The history of human resources

Ever feel like a cog in a machine? Thank the pharoahs

Ever feel like a cog in a machine? Thank the pharoahs

3000–2500 BC

The Egyptian pyramids are built using slaves. Labour is cheap and labour relations are relatively straightforward compared with the engineering challenges

∼512 BC

Sun Tzu writes The Art of War, unaware that it will be a 21st-century management classic 


Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince offers management advice to people for whom the end justifies the means


The father of economics, Adam Smith, publishes The Wealth of Nations, which introduces the idea of the division of labour

early 1800s

The Industrial Revolution transforms the world of work. The creation of the factory leads to unprecedented challenges such as large flows of material, people and information. The role of the manager is born

late 1800s/early 1900s

The science of psychology is born, and with it the science of management. F W Taylor (1856–1915) models Scientific Management on machinery. Jobs are also broken into their smallest component, creating the factory assembly line model. Productivity increases fourfold


A series of studies is carried out to find the relationship between work environment and productivity. To their surprise, the researchers discover that an organisation is a social system


Max Weber develops his Bureaucratic Management Theory, dividing organisations up into hierarchies and establishing strong lines of authority and control. Weber recommends detailed standard operating procedures for all routine tasks


The Human Relations movement attempts to put more focus on individuals and their ability to contribute to decision-making. The HR department is born.

Peter Drucker begins his management consulting career. Throughout his life he will have a profound influence on the profession of management.

During World War II, systems analysis brings together the disciplines of mathematics, statistics, engineering and other related fields to solve human relations problems. Management Science focuses on an interrelated and interdependent set of elements functioning as a whole


Books like Reengineering the Corporation, The Fifth Discipline, Good to Great and Free Agent Nation deconstruct the assumptions of Scientific Management and Management Science. Recognising we’re in a post-industrial age, consultants start looking for the best new way to work. New terms start to be heard such as work/life balance, employee engagement and empowerment, organic organisations, stewardship and servant leadership, and workplace diversity. Employers expect productivity gains in return 

Late 2007

A Families Commission survey shows a third of New Zealanders work more than 40 hours a week, with no extra pay for overtime. Meanwhile, productivity has gone down since 2000. What was that about work/life balance again? 

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