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The humanistic enterprise grappling with change

A thesis discussed at the University of Pisa looks at one particular aspect of Olivetti

A humanistic yet technologically advanced company. A place where people work but grow as people. Italy is full of such examples that continue to set the standard. Adriano’s Olivetti is certainly one of them. It is a case that is still studied from all angles and offers new insights every time. This is what Luca Manuguerra has accomplished with his thesis, discussed at the University of Pisa, as part of the Corporate Communication and Human Resources Policy programme. Manuguerra starts from a particular perspective that deserves to be explored, Olivetti’s Mechanical Training Centre, the company college that provides technical and humanistic training in the Olivetti context.

Manuguerra begins his research by summarising the facts. “Olivetti”, he explains “became a leading company in the mechanical products sector thanks to the ingenuity of some of its design solutions, which made it difficult for competitors to imitate its products. The company invested in new technologies, as well as in the professional development of its workforce. To maintain a competitive and successful profile, it is important to have staff who are qualified and trained, but also creative, open to dialogue and to sharing their work-related experiences”.

Functionality and beauty. Technology and humanism. The author of this study writes “For the company, aesthetics and design were fundamental to the functionality of the product, so it was essential to be able to design forms that could immediately communicate the function of the product”.

Alongside all this, there was a focus on the rounded training of Olivetti employees. Humanistic subjects alongside technical excellence. “Training”, Manuguerra goes on to say, “develops a strong sense of belonging, which (makes employees) feel like part of a community, encourages them to engage and express their ideas”.

Then came the change of pace, which Manuguerra summarises as follows, “During the 1950s, Olivetti became interested in electronics but the rest of the company saw this as a foreign idea. Almost none of Olivetti’s management team shared the vision of electronics in the company’s future”. According to Manuguerra’s research, there was “internal inconsistency between workers at this point. In other words, some workers were treated differently. The electronics staff were opposed by both the mechanical staff and the management. Research into the development of electronic products was met with mistrust or indifference, and mechanical skills, which had become technically or cognitively rigid, shunned any radical innovation”.

One of the consequences in the company was a discrepancy between the training provided for those working in mechanics and those working in electronics. “Training”, explains Manuguerra, “was therefore inconsistent with both strategy and corporate culture. The latter, which was geared towards collaboration and experimentation, was limited to the mechanical sector”.

So what was to be done? The study goes on to explain that an attempt to overcome the rift resulted in the use of a “group system”. Mechanical and electronics employees formed groups, breaking off from their respective tasks and working together. It was not an easy road, but Olivetti attempted it nonetheless and the study describes it well.

Luca Manuguerra’s thesis is useful to gain a better understanding of the history of a company that left its mark on Italian corporate culture in the 20th century, however you want to judge it.

La formazione e la coerenza interna nella gestione delle risorse umane: cosa insegna il caso Olivetti (Training and internal consistency in human resources management: what we can learn from Olivetti)

Luca Manuguerra

Thesis, University of Pisa, Business Communication and Human Resources Policy, 2021