A tribute to and a lament for Marshall McLuhan.  Five days a week, Tuesday through Saturday, I present one of McLuhan’s observations and talk about its relevance today.  300 ideas. 300 days.  300 posts.

What went wrong?

Marshall McLuhan (September 17, 1964, age 52). Not the Hawthorne experiment!

Why do people insist on seeing the Hawthorne experiment as a failure?    Is it really a case of the observer getting his finger stuck in the experiment and screwing up the results?  Or was it actually a great success.  If you think about it, what the Hawthorne experiment actually teaches is that the testing finger is a marvelous way to establish conditions to ensure learning and productivity.  Which reminds me, I’ve got to run, I’ve a stack of exams to grade.

Me (March 2010, age 57). Testing can be good for you.

In 1927 a group of Harvard business school professors were invited by Western Electric to study ways of increasing productivity at their Hawthorne, Illinois plant.  The company believed that by improving lighting in the plant they could increase productivity in the making of telephone equipment.  But they were getting odd results.  No clear relationship could be found between improved lighting and productivity.  The Harvard professors increased the sophistication of the tests.  A group of woman workers were isolated from the rest and one-by-one changes were introduced: lighting, rest periods, hours, pay.  As a result with careful measurement the professors could isolate the effect of each variable by holding the others constant.  For example they could compare the output of the group working x hours a day with lighting level y and pay level z to the output of same group working x hours a day with lighting level y and pay level 2z – the difference in output being the effect of increased pay.  Unfortunately the results didn’t seem to make sense.  They found that output shot up when controlled changes were made.  They also found it shot up when no changes were made.  What was going on?  The professors concluded that the women’s productivity went up because of the fact of testing.  The testing, it was thought, rather than the conditions under which groups worked, had shaped them into cohesive highly productive teams that wanted to perform better and had an audience (the professors) to perform for.

Should managers be doing Hawthorne-type testing today?  Why don’t our schools spend more time on testing and less on the content of the curriculum?  How can you and I put the lessons of Hawthorne to work in our organizations and our lives?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p.310

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, March 17th, 2010
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Communication, Technology, Vol. 1 No Comments

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