The NCR Corporation, with close to 5 billion a year in revenue, had its origins in the National Cash Register Company of Dayton Ohio. While founder John Henry Patterson most famously hired and fired Thomas Watson (later president of International Business Machines), he also promoted the pioneering advertising work of Elias St. Elmo Lewis, and created what was probably the first real human resources department in 1897, when he hired Lena Harvey.
One hundred years ago in 1911, four significant books on scientific management were published: Principles of Scientific Management (Frederick Winslow Taylor), Work, Wages, and Profits (Henry Gantt, inventor of the Gantt Chart), Motion Study (F.B. Gilbreth), and Twelve Principles of Efficiency (Harrington Emerson). Business was being transformed through a “scientific” approach with an enormous focus on efficiency.
Katherine M. H. Blackford (1875-1958) owed her fame to being a “character expert”, that is, someone who could look at someone (or their photograph), and tell you whether they’d make a great employee or not. Before becoming an expert in her pseudo-science, however, she laid out some guidelines for employers that include many key points still important in modern human resources:
The concept of having organizational values, vision and mission is still a leading concept in business thinking today!
In addition to the idea of Scientific Management, another idea that was becoming popular in the early 20th century was that of eugenics. Eugenics didn’t really fall out of favor until after World War II – the last state sanctioned involuntary sterilization in Oregon occurred in 1981, while the Board of Eugenics in that same state existed until 1983. Blackford took the notion of eugenics in human resources to an unprecedented extreme. Her books included such titles as Reading character at sight (1918), Character Analysis by the Observational Method (1922), and my favorite, Blondes And Brunets (1916). Incidentally, according to her passport application, Blackford was a brunette. (When I was in Washington DC two weeks ago for the PRSA’s Day for Non Profits, I heard someone talk about “Blondes Versus Brunettes“, a charity football game!)
In describing the book, a journalist wrote, “The Blackford plan makes another large generalization in types, with coloring as the determining factor. It rates human beings on a percentage basis in the order of their blondness – the pink-eyed, unpigmented albino having a standard of 100 per cent., whereas the negro, who is not blond at all stands at the foot of the class with zero to his credit. Certain definite mental and physical qualities accompany these varying grades.”
Not everyone in the early 19th century was duped by this pseudo-science. Hugo Munsterberg, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University wrote in 1915, “We may know what the color of the hair indicates and also what the convexity of the profile suggests, but the knowledge of these two groups of mental traits corresponding to each of the two physical traits does not tell us which mental traits result from the combination of the two.” “Arbitrary pseudo-theories of this kind can be discovered in most cases when men have dealt for many years with the selection of applicants, and the theory of one always contradicts that of the next (…) but the actual conditions of mental life are far too complex to allow such simple rules”.
Munsterberg hit on a very important point in his explanation for why the Blackford System appeared to help organizations: “Wherever the appointment is taken out of the hands of the scores of foremen and heads of the various departments and is transplanted to a central bureau in which no other work is done but the selecting of men and women for all positions in the establishment, a definite advance will be made, however unsatisfactory the special methods may be which are employed in that central office. (…) This centralization ought to be established everywhere, but this does not endorse or even in the least excuse the particular prescriptions of this anthropological pet plan of today.
Blackford’s contributions to business literature have been pretty well consigned to the dustbin of history. The same is true for Harrington Emerson, Taylor, and Gantt to different extents. Their pioneering work in project management, business efficiency, human resources, and marketing is still echoed in contemporary business writing and thinking today. Their bizarre quasi-scientific approaches cause us to feel a bit embarrassed of them, and like some eccentric visiting aunt whom we know we should like we just can’t bring ourselves to embrace them.