Human Resources and the Megamachine

The history of human resources management and the history of the machine are closely intertwined, as this brief overview will show. The function of the machine has influenced the form and practice of human resources as we know it today, and by looking at history we can better understand the challenges and opportunities in managing personnel as working parts of a corporate system.

Some experts date the establishment of human resources management to the mid 1980s. Others believe the profession began in the early 1900s with the National Cash Register Co., which had to respond to various safety and training grievances that eventually led to strikes and walkouts. “Workplace accidents are still a major concern today,” says Jason Hennessey, a marketing consultant with Houston Accident Attorneys.

Charles Babbage is regarded as the “father of the computer,” and in 1832 he published a book called On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures. In this work, Babbage put forth a principle regarding the commercial advantages to treating the labor force as a machine. Through the precise division of labor, such as in the assembly line system that would come about shortly with Henry Ford, and through proper training in specialized employee roles, cost efficiency of human capital could be maximized. Today, this optimization and cost efficiency of human capital remains a priority.

But our story goes back even further into history. Lewis Mumford, in his two-volume work The Myth of the Machine, coined the term Megamachine to describe the use of people in society to function as an interconnected machine through social organization. He traces it back to ancient civilizations like Egypt that exploited slave labor to accomplish construction tasks so massive in scale that modern thinkers have a hard time grasping how they got it done. Indeed, looking at ancient wall paintings of pyramid construction reveal a mechanical logic of leverage, friction and force multiplication that’s built out of people.

Norbert Wiener created the field of cybernetics to describe ways to organize systems based around discrete components and feedback loops. In 1950, he published The Human Use of Human Beings, a mostly philosophical work about organizing society by treating humans as parts of an elaborate machine. Besides bearing a scary-sounding title, the book candidly expresses Wiener’s hopes and fears over treating people this way.

We know that skilled workers perform better if they’re happy. Software development firms, for instance, know that providing perks like free snacks and weekly massages for their programmers will result in more efficiency, directly impacting the bottom line. And because high tech has become a cornerstone of the modern economy, this human factor has disrupted the traditional view of labor management as a matter of mechanistic optimization.

To add balance, some have proposed the creation of a new corporate role to fill this gap, an advocate who can mediate between humans and the corporate machinery. In these modern times, it’s a matter of human compassion to seriously consider these kinds of suggestions.

Melissa Thompson
Melissa Thompson writes about a wide range of topics, revealing interesting things we didn't know before. She is a freelance USA Today producer, and a Technorati contributor.