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Hawthorne Studies : Experiments And Their Implications


Posted Date: 04-Sep-2011  Last Updated:   Category: General    
Author: Member Level: Gold    Points: 40


Hawthorne Studies refer to a set of experiments that were conducted before second world war in USA. These studies played a major role in emphasizing the human dimension in an organization during the times when evolution of different managements thoughts was taking place. This article gives details about those experiments, their implications as well as the criticism they faced.



In the early 20th century, as big industrial enterprises began to come into existence, different management theories emerged with a view to increase productivity and dealing with the organization in a better manner. Fredrick Winslow Taylor gave scientific theory of management which was mainly concerned with increasing the productivity through scientific methods. During same time Henri Fayol gave 14 principles of management which concerned with how an organization should work. Max Weber gave bureaucratic theory which was about an organization that had a clear division of labour, fixed hierarchy of authority and clearly defined regulations. All these theories had a varying degree of success but none led to the expected level of increase in production efficiency and workplace harmony. In other words we can say that absence of workplace harmony was a big impediment in achieving high production efficiency. All these theories missed one crucial point – humans, who form any organization. It's not that classical management theories didn't mention humans, but the human factor was never considered as a crucial factor in an industrial setup. When these theories were being incorporated in various organizations in USA, a set of experiments began at the Hawthorne plant of Western Electric Company in Chicago. These experiments were being conducted by researchers of the company only. In due course of time these experiments became known as Hawthorne experiments or Hawthorne studies.

1. First experiment - Illumination studies


The Hawthorne experiments began in the year 1924. The first experiment conducted was illuminations studies. It was conducted by the researchers of the company. They wanted to investigate the relationship between the level of lighting in the workplace and worker productivity. In other words they wanted to see how the changes in the environment of the workplace affect the workers. For the purpose of experiment, the workers were divided into the group of two teams – control and test teams. The control team was subjected to a constant level of illumination each day i.e. the lighting conditions didn't vary at all. On the other hand the test team was subjected to varying illumination levels. So initially the team had medium level of illumination, then high level of illumination and then low level of illumination. These levels of illuminations were varied for many days. Few months later the results were obtained which were very much surprising. The control team had shown an increase in productivity even in the constant lighting conditions. But what was more astonishing was the increase in productivity in case of test team as well which was subjected to varying level of lighting throughout the experiments. The results in both the cases were baffling for the researchers and they were not able to make out anything of them. Fortunately, instead of just tossing these results in a dustbin, the researchers decided to take the help of academicians and researchers from outside. So Elton Mayo, Fritz Roethlisberger and William Dickson got involved in the experiments.

Elton Mayo was a professor of industrial research department at Harvard University. He was consulted when the researchers of Hawthorne plant couldn't derive any conclusion from the illumination studies. In order to do so, the researchers of the company along with their new team members, began the second experiment. That experiment was relay assembly room experiment.

2. Second experiment - Relay assembly room experiment


In this experiment 12 female employees were divided into two groups of six each. The groups were named, yet again, control group and test group. The location was relay assembly room. Yet again changes were brought in the working conditions of test group while these conditions were kept constant in the control group. For example, the members of the test group had varying rest periods and workdays. On the other hand the employees in the control group had a fixed rest and workday schedule. Financial incentives were offered to the members of the test group if they increased the productivity while the control group was to be paid its fixed remuneration. The experiment continued for 2 years and then results were compared. Yet again both the groups showed increased in productivity. Based on the results of these two experiments, the researchers reached to a conclusion.

They concluded that the productivity increased in both the cases in spite varying working conditions because the workers got motivated to work better as they felt that someone was paying attention to them. That led to the increase in the productivity. This phenomenon as termed as Hawthorne Effect. It can be defined as the possibility that workers who receive special attention will perform better simply because they received that attention.

The researchers conducted one more experiment which revealed one another interesting facet of the human nature. This third experiment was called the bank wiring observation room experiment.

3. Third experiment - Bank wiring observation room experiment


This experiment was little different than the previous experiments. First of all the employees were all males. Secondly they were not divided into two groups. Instead these 14 males worked as a group in a single room for few months. The group was offered financial incentives in two ways. The workers were to be paid extra on individual's efficiency. On the other hand the group was also offered incentive as a whole if it showed increase in productivity. It was expected that the output would increase. Instead the group gave restricted output.

These results were yet again baffling. So the researchers decided to interview the group members and get them fill up various questionnaires. Based on the analysis of the interviews and the questionnaires, the researchers reached to certain important conclusions. They were as follows –

1. An informal group had formed within that test group. This group had its own unwritten rules through which it controlled its various members.

2. The group had established their own standard of output which was different from that of management. So if management thought that at the end of the day, the group should produce 3 equipments, latter thought that 2 were enough.

3. The group used tools of social ostracism (isolation) and ridicule to control those members which were capable of producing more. Such workers were either subjected to social isolation or were mocked at for being management's puppet or slave.

The researchers concluded that effect of such informal groups in the workplace was more profound on the employees than any financial incentive. This was the second important implication of the Hawthorne studies. When the results of these experiments were revealed, various industrial organizations realized that they needed to know their employees in a better way. Financial incentives alone won't motivate employees to work more. This realization led to human relations movement where managers began to understand their employees through various ways. It also led to the emergence of behavioural school of management where the people from social science background like sociology, anthropology etc. were included in the organization and emphasis was given on managing employees effectively through knowledge of these subjects.

Criticism of Hawthorne Experiments


Hawthorne studies have received a lot of criticism throughout last 70 odd years as people from academics, industry, science field etc. have questioned the conclusions of these experiments on various parameters. Two major criticisms of Hawthorne are as follows –

1. The methodology and the statistical tools used in the experiment were flawed and had limitations. So the results obtained from them must have been flawed as well.

2. Generalization of the results of the study beyond those Individuals' studies isn't possible since the experiments were conducted on the few workers of a single plant of a large company. At that time there were many other big companies in various sectors in different locations and it can't be said for sure that similar results would have been obtained there as well.

In spite of all the criticism, this fact can't be denied that Hawthorne experiment played a very significant role in making the business organizations realize the value and need of the human factor. The kind of ambience that employees get today at their workplace, which goes beyond just financial incentive, wouldn't have been possible had Hawthorne experiments not thrown light on the human dimension.


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