The central background to the Hawthorne plant studies revolved around the issues of worker treatment and productivity changes. At the time of the study, early 20th Century America had become fully entrenched with the industrialization era staple of the factory. There was little by way of going back and the firm division of worker and management was a part of the American economic landscape. The original premise of the study was to examine what effect different schemes and amount of light would have on workers. Upon this, a new set of questions arose which centered on what conditions could increase output. Mayo's conception revolved around taking specific workers and exposing them to different and more benevolent conditions in both work hours, treatment from management, and greater flexibility. The results were that slight changes in demeanor can result in greater worker productivity due to a greater emphasis on collectivity of workers. When management changed their demeanor in its relationship to workers, they started to shed the drudgery and demeaning aspect of their work and began to work as a unit. The studies were powerful in their reconfiguration of how management and workers coexist and work to benefit the company.
According to Elton Mayo, Professor of Industrial Management, Harvard Business School the Hawthorne plant is "any company controlling many thousand workers tends to lack any satisfactory criterion of the actual value of its methods of dealing with people."
The term gets its name from a factory called the Hawthorne works where a series of experiments on factory workers were carried out between 1924 and 1932.
The term was coined in 1955 by Henry A. Landsberger when analyzing older experiments from 1924-1932 at the Hawthorne works (a western electric manufacturing facility outside Chicago). Hawthorne Works had commissioned a study to see if its workers would become more productive in higher or lower levels of light.