Whenever there are people working together, there is the potential for outcomes larger than the sum of their individual efforts.
While this applies broadly, here we’re talking about the history of Human Resource management, so deeply tied to the development of the modern organization, including corporate learning.
You might be surprised to learn that the earliest set of practices associated with the physical and psychological well-being of workers can be found at the peak of Taylorism, commonly understood to be a time when a manager would run a company treating everything (including workers) like a factory. It’s no surprise that such an approach could be considered “heartless,” or even worse, simple-minded. But what the records show is that –with the undeniable occurrences of extreme worker conditions– these places showed some of the earliest ideas about tackling employee physical and mental well-being in the context of corporate goals. Some of these ideas passed on, as seen on many of Fordism’s main attributes, such as fixed worker locations, which held critical job satisfaction implications. From here, there is an undeniable historical link between specialization around a task, then a discipline, and later on a system of professional education in many engineering and administration fields.
This is just the beginning. The radical new winds of thought in the 60s and 70s did not go unnoticed by organizations in a world just as radical, with global competition and R&D budgets about to skyrocket by previous-decade standards. It was not difficult to find answers to how new ideas could transform the corporation and multiply revenues: by funding the military and the space race, governments not only ensured cutting-edge technologies for decades, but they also laid the groundwork for powerful ideas about teams and managerial hierarchies, the evolution of project management into a scientific discipline, and the glaring problem of how to help knowledge-based workers share ideas more efficiently. Before a world accustomed to throw money at big problems, it seemed as if new ideas were pulling the budgets above all else. Arpanet did not happen overnight, nor did the need for communication tools to become exponentially better.
Today, however, the lesson to be learned as to what entrepreneurs should push towards just seems a lot muddier. But keep in mind that history is always taught and learned in hindsight. Could corporate universities be the future? Depending on your opinion about the value of interactivity and engagement in the learning process, the past decade of corporate learning –with its deepened efforts towards collaboration and personalization– might look wealthy beyond all precedent. Or not. In any case, it is hard to argue against supporting the betterment of human conditions, radical new ideas, and the technologies that let companies put them into practice.
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