THROWBACK THURSDAY: Robert Owen, Father of Personnel Management

Born May 14, 1771, social and educational reformer Robert Owen, is generally referred to as the father of personnel management. The Human Resources field evolved first in 18th century Europe from a simple idea by Robert Owen and Charles Babbage during the industrial revolution. These men knew that people were crucial to the success of an organization. They expressed that the well being of employees led to perfect work. Without healthy workers, the organization would not survive. HR later emerged as a specific field in the early 20th century, influenced by Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915). Taylor explored what he termed “scientific management” others later referred to “Taylorism”, striving to improve economic efficiency in manufacturing jobs. He eventually keyed in on one of the principal inputs into the manufacturing process—labor—sparking inquiry into workforce productivity.

Meanwhile, in England C S Myers, inspired by unexpected problems among soldiers which had alarmed generals and politicians in the First World War, set up a National Institute of Industrial Psychology, planting the seeds for the human relations movement, which on both sides of the Atlantic built on the research through the Hawthorne studies (1924-1932) and others how stimuli, unrelated to financial compensation and working conditions, could yield more productive workers.

Having profited enormously from enterprise in the early Industrial Revolution, Robert Owen set about trying to remedy its excesses through environmental, educational, factory and law reform. Synthesizing reformist ideas from the Age of Enlightenment and drawing on his own experience as an industrialist he constructed A New View of Society (1816), a rallying call for widespread social change, with education at its core. His New Lanark cotton mills, the test-bed for his ideas, became internationally famous.

Owen had raised the demand for  ten-hour day in year 1810, and instituted it in his cotton mills. By 1817 he had formulated the goal of the eight-hour day and coined the slogan “8 hours labor, 8 hours recreation, 8 hours full rest.” The eight-hour day movement forms part of the early history for the celebration of the Labor Day, and May Day in many nations and cultures.

Working Conditions

Owen’s extremely advanced system of factory management, which he pioneered at the New Lanark,  gained him credibility, not only as a successful businessman, but also as a benevolent employer. He proved that commercial success could be achieved without exploitation of those employed; his approach to social and economic organization was extended beyond the mill floor into every aspect of village life.

“Eight hours’ daily labor is enough for any human being, and under proper arrangements sufficient to afford an ample supply of food, raiment and shelter, or the necessaries and comforts of life, and for the remainder of his time, every person is entitled to education, recreation and sleep”. (Foundation Axioms of Owen’s “Society for Promoting National Regeneration”, 1833)

Robert Owen’s views had particular appeal for women. At a time when men were hostile to women’s rights, he courted controversy by denouncing marriage, as it then existed, as a form of slavery for women. “Women will be no longer made the slaves of, or dependent upon men…. They will be equal in education, rights, privileges and personal liberty”. (Book of the New Moral World: Sixth Part, 1841)

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