The School's focus on developing useful knowledge about people can be traced back to the mid 1920s: an era of widespread prosperity in the U.S., when most observers felt that American industry and commerce were on the right track. Dean Donham, though, was not so sanguine. Long conversations with philosopher Alfred North Whitehead had persuaded him that civilization was in danger from its material success—that the misapplication of technology and the decline of spirituality were leading to widespread abuse of people in the workplace. The decline of the older professions (as Donham saw it) only intensified this negative outcome, as people put less faith in their ministers and lawyers. "We face the necessity," Donham declared, "of socializing the results of science."

"Time is short," Whitehead wrote to Donham in 1926.

These perceptions were reinforced by the School's new case method of research and teaching. Although the School's researchers were in search of the "science" of business, the "human factor" kept stubbornly emerging in case after case. The story, at its heart, seemed to be about people: about an individual attempting to lead other people in a chosen direction. How could the School pursue new and useful knowledge in a field that heretofore had had no place in schools of business?

The solution that Donham seized upon, in late 1925 and early 1926, was the assembling of a team of researchers with widely varying backgrounds and skills. These included an "industrial sociologist" from Australia named George Elton Mayo, a Harvard blood chemist named Lawrence J. Henderson, the School's physician Fabyan Packard, and others. Donham cobbled together research funding to support their work, and authorized the creation of a "Fatigue Laboratory" in the basement of Morgan Hall. The hazy notion was to combine aspects of psychology, sociology, anthropology, and physiology in some sort of new science of people in industrial settings.

Work proceeded along multiple tracks. Between 1929 and 1940, the Fatigue Lab researchers conducted some 20 field studies focused on the human body's ability to adapt to extreme environmental conditions. Meanwhile, Elton Mayo had found his research niche at Western Electric's Hawthorne Works, where company researchers were puzzled by their own findings about worker productivity at the plant. Mayo and his protégé Fritz Roethlisberger reviewed the research findings, and—after several false starts—eventually hit upon the idea of sympathetic supervision as the key to industrial relations. Simply stated, worker productivity had less to do with physiology or working conditions, and more to do with how workers were treated by their supervisors. By raising these questions, Mayo broadening the agenda of business research to include the broad topic of leadership.

Thus was born the field that came to be known as "human relations," which assumed a dominant role in business research and teaching in the subsequent half century. Management and the Worker (1939), by Roethlisberger and William J. Dickson, became a best-seller. Along with Ben Selekman, Roethlisberger served as the core of the Human Relations group for decades, and groomed a generation of young scholars who included people like George Lombard, Abraham Zaleznik, Paul Lawrence, and others. All pursued knowledge about people (and their organizations) in distinctly different ways. All found ways to extend their work into new realms of human activity. Lombard, for example, brought his Human Relations training to bear on the Army Air Forces in World War II; the result was a series of unorthodox teaching materials—including a provocative case called the "Umpteenth Fighter Squadron"—that helped young officers serve as effective intermediaries in the Air Forces' Statistical Corps. Lawrence studied the human "tribe" in a local Sylvania plant. Zaleznik pursued wisdom about people through the difficult route of psychoanalysis, and wrote numerous influential texts about the psychology of managers and leaders.

Subsequent generations of HBS researchers studied specific aspects of human nature and behavior in the workplace. Quinn Mills, Richard Walton, and James Healy—building on foundations laid by Benjamin Selekman—focused on labor negotiations. By Barnes studied organizational behavior in specialized settings, ranging from engineering firms to family businesses. Jay Lorsch and Paul Lawrence joined forces to study the impact of environmental factors on organizations (and the people within those organizations) and in 1967 published Organization and Environment, which included a breakthrough concept they called "contingency theory." (Organizations, it seems, had to adapt their structures to reflect their more or less dynamic industry contexts.) Lorsch subsequently focused on a range of organizational- and people-related issues—often with collaborators from other fields, and from practice—on topics ranging from the management of professional service firms to corporate governance and board responsibilities. The common thread, across this work and related efforts, is a focus on the human organization as a social system.

A focus on people in organizations inevitably led to investigations of styles and responsibilities of leadership. In 1977, for example, Abraham Zaleznik published a controversial Harvard Business Review article called "Managers and leaders: are they different?", sparking a sometimes heated debate both at HBS and in the business world. Others followed Zaleznik's lead. John Kotter, for example, focused on qualities of leadership and self-assessment, and conducted a 20-year longitudinal study of members of the MBA class of 1974. Gradually, Human Relations evolved into a variety of offshoot fields, including Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management, which formally entered the first-year curriculum in 1981.

Sometimes one field of inquiry grew out of another. For example: The real estate courses offered first by Howard Stevenson and Bill Poorvu (and later by Poorvu alone) beginning in the 1970s served as a springboard for Stevenson's subsequent research and writing in the field of entrepreneurship, which blossomed at HBS during the 1980s and 1990s. Bill Sahlman later brought together the lessons of real estate, entrepreneurship, and finance scholarship in his Entrepreneurial Finance elective, chosen by some 4,000 students between 1985 and 1995.

How do people lead people? How does a leader tap the "collective genius" of his or her organization? What kinds of leaders do people choose to follow, and why? How does leadership intersect with ethics? At HBS, one answer to this last question came in the spring of 2004, when ten professors from the School's various intellectual areas—led by Lynn Paine, Nitin Nohria, and Tom Piper—introduced Leadership and Corporate Accountability, a semester-long course in the required first-year curriculum.

Eight decades after Donham's conversations with Whitehead, and seven decades after Hawthorne, discovering useful knowledge about people in organizations—followers and leaders, and philosophies of management and leadership—remains one of the School's most important challenges.

Dean Wallace B. Donham
The Fatigue Laboratory
Exterior of Western Electric’s Hawthorn Works
On the floor of the Relay Assembly department
Woman at a machine in the Magnetic Wire Insulation department
Fritz Roethlisberger
Benjamin Selekman
Jay Lorsch in the classroom
Bill Poorvu
Bill Sahlman