term business goals and outcomes. It focuses on longer-term resourcing issues within the context of an organization's [read more]

Want to Achieve Excellence in Human Resource Management (HRM)?

Gain the knowledge and develop the expertise to become an expert in Human Resource Management (HRM). Our frameworks are based on the thought leadership of leading consulting firms, academics, and recognized subject matter experts. Click here for full details.

The purpose of Human Resources (HR) is to ensure our organization achieves success through our people. Without the right people in place—at all levels of the organization—we will never be able to execute our Strategy effectively.

This begs the question: Does your organization view HR as a support function or a strategic one? Research shows leading organizations leverage HR as a strategic function, one that both supports and drives the organization's Strategy. In fact, having strong HRM capabilities is a source of Competitive Advantage.

This has never been more true than right now in the Digital Age, as organizations must compete for specialized talent to drive forward their Digital Transformation Strategies. Beyond just hiring and selection, HR also plays the critical role in retaining talent—by keeping people engaged, motivated, and happy.

Learn about our Human Resource Management (HRM) Best Practice Frameworks here.

Readers of This Article Are Interested in These Resources

26-slide PowerPoint presentation
Job Leveling is a disciplined approach to gauge the value of work for individual positions across the organization. It entails ascertaining the nature of work done by each position, authority levels, and the effect of each job on business results. Jobs that are configured inadequately bread [read more]

193-page Word document
18-page Word document

About Dr. Ted Marra

Dr. Ted Marra is a strategic facilitator, organizational mentor and writer. He has lectured in MBA/EMBA programmes at universities in Boston, Detroit, the UK, Switzerland and Croatia. He is now a Member of the Board of MAX/Knowledge Now, a global learning organisation. He is also Sr. Partner for Insights Paradigm, a strategic advisory organization in Dubai, UAE. You can find Ted on LinkedIn here.

Complimentary Business Training Guides

Many companies develop robust strategies, but struggle with operationalizing their strategies into implementable steps. This presentation from flevy introduces 12 powerful business frameworks spanning both Strategy Development and Strategy Execution. [Learn more]

  This 48-page whitepaper, authored by consultancy Envisioning, provides the frameworks, tools, and insights needed to manage serious Change—under the backdrop of the business lifecycle. These lifecycle stages are each marked by distinct attributes, challenges, and behaviors. [Learn more]

We've developed a very comprehensive collection of Strategy & Transformation PowerPoint templates for you to use in your own business presentations, spanning topics from Growth Strategy to Brand Development to Innovation to Customer Experience to Strategic Management. [Learn more]

  We have compiled a collection of 10 Lean Six Sigma templates (Excel) and Operational Excellence guides (PowerPoint) by a multitude of LSS experts. These tools cover topics including 8 Disciplines (8D), 5 Why's, 7 Wastes, Value Stream Mapping (VSM), and DMAIC. [Learn more]
Recent Articles by Corporate Function






The Flevy Business Blog (https://flevy.com/blog) is a leading source of information on business strategies, business theories, and business stories. Most of our articles are authored by management consultants and industry executives with over 20 years of experience.

Flevy (https://flevy.com) is the marketplace for business best practices, such as management frameworks, presentation templates, and financial models. Our best practice documents are of the same caliber as those produced by top-tier consulting firms (like McKinsey, Bain, Accenture, BCG, and Deloitte) and used by Fortune 100 organizations. Learn more about Flevy here.

Connect with Flevy:


About Flevy.com   /   Terms   /   Privacy Policy
© . Flevy LLC. All Rights Reserved.