What is Human Relations? 1948 vs. 2008
This excerpt from January 1948 Harvard Business Review is intriguing, if not wordy. The author, F.J. Roethlisberger of the Harvard Business School, was also an advisor to the TWI Service during WWII. He amusingly titled this article, “Human Relations: Rare, Medium or Well-Done?” Roethlisberger made three points in the state of human relations: 1) What does it include, 2) Is it a science, and 3) Has it principles? When I read his three points on human relations, I am reminded of the current debate today regarding human relations, lean or other fields of management that are under a constant state of change and intense debate on “how to do it”. A search on Amazon using “human relations” yields 93,345 results – opening the following question:
“Is there any sense to how we as a nation are trying to achieve our organizational and individual goals, or are we changing for change’s sake - constantly reinventing (and spinning) our wheels?”
Excerpt from “Human Relations: Rare, Medium or Well-Done?”, HBR, 1948
“First, what does it include? To the growing body of data that is resulting from the study of concrete situations of human beings at work, to the point of view and methods characteristic of such study, and to the results obtained therefore, both in terms of more explicit skills and of better theoretical formulations for adjusting to and administering change, I give the name of ‘human relations’. Some of the problems with which it is concerned are: (1) general problems of communication and understanding between individuals, between individuals and groups, and between groups under different conditions and varying relationships, (2) general problems of securing action and cooperation under different conditions and in varying formal organizations, and (3) general problems of maintaining individual and organizational equilibrium through change. Its methods both from the point of view of research and of taking action are clinical and diagnostic.
“Second, is it a science? Depending upon our understanding of the things to which the word ‘science’ refers, or answer can vary. Human relations is certainly not a science as we think of the more exact sciences in the sense of: (1) a body of techniques or (2) a body of definitive knowledge about people at work contained in well-articulated theories, laws and principles. Certainly it is too young for that. Perhaps – and this is my personal opinion at the present – it will never attain that stature. However, it is a ‘science’ in the following senses: (1) it has a method and a useful point of reference for looking at a particular class of phenomena in order to seek for simple uniformities among the facts in that class of phenomena. (2) It can ask simple and clear questions in order to direct its observations. (3) It can seek for those clusters of things which recurrently tend to appear together in experience – like a ‘syndrome’ in medicine, a clinical entity (e.g. the measles) which people who have an intuitive familiarity with the facts in a given area learn to recognize. (4) It can develop simple ‘theories’ and ‘hypotheses’ which it has derived from its observations in order to seek for new observations and to illuminate practice.
“Third, has it principles? Words being what they are, perhaps many readers will be shocked to learn that human relations has no ‘principles’; but that is my opinion of the matter…principles are merely useful ways of synthesizing facts, of picturing facts, of summarizing facts and theories…they are merely convenient tools of synthesis – useful for certain purposes and under certain limits. In this latter sense, then, it is not strange but obvious that human relations, being such a new field and having yet too few facts and well-established theories, should have few, if any ‘principles’. What is needed is more practice of human relations skills and less talk about verbal principles. The former might help to integrate the world; the latter, as history seems to show, has only succeeded in dividing it.”