Robert Owen is often referred to as a social reformer. So what is he doing in a blog about management?
In fact, in his espousal of management over pure command and control, we can see in Owen the first shining of the light of humanistic management, that was not to become the norm in his home country of the UK for nearly two centuries.
Robert Owen was born in 1771, in Newtown, in Wales. After working in several drapery businesses around England, in 1790, he became the joint owner of a textile factory in Manchester. Because he had little experience of manufacturing, he started off wth a rigorous regime of intense observation of how his employees worked. Through this, he said, ‘I maintained order and regularity throughout the establishment’. Could this be an early variant on ‘Management by Walking About’: Management by Observation?
Along with other investors, Owen bought a Mill in New Lanark in 1799. The realities of what was then regarded as enlightened mill ownership were that he inherited a workforce where 5 and 6 year olds were expected to work up to 15 hours a day. His first act was to stop taking children from the local poorhouse, to raise the minimum age of children he employed to 10, and to ban the use of corporal punishment.
This was the start of a series of reforms that led to Owen being labelled variously as a social reformer, a socialist, an educational reformer, and a utopian (by Marx and Engels!) But at this time, certainly, Owen justified all of his changes on purely economic grounds. He used profits to fund social improvements for his workers and found that productivity subsequently increased. Eventually, the New Lanark Mill showed a 50% Return on Investment (ROI).
Eventually, his reforms were to include taking no children into the mill, creating the first night school in the world, for his workers, starting what became the basis of the British Co-operative movement, and founding the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union in 1834 – sadly, it did not survive the year. He also tried in 1815 and failed to introduce new legislation to improve working conditions nationally.
It may shock us now that his aim of increasing the minimum working age to 10, reducing the maximum daily working hours to 10½, and requiring a minimum of half an hour a day of education for all children was seen as a serious risk to the wellbeing of business. Lesser legislation was passed in 1819 and we still hear the same arguments about potential legislation around worker’s rights today.
Consult other sources…
If you want to learn more about his social reforms, educational work, or attempts to create trades unions and co-operatives, there is plenty of good material. I would like to focus on the things Owen did in management, that were almost a century ahead of his time, to only really be formalised by the likes of Mary Parker Follett and George Eastman, and the later humanistic management leaders, like Elton Mayo and Douglas McGregor.
Five Visionary Approaches
Owen recognised that, in his rapidly mechanising industry, machines would never attain a greater importance than the people who worked them
Abandoning Command and Control
Owen preferred to manage his workers, rather than issue commands. And to help him, he started selecting his managers on merit and giving them training.
Okay, so he would never have used this modern buzzword, but he firmly believed in the value of giving his managers real autonomy.
Not only did Owen understand the value of winning trust from his workers before trying to impose change; he actively sought out influential individuals among them to help build and disseminate his case: what we call ‘change champions’.
Every day, supervisors would assess the work of their workers, and award a colour code (from poor, black to blue to yellow to white – best), which would be displayed on a wooden block (his ‘silent monitor’) for all to see. Peer pressure and pride are powerful motivators!