Adriano Olivetti: the precursor of Organizational Humanism
Turin, 1911. At the Universal Expo takes place the debut of the enterprise created by Camillo Olivetti, father of Adriano, as the public is introduced to the M1, the first italian typing .The choice of the testimonial of the first advertising poster is certainly no coincidence: Dante Alighieri, depicted in the poster as he proudly points to the innovative product (Peroni 2018, 19-21). This decision confirms how culture was placed at the foundations of the factory, to the point of fulfilling a crucial role: a symbiosis between technology and the love for knowledge was intrinsic to the company ever since its origins.
However, it is with Adriano Olivetti that the family establishment becomes a “Community” and dedicates itself to improving the standard of living of each employee; thanks to the entrepreneur’s ideals, an innovative reality based on fundamental ethical principles – such as freedom, responsibility and in particular loyalty, obedience and transparency – is realized (Catarin, Bembo 2018, 2).
After graduating in Chemical Engineering and completing an apprenticeship in his father’s industry, in 1927 – while returning from a trip in America – he was given the helm of the family business. Adriano starts a process of work humanization that marks the beginning of the ICO’s establishment: it is decided to invest in social protection, health services and cultural growth of all employees, at every level of the company (Peroni 2018, 23-25). This “humanistic” way of conceiving the company will be the secret of its success.
A Communal reality
In addition to production, an industry is capable of providing all the hosts and employees well-being, safety and beauty (Catarin, Bembo 2018,2). If his father Camillo already started an elaborate system of social services, it is only thanks to his son that we witness the institutionalization of such measures, which give them an anthropocentric importance: the employees are placed at the center of factory life, their personal development is a source of value for the company; ultimately leading to a constant search for the quality and efficiency of every single part of production (3). The social measures adopted by Olivetti extend to all levels of the individual’s life, allowing them to enjoy several benefits, including health care, social care, access to a canteen, and a state-of-the-art transport system. Among the residential units made available to workers, a school for the training of technical personnel stands out, where professional education took place through evening courses dedicated to the improvement of the workers’ culture (3).
These sources of well-being generated cohesion, and the relationship between employees reflected well on the environmental sustainability promoted by the contractor: the architecture of the buildings merged with the surrounding landscape, since it did not conflict with nature but instead welcomed it (4).
The presence of humanists in the company
Adriano Olivetti’s idea was to build, through humanistic culture, a bridge between entrepreneurs and workers. As in an ancient “Athens periclea” – expression used by the same Giudici – also in a modern business perspective, power was held not by engineers or economists but by philosophers, poets and humanists.
For the first time, we have brought to all the country villages, to all the mountain towns what I would define as secret weapons: books, cultural courses, works of ingenuity and art. We deeply believe in the revolutionary virtue of culture that gives man his true power and his true expression, as the ploughed field and the noble plant are distinguished from the abandoned and uncultivated field where the weed grows, and from the wild plant that cannot bear fruit. And so we in the community go together in search of the spiritual nourishment which is our duty to provide to all men in order to exalt their spirit and discover the nobility of their heart, for man’s sadness is most profound until he has revealed to himself his true inner conscience: that which is enclosed, locked, in the depths of the soul.Adriano Olivetti, Marco Peroni, Ivrea. Guida alla città di Adriano Olivetti, Roma/Ivrea, Edizioni di Comunità, 2018, p. 88
Culture becomes a motivational gimmick for everyone: by offering education the company was able to start benefiting from people’s intelligence and count on each employee’s innovation and creativity (Peroni 2018, 104). Graduates in the humanities were hired to work alongside engineers and economists with the ultimate goal of changing society and avoid an excess of technicality (Cataldi 2017,106). The contamination between different specializations also becomes a fundamental value for the contemporary reality, with the idea of the visionary entrepreneur who knew how to anticipate the future and was able to leverage the Soft Skills that are currently in greatly sought after by every kind of company. By giving space to the worker’s personal interests the focus shifted to the development of creativity, free thinking, the potential for initiative, commitment to the group: elements of social and organizational awareness that are typical of corporate culture and that philosophers, scholars and artists are naturally predisposed to.
The presence of cultured men such as Volponi, Ottiero Ottieri, or poets of Giudici and Fortini’s calibre “contributed to improve the group’s capacity for critical analysis, its propensity for in-depth study, its willingness to integrate different visions and apparently distant disciplinary fields” (Peroni 2018, 123).
The way of conceiving work is both undoubtedly revolutionary and current, especially given that we are witnessing how the technical-engineering industry has begun to be reimagined with a more humanistic vision, with the aim of increasing society’s awareness and maturity, and the hopes of establishing an industry on a human scale.
The truth lies within the freedom of culture and, therefore, of thought (Cataldi 2017, 111). With this spirit the Edizioni di Comunità – a publishing house that shares the Olivettian ideology of an educational project based on a vocation of interdisciplinarity – was born (112).
«We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants»
Looking at modern society we may be reminded of the ancient saying when recognising that there are multiple examples of multinational companies which follow the Olivetti Welfare Model, such as Luxottica and Diesel.
These companies provide numerous services for staff: canteens, sustainable architecture, relaxation rooms, intensive courses, gyms and much more.
Specifically, since 2017 Luxottica has launched a Welfare Package, a prevention campaign which provides a free medical check-up to all employees who are above a certain age. Additionally, every employee is able to benefit from Luxottica University, a training initiative that, by organizing meetings in the classroom and through a digital platform, promotes staff learning, and in doing so contributes to the success of the business. In fact, Leonardo Del Vecchio, executive chairman of the company, says:
Once again we stress that it is the people, their value, their individuality, their emotional bond to the company and sense of community and belonging that are at the centre of our organisation and have allowed our factories to advance and ultimately have led to Luxottica’s worldwide success.Leonardo Del Vecchio, Luxottica Group, welfare personalizzato e check-up medico gratuito per i dipendenti, Luxottica, 2017
Hoping for a distribution of knowledge
With the skills of a visionary entrepreneur, Adriano Olivetti interpreted simple factory work in an original way. Now more than ever we are required to have a “circular vision” and “all-round training“, as stated by Ivano Dionigi, former rector of the University of Bologna (Galluccio 2019). Companies today demand more from their employees choosing to embrace a corporate culture based on knowledge, ideas, emotional and social skills, having recognised that true success would be achieved through the union of knowledge and not through continuous disciplinary sectorization. This is the role entrusted to the humanists in the company, that of spreading culture to build a better world; and Olivetti certainly understood that the process of restoration would have to connect technique with the humanities in order for innovation to be generated.
To learn more
- Bitetto, Giovanni (2018). «L’umanesimo aziendale di Volponi e Adriano Olivetti» THEVISION, 27 agosto. URL https://thevision.com/cultura/volponi-olivetti/
- Catalani, Marco (2017). «Luxottica Group, welfare personalizzato e check-up medico gratuito per i dipendenti». Luxottica, 7 luglio. URL http://www.luxottica.com/it/luxottica-group-welfare-personalizzato-check-medico-gratuito-dipendenti
- Cataldi, Bianca Rita (2017). «Mosche senza volo: l’utopia di Adriano Olivetti». Incroci. Semestrale di letteratura e altre scritture, anno XVIII, n. 36. Bari: Mario Adda Editore, 103-112.
- Catarin, Matteo; Bembo, Anna (2018). «Adriano Olivetti: alle origini dell’impresa responsabile». CSR Treviso, 23 novembre. URL http://www.csrtreviso.it/Images/file/pdf/OlivettiASL2018.pdf
- Galluccio, Fabio (2019). «Filosofi e umanisti in azienda, una nuova realtà» hei.network, 23 maggio. URL https://hei.network/filosofi-e-umanisti-in-azienda-una-nuova-realta/
- «Ivrea. Sulle tracce di Adriano Olivetti. Un viaggio a Ivrea nei luoghi di Adriano Olivetti, rivoluzionario gentile nell’industria italiana» Booking Piemonte 2020. URL https://www.bookingpiemonte.it/scopri-il-piemonte/personaggi/ivrea-sulle-tracce-di-adriano-olivetti/
- Peroni, Marco (2018). Ivrea. Guida alla città di Adriano Olivetti. Roma/Ivrea: Comunità Editrice.
- Rabbiati, Aldo (2014). «Adriano Olivetti, imprenditore umanista». Riforme e Progresso, 18 febbraio. URL https://blog.libero.it/virgilius/12656835.html