Human Capital Management: Thomas Edison

Case Study: Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison was a genius in the realm of human capital management. His team of muckers - case and point.

Source: Cea on Flickr

Thomas Edison,  Human Capital Genius

“Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

Thomas Edison is regarded by many as a remarkable inventor, having produced massive volumes of the most innovative creations science had ever seen at the time. He broke the world record for patents, holding 1,093 patents. Although his most well known accomplishments are of course, the electric light bulb and the phonogram, he also invented the electrical vote recorder, carbon microphone, electricity distribution system, stock ticker, kinetoscope, kinetograph, light sockets, safety fuses, and a host of other break-through inventions.

What many people don’t know is that he never would have broken the patent record, and would not likely have seen any success if it wasn’t for the work of the people he gathered around him.  His genius was not in his remarkable ability to invent and create, but in his eye for talent, and his ability to exploit the talent that others had looked over.

Source: ellenm1 on Flickr


Edison’s Human Capital: The Muckers

“We often miss opportunity because it’s dressed in overalls and looks like work”

By 1876, the 29 year old Edison had gathered a group of bright young inventors, many of them fresh out of college. He called them “Muckers”, a term of endearment some would say, although the term was generally used to describe people who did the dirty work – the hard labor, tedious research, or the weeks and months of invention testing they conducted for menial wages.

Edison depended on this team to develop ideas – some from him, and most from them – the most notable of the team being the Serbian mastermind Nikola Tesla. The Muckers worked long and back breaking hours – 50 to 60 hours a week, with only Sunday off. These hours were often extended if Edison needed work finished by a certain deadline.

Despite being a harsh and sarcastic taskmaster, Edison typically worked the same hours as the rest of them, and often took on more.

Edison was able to increase his status to permanence through the work of his young and undervalued team of Muckers – by managing multiple teams of talented inventors, he was able to duplicate himself many times over. This team of Muckers was able to work on several inventions simultaneously, unlike the other inventors of his day, who labored alone on one invention at a time.

The duplication process helps you strengthen your ability through proper human management and  the power of numbers.

Source: YIM Hafiz on Flickr


Duplicate Yourself by Gathering Extensions of Yourself

“Five percent of the people think; ten percent of the people think they think; and the other eighty-five percent would rather die than think.”

While Edison would probably have put himself in the ‘five percent’, he was far from the first person to think to duplicate himself.

Every great leader in history has relied heavily on the people they surrounded themselves with. Think about the man who conquered the world. How much of the world would Alexander the Great have conquered without his soldiers? How far in his campaign would he have ridden with no army behind him?

So the question is not whether or not to duplicate yourself, but how to:

1.    Duplicate yourself with an undervalued team: You need to provide something of value to gather talent; nothing is ever free. Edison knew that hiring proven talent would cost him dearly – fresh and unproven inventors would be honored to work for an already established inventor for next to nothing. Learn to spot talent in the crowd of undervalued, unproven people. They’re everywhere – in colleges, universities, in third world countries – the list goes on, but the key is to separate value from average.

2.    Work in the way you expect your followers to: Edison worked at least as much as his employees did. In his own words: “Personally, I enjoy working about 18 hours a day. Besides the short catnaps I take each day, I average about four to five hours of sleep per night.” It’s nearly impossible for people work harder than their leader, and they will look to you for the benchmark. Pursue personal excellence before you expect it from others.

3.    Use other people’s talent to cover your weak spots: Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Be sure to flaunt your strengths, but in the areas you are weak, find people who can make up for that flaw, and set the standards high – as long as they see that quality of work in you’re area of expertise, it doesn’t matter that they are better than you in their specific skill. Edison had many weaknesses. He had little education, poor financial acumen, and was actually considered quite dull by all of his schoolteachers. He covered over these weaknesses by finding business partners who knew how to handle money, hiring highly educated inventors straight out of college, and working harder and longer than the rest in his own capacities.

4.    Take most of the credit: No one likes when someone else gets the credit they deserve, but it has become an accepted part of our culture. Make sure to give each person credit where it’s due, but do this internally (within your organization). Externally you need to take the credit, after all it was you who gathered the talent and organized it to begin with. People are happy with recognition within the organization, especially when it translates into some form of external value (something they can put on a resume, a “High Excellence and Achievement Award” for example). Just make sure most of the external credit is heaped on you. This is what set Edison apart from the rest – he organized the Muckers and demanded excellence. When they gave it, he took the credit.

The main concept we can learn from Edison is how to duplicate our efforts through the use of human capital. According to Karl Marx, this is what set the Elite of society apart from the Common – their exploitation of human capital for their own benefit – the Proletariat masses support the success and riches of the Bourgeois; the Elite.  It’s a harsh example that can be implemented in less of a cruel mindset, but it’s an essential truth about power that’s hard to deny.