The (Very) Early Adoption of Modern HRM Practices
| Peter Klein |
Bruce Kaufman’s book Hired Hands or Human Resources? Case Studies of HRM Programs and Practices in Early American Industry (Cornell U. P., 2010) shows that US firms started adopting “modern” HRM practices around World War I, not during the New Deal, and they did so primarily to increase productivity, not in response to union or government pressure. Writes reviewer Chad Pearson:
Kaufman illustrates the ways in which several companies created professional human resource management (HRM) models after World War I. This is the most valuable part of the book principally because he used the records of the Industrial Relations Councilors (IRC), a consulting firm that began assisting employers in the 1910s. The IRC offered consulting services, provided research, and ran courses on industrial relations topics throughout the nation. Kaufman, the first scholar to examine these records, believes that “no other [industrial relations consulting firm] before World War II had IRC’s reach and influence” (p. 108). . . .
In most cases, these firms, in consultation with the IRC, began to, in Kaufman’s words, treat labor not as “a short-term commodity,” as was common in previous decades, but rather as “a longer-term human capital asset (the ‘human resource’ approach)” (p. 219). Why? Pressure from unions and the law were factors, but “they were less than half the story in the time period we are examining” (p. 228). In his view, employers’ desires to improve “management and productivity” better explain why companies improved workplace conditions (p. 227).
Labor historians and specialists in business regulation used to focus on the Progressive Era as a watershed period — e.g., Wiebe (1962), Weinstein (1981), and of course Kolko (1977) — but interest seems to have waned.