Sunday, June 14, 2009

Hawthorne effect disproved

Interesting piece in last weeks Economist which suggests the Hawthone effect doesn’t stand up to analysis. (For good measure the Financial Times covered the same story over the weekend.)

For those who don’t know, the Hawthorne effect is named after the Chicago telephone factory were it was originally observed. The researchers suggested that the act of experimenting on people changed their behaviour.

Back in 1924 researchers changed the lighting at the Hawthone factory and observed productivity increased. Then they reduced lighting and to their surprised it increased again. The conclusion of the study is widely cited to show that when workers know they are experimented on their performance increases. Another spin on the research suggests it is when workers feel valued their performance increases.

Now it seems the original data has been re-analysed using modern econometrics techniques. What it actually shows is the workers were more productive at the start of the week (lighting changes happened on Sunday.)

(Have a look at the Economist piece or the research itself to understand the subtleties I’ve glossd over.)

Anyone who saw another Economist report from last year knows already that most published research is wrong. That study showed that most of the research published in the top journals is disproved within three years.

Which raises the question of whether less well known and influence journals are actually more reliable but lets leave that to one side for now.

Perhaps the only surprise about the Hawthone effect is that it took over 80 years to be exposed.

And what lesson are we to draw from what we now know?

Well, maybe, if workers are more productive at the start of the week then keep that first two or three days clear for core work. Push meetings such to the end of the week.