Fred Schied: How Did Humans Become Resources Anyway?


Human Resource Development (HRD), a concept barely known until about twenty-five years ago, has become the dominant model for workplace education. Yet the social, historical and political context in which HRD emerged has been little explored. Much of the historical work that does exist has uncritically viewed HRD as the latest and most humanistic phase of an ongoing educational process where an organization facilitates the learning of its employees to become more productive and "empowered". Human capital theory, the theoretical root of HRD, is viewed as the latest and most effective way for organizations to train their employees. Traditional histories have taken an anecdotal and evolutionary approach to emergence of HRD. Thus virtually anything remotely resembling education is seen as a precursor to present day HRD activities. This has lead to some almost bizarre claims as to the historical origins of training and development and its latest manifestation, HRD. Some have traced the origins of HRD back the creation of a "mature" factory system in the 1880s, others back to the apprenticeship system, and still others back to 1630 when efficient "management of the factors of production" created the circumstances in which the workforce was educated. The Handbook for Training and Development begins its discussion of the history of training by highlighting the training involved in building a Summarian Palace in 3500 B.C.!

In contrast to this rather simplistic and uncritical examinations, this paper argues that the field of HRD has emerged from the specific historical, economic and social situation in the United States after World War II. Rather than a chronological history, this paper examines three themes which lead to the creation of the present form of worker discipline, of which, it is argued HRD is a part. The themes are: 1) the emergence of corporate training during World War II leading to the creation of American Society of Training and Development (ASTD); 2) the strength of the labor movement after the second world war and 3) the emergence of human capital theory. Embedded within these themes is the ongoing struggle over who controls workers' knowledge.

The Emergence of Corporate Training

Industrial training was provided through corporation schools as early as 1872. These schools varied in structural and content, provided training in everything from technical skills to English-as a second-language to salesmanship. Influenced by the Frederick Taylor's management theories, corporation schools where a means to acclimate the workforce to a rationalized industrialization process; efficiency was always of utmost concern. In a reveling statement a General Electric executive stated that a corporation school: an elementary school conducted by a corporation to Americanize alien railway labor, for instance; or a commercial school with university class rooms, and sometimes university lectures and credit; or a technical school with a course extending, as in one corporation, through four years of work of company worktime, demanding two hours each day, and a total of 10,960 hours in all, for bonus and diploma.

In 1913, thirty-five large corporations banded together to organize the National Association of Corporation Schools. Largely supported by the New York Edison Company, the NACS became a primary means to educate the workforce without outside control. In fact, while the NACS sought to establish reciprocal relationships with universities for management retraining, the association vehemently opposed any public scrutiny of its activities. The US entrance into World War I provided the NACS, with the opportunity to offer its services to the Council on National Defense for Industrial Training for the War Emergency. A similar organization, the National Association of Employment Managers (later the Industrial Relations Association of America) also brought corporate educators together. Both organizations were enamored with the scientific management theories of Taylor and both organizations saw their importance rise with World War I mobilization.

If World War I was the beginning of a national network of corporate control of formal education, then World War II shaped the form of much of employer workplace education. A major task during World War II was to train the large numbers of workers (many of them women) who were entering the workforce. Out of these experiences the War Manpower Commission, a federal government agency, came the basic ideas, still in practice, of on-the job training. The men who provided leadership for this Commission and who later became important inspirations for the creation of the American Society of Training Directors (later Training and Development)represented the cream of corporate power and prestige: Chan Dooley of Standard Oil of New Jersey; Walter Dietz of Western Electric; Michael Kane of AT&T; Glenn Bardiner of Forstman Woolen Mills and William Conner of U.S. Steel.

Founded in 1942 at meeting of the American Petroleum Institute, the American Society for Training Directors began publishing its journal Industrial Training News in 1945 and by the end of the 1940s training was an important component of many of the newly created personnel departments. Corporate interest in training and the subsequent founding of the ASTD and the rise of personnel departments during after the World War II was not coincidental. Rather, it was in response to the challenges posed by a newly powerful and confident labor movement eager to become involved in fundamental issues of workplace control, including training and other personnel matters.

The Struggle Over Workers Knowledge

John Brophy, a United Mineworker Leader, reflected back on his days of learning to be coal miner by working with his father. Brophy remarked that:

It was a great satisfaction to me that my father was a skilled, clean workman with everything kept in shape. The skill with which you undercut the vein, the judgment in drilling the coal after it had been undercut and placing the exact amount of explosive so that it would do an effective job of breaking the coal from the solid.. indicated the quality of his work.

Brophy notes that the miner in his day was quit aware that all knowledge didn't start with his generation, that miners had lived and worked and struggled and had passed their working knowledge on to their children and they in turn passed this knowledge on to their children. It was scientific management and Fordism which would, of course, threaten this sense of not only the control of one's work but the struggle over who controlled working knowledge. In mining, for example, once the process became mechanized, work could become subdivided. This subdivided work could come under close supervision by the foreman. As one miner put it: "Anyone with a weak head and a strong back can load machine coal, but a man has to think and study every day like you was studying a book if he is going to get the best of the coal when he uses only a pick."(emphasis added)

This deskilling process, with its relentless drive for efficiency, occurred in many industries and at a varying rate. In a short time, a new category was invented. Harvey Braverman has described how the term semiskilled was invented in the 1930s by the U.S. Census Bureau in the 1930s. Anyone working with machinery would now not be considered unskilled but semiskilled. Thus, resulting from a decision made by the director of the Census Bureau, machine operators from now on were defined as having more skills than someone who had spent a lifetime operating a farm. Braverman points to struggle that began with Taylorism before the first World War and reached its peak shortly after the World War II : the attempt to control workers knowledge and skills.

By the end of the Second World War, American organized labor had reached a point where J.B.S. Harman, educational director for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers noted the "...amazingly rapid growth of unionism and of its power potential goes beyond anything ever known." Indeed labor union membership had grown five-fold since 1933. In many of the major manufacturing industries coal, steel, auto, rubber, etc.) union coverage was almost complete Moreover, an attempt to break the coal miners union during World War II had failed and a string of strikes during the first years after the Second World War, resulted in a series of labor triumphs. The attempt to establish a labor extension service was seen as an almost certainty. "Labor unions," Hardman noted, "have become a social power in the nation and are conscious of their new importance." Indeed, during the late 1940s, the labor movement was poised to reassert itself in ways that were to threaten management and harken back to the early days of John Brophy: worker control of the shopfloor and worker control of knowledge.

The issue for unions centered on labor's refusal to agree to any specific functions that were exclusively management. Everything was open for negotiations, including the right to manage. The end result would be, so the unions hoped, a joint management with worker control of the shopfloor, including workers knowledge. The Congress for Industrial Organizations (CIO) advocated a policy that would make government coequal with management with the government acting as an arbitrator. The newness of these demands provoked uneasiness within the existing generations of mangers. First the depression and then to some extent the war had confined the unions ability to move beyond such "bread and butter " issues as wages, hours, vacations and the rudiments of grievance and seniority systems. Now, however, with the end of the war, industrial management was confronted with new challenges from the unions. The challenge to management centered around personnel issues. Unions demanded (and succeed in getting in some industries) the right to become involved in discipline, bonus charges, job assignments, and involvement in training and education programs. Unions wanted involvement in financial policy, wage determination policies and other production issues as well. Unions, in short sought to co-manage the enterprise.

The war, when labor was in short supply, had caused many grievances and attempts at creating more equitable working conditions. The shopfloor had become the site of struggle. Indeed, unionization movement has swept thorough the ranks of foreman, the front line managers. In 1946 one study quoted a management official saying "We recognize that in some of our shops the union committeeman exercises greater authority than the foreman." An automobile executive stated: "If any manager in this industry tells you he has control of his plant he is a damn liar." As labor historian David Brody noted, American industry felt itself embattled on every level; unions felt that they had a right to bargain regarding all functions of management, including training. In some industries, it was shop stewards who decided how rates where to be set and who was going to receive training.

The co-management of enterprises did not occur. While the reasons for this are complex, the refusal of large corporations to surrender at any cost their management function largely revolved around personnel issues. That is, in return for a dramatic increase in wages, and strong pension, health and vacation plans attempts at co-management were surrendered. However, the personnel function itself was totally under the control of management. That is, while the amount of the benefits were negotiabble, the control and administration these functions was under management, specifically under the personnel department, control. The modern training function grew out of this context. Training was a personnel function; it became something that the company largely organized and operated for its own interests.

From Personnel Departments to Human Resource Management

With the establishment of clear-cut distinctions between management and union spheres, management turned to developing ways in which workers could be shaped and controlled. Here to events during and shortly after the second world war played a crucial role. Indeed as several studies have noted, the very idea of the type of workers required in the present day information society can be traced back to military developments in World War II. The Applied Psychological Panel of the National Defense Research Committee stated that "man-machine is the fighting unit, not man alone, not machine alone." It was the Air Force that shaped the concept of a weapon system that incorporated the very new idea of a new species: the man-machine system. Operators, viewed as components within these vast weapon systems came to viewed as decision makers, problem solvers, and information processors. The were, in otherwords, human technologies embedded with a vast technological information system.

Training, too, took on a new face during the 1950s. Rather than focusing on just technical training, corporate trainers began focusing on interpersonal sills training. This "human relations" training fit quit well with in the newly emerged personnel function. With unions removed from personnel decisions, corporations were faced with the task of managing and controlling the workforce. Human relations training with its emphasis on the behavioral sciences became an important vehicle for finding mechanisms to control the activities on the shop floor. Skill in this approach, was secondary to process. How to motivate workers became the dominate issue. Human relations training reached its height with the emergence of human capital theory.

That human capital theory should come to serve as reigning ideology for corporate education comes as no surprise. Generally accepted as having been popularized by (although the ideas have been around much longer) Schultz at the 1960 meeting of the American Economic Association, human capital theory basically holds that long-term benefits or rate of return from an individuals investment in education are superior to other forms of investment. Moreover, according to this theory, education increases the skills and hence the productivity of the workforce.

Human capital theory has had a curious history over the last thirty years. Since the 1970s the theory has been under severe and almost constant attack. In fact, there is little evidence that increased education leads directly to increased productivity and economic growth. While education may be a factor in economic growth, it is far from the most important one.

If the economic rationale for human capital theory does not hold up under close scrutiny, the entire rationale for HRD becomes suspect. What HRD and indeed, the closely allied concept of total quality management does provide is for management to provide even more intrusive measures of control. With unions now playing a significantly less important role, HRD with its emphasis on learning to learn and team-building approaches leaves little room for workers to develop collective action. The end goal is to create a mobile workforce, able to "problem-solve" with sophisticated"people" skills, but with few real technical skills-the very definition of an unskilled workforce.


This paper was originally presented at the Adult Education Research Conference, University of Alberta in Edmonton, 1995.