HR through the ages

HR is at the height of fashion, sitting comfortably with the current social
trends. But it hasn’t always been that way, as Paul Simpson finds, tracking its
journey through the past five decades

Change, like taxes and the endless proliferation of TV soap operas, is one
of those unavoidable facts of life. Although the pace of change may be slower
in business and HR than it is, say, in pop music, it isn’t long before today’s
hot new ideas are yesterday’s clichés. That’s right, soon such exciting
buzzwords as ‘360-degree feedback’ will sound about as cutting edge as a Perry
Como Christmas album.

HR is not immune to the ebb and flow of fashion because its business is
inextricably aligned with the broader developments of society. HR consultant
Paul Kearns says: "HR is shaped by social trends – for example, the shift
away from unionism, issues such as work-life balance, and the move from hired
hands to knowledge workers."

Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at the University of
Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, says that current trends in
society and business bring HR into fashion. "This is the time for HR. The
1970s were dominated by the unions, the ’80s led by the British government, the
’90s were the era of business where HR was often seen as an impediment. But the
‘Noughties’ are all about the psychological contract between employer and
employee, finding ways to repair that contract and trying to deal with the
issues thrown up by the approach of the past two decades."

What follows, prepared with the aid of Cooper, Kearns, Theo Blackwell of the
Industrial Society and Richard Chiumento, managing director of HR consultancy
Chiumento, is a fashion guide to the HR business through the decades which may
(or may not) help to explain how we got where we are today.

50s

In

Aliens, The Cold War, ‘What’s good for business is good for the
country’, the generation gap, Elvis, existentialism, James Dean, Marilyn, Madison
Avenue, McCarthyism, microwave ovens, mixed economy, Stalinism, ‘you’ve never
had it so good’, Sputnik, television, white-collar

Out

The Allies, the British Empire, genial pipe smoking Uncle Joe
(Stalin), Labour Prime Ministers, Democratic Presidents, film noir,
McCarthyism, segregation in American schools

Managerial icons

President Eisenhower — Ike epitomised the democratic (with a
small d) efficient modern leader, even Senator Joseph McCarthy couldn’t
challenge him because of his war record. And Bill Levitt, the man who brought
the mass production ideas of Henry Ford to house-building

Guru of gurus

Peter Drucker – arguably the finest mind on the business of
management in the latter half of the 20th century. Among his many contributions
to management theory was the then-revolutionary idea that the glue which held
companies wasn’t profit but a shared vision

Most influential companies

Ford, General Motors, the NHS (probably the most admired
institution of the decade in the UK)

Jobs which caught the zeitgeist

Automobile designers, rocket scientists, advertising copywriters

HR buzzwords

Systems analysis, McKinsey, motivation, the
organisation man, self-actualisation, bureaucracy, organisational
effectiveness, hierarchy of needs

Event which most influenced HR

McCarthyism – it changed the style of American (and therefore
the world’s) executives. The genial, democratic, spirit of the New
Deal was suddenly obsolete, even suspect

Book you couldn’t be without

JAC Brown’s The Social Psychology Of Industry. It built on the
work of Australian Elton W Mayo which showed that employees didn’t react only
(or even primarily) to economic stimulus

Work of popular culture which had
most to say about HR

JD Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye. Published in 1951, it identified
the generation gap years before it became a clich‚. Work would not be sexy
again until the 1980s

HR challenge

Convincing management and employees that there was more to a
job in personnel than form-filling

60s

In

Andy Warhol, Apollo 11, assassinations, the Beatles, civil
rights, consumerism, dance crazes (the Twist, Mashed Potato, Bossa Nova and
Clam), Dr Strangelove, facial hair, ‘give peace a chance’, ‘global village’,
the moog synthesizer, small cars (Beetles and Minis), small skirts (minis and
micros) summer of love, ‘white hot heat of technology’

Out  

‘You’ve never had it so good’, conservatism, dance craze, Doris
Day, national service (in the UK), sweater girls, Westerns

Managerial icons

Robert McNamara (until the Vietnam War led to his departure as
US Defense Secretary, undermining also the legacy of his work modernising Ford
in the 1950s), Sir Alf Ramsey, Lord Weinstock

Guru of gurus

Warren Bennis, author of Changing Organisations – possibly the
most influential work on organisational development of its era

Most influential companies

ICI ("It set the standard in terms of quality of
management and training," says Cooper). Nasa, a US government-funded
agency whose very success was a subtle argument against unrestrained free
market capitalism

Jobs which caught the zeitgeist

Astronauts, civil rights workers, rock musicians

HR buzzwords

Change planning, complex man, co-operative, Kick In the Pants
(KITA), management by objectives, matrix management

Event which most influenced HR

Charles de Gaulle’s ‘Non’ to British membership of the EEC.
Britain would not join until 1975 and would always be perceived as an outsider.
De Gaulle’s veto also ensured Britain would henceforth regard the US as its
role model

Books you couldn’t be without

Human Capital by US economist (and future Nobel Prize winner)
Gary Becker. Published in 1964, it would take almost two decades before the
title of this book became part of management jargon

Work of popular culture that has
most to say about HR

Catch 22 – Joseph Heller’s classic was described as an anti-war
novel but its satire applies equally to any giant bureaucracy where managers
are perceived to be acting only in self-interest and against the best interests
of their employees

HR challenge

Same as in the 1950s, only worse, as the corporate agenda was
increasingly dominated by industrial relations

70s

In

Cover-ups, crusading journalists, VHS, cassettes, inflation,
energy crisis, detente, feminism, glam rock, godfathers, hot pants, kibbutz,
one-minute manager, The Peter Principle (the idea that every employee rises to
their own level of incompetence – fashionable because there were so many
conspicuous examples in the 1970s), punk, Rubik’s cube, stagflation (the unique
1970s combination of stagnation and inflation), Star Wars, test tube babies,
three-day weeks, Trotsykism

Out  

Benjamin Spock’s views on childcare, The Beatles, Betamax,
eight-track cartridges, Elvis Presley, England’s football team, facial hair,
Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon, the space race, South Vietnam

Managerial icons

Michael Edwardes (British Leyland), Arthur Scargill, Brian
Clough, whose two successive European Cup triumphs as manager of Nottingham
Forest were almost the only successful acts by a British manager in a miserable
managerial decade

Guru of gurus

US social worker Mary Parker Follett who, like quality guru
Warren Deming, was neglected for years in the West. Her 1973 book Dynamic Administration
– a collection of her papers – reminded the world she had suggested
"responsibility is the great developer of men" as far back as the
1920s when mass production was in its heyday

Most influential companies

The National Coal Board ("well, it put the lights
out," says Chiumento), Shell, ICI, Ford

Jobs which caught the zeitgeist

Accountants, miners, oil workers, shop stewards, journalists on
the Washington Post, shop stewards

HR buzzwords

Beer and sandwiches, work to rule, overtime ban, social
contract, ‘everybody out’, equal opportunities, team briefings, women’s rights

Event which most influenced HR

The defeat of Edward Heath in 1974. He was the second
successive Prime Minister to try to reform industrial relations and fail
(Wilson aborted his plans at an earlier stage). His defeat and Labour’s
ineptitude led to winter of discontent and Margaret Thatcher would reform
industrial relations. It was third time lucky for a Prime Minister, but unlucky
for the unions

Books you couldn’t be without

EF Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, a book which inspired
future ICI boss John Harvey-Jones, Prince Charles and a young studentjournalist
called Richard Branson

Work
of popular culture which had most to say about HR

Fawlty Towers. Not just a great sitcom but a devastating
portrait of the traditional British manager (fawning, incompetent with massive
psychological flaws). Watch one episode and you can understand how Britain
became the sickest major economy in Europe

HR challenge

To do something other than industrial relations

80s

In

Acquisitions, cocaine, desk-top publishing, financial services,
Iran-Contras, Japanese companies, lager, Live Aid, Michael Jackson, monetarism,
new technology, Nigel Lawson, privatisation, property boom, riots, ‘sleep is
for wimps’, sunrise industries, ‘don’t worry be happy’, negative equity, yuppies

Out

Acas, affirmative action, apartheid, industrial relations,
left-wing students, the Malvinas, nationalisation, Nigel Lawson, property boom,
progressive rock, punk, sunset industries, unions

Managerial icons

Thatcher, John Harvey-Jones, Rupert Murdoch, Akio Morita
(Sony), Ronald Reagan, Victor Kiam (the man who liked his electric razor so
much he bought the company), JR Ewing

Guru of gurus

Tom Peters, whose search for excellence fitted perfectly into
the ‘can do’ ethos of a decade which held that procrastination, caution (even
sometimes consultation) were for wimps. The manager who really knew what they
were doing acted immediately, if not sooner. The less palatable (to middle managers)
parts of Peters’ message, about freeing up subordinates to make their own
decisions, were not, alas, as widely adopted

Most influential companies

IBM, News International, Marks & Spencer, whose CEO Marcus
Sieff said at a conference in 1982: "They asked me to talk about
industrial relations, I can’t do it, I only know about human relations"

Jobs which caught the zeitgeist

Stockbrokers, corporate lawyers, chief executives

HR buzzwords

Continuous improvement, core business, decisional human resources
management, Deming’s quality management, interface, leadership, right to
manage, management by wandering about

The event which most influenced HR

The industrial unrest of the mid-’80s and the decisive
victories for management and government in the miners strike and at Wapping.
"Government led the way," says Cooper, "and it took most
businesses the rest of the decade to catch up"

Books you couldn’t be without

Mark McCormack’s What They Didn’t Teach You At Harvard Business
School, Charles Handy’s The Age Of Unreason

Work of popular culture which had most to say about HR

Oliver Stone’s Wall Street in which the corporate raider Gordon
Gekko (played by Michael Douglas) says "Greed is good" – an extreme
version of the mentality prevalent in too many boardrooms

HR challenge

Finding something else to do in the absence of industrial
relations, steering through boom-to-bust cycle, shifting to a broader
discipline which would be labelled ‘human resources management’

90s

In

Bill Gates, Bill Clinton, body temples, Boris Yeltsin, boy
bands, girl power, cloning, the Cadbury report, complexity science,
globalisation, industrial tribunals, Internet, laddism, mass customisation, New
Labour, political correctness, the Premier League, Quentin Tarantino,
stakeholders, the Starr Report, sun dried tomatoes, The Third Way, The X Files

Out

Berlin wall, big hair, Bill Gates, ideology, Marks &
Spencer, Michael Jackson, Mikhail Gorbachev, privatisation, Thatcherism,
toupees, The Third Way

Managerial icons

Anita Roddick, Richard Branson, Clive Thompson (Rentokil CEO)

Guru of gurus

Kaplan and Norton, whose balanced business scorecard seemed to
offer a richer, more accurate means of measuring your company than the brutal
simplicity of financial figures

Most influential companies

BP, General Electric, Greenpeace, Microsoft, Wal-Mart

Jobs which caught the zeitgeist

Daytime TV talk show hosts, IT, management consulting, telecoms

HR buzzwords

360-degree feedback, empowerment, outsourcing, paradoxical
leadership, re-engineering, stories, work-life balance, workaholic

The event which most influenced HR

The end of the Cold War. The end of 40 years of conflict led to
right-wing regimes being booted out of office in most major Western democracies
and subtly changed the business environment

Books you couldn’t be without

The Dilbert books

Work of popular culture which had
most to say about HR

Mr Burns in The Simpsons. The tycoon as arch fiend, a fictional
amalgam of Rupert Murdoch, Bill Gates and every James Bond villain; made all
the funnier because it is televised through Murdoch’s own network

HR challenge

Providing value for money, achieving strategic influence

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