A Quick History of New Employee Onboarding and How It Hasn’t Changed for Centuries

Isn’t this so true?

Marshall McLuhan, the famed Canadian philosopher of communication and media theory once posited that much of the world’s problems during his time of great technological and cultural transition was because of an ever-increasing gap between issues, problems, and challenges of the world and the inconsistent, dysfunctional, and legacy tooling that were available to his generation.

The Medium is the Massage

(Whew, that was a mouthful.)

In other words, despite the many technological advances that were being introduced and available, there were still areas of our daily lives, both personal and professional, that were not “up to snuff” and that were ultimately backward and inappropriate for the modern context.

In his seminal work, The Medium is the Massage he writes:

Everything is changing — you, your family, your neighborhood, your education, your job, your government, your relation to “the others.”

And they’re changing dramatically…Innumerable confusions and a profound feeling of despair emerge in periods of great technological and cultural transitions.

Our “Age of Anxiety” is, in part, the result of trying to do today’s job with yesterday’s tools — with yesterday’s concepts.

He knew, even in 1967 when it was originally published, that something was wrong, that something needed to be fixed, and that technology, when appropriately used and leveraged, could be the cure (or the curse).

A dance of death.

He continues on:

Our official culture is striving to force the new media to do the work of the old. These are difficult times because we are witnessing a clash of cataclysmic proportions between two great technologies.

We approach the new with the psychological conditioning and sensory responses of the old.

This clash naturally occurs in transitional periods…the attempt to do a job demanded by the new environment with the tools of the old.

And this seems and feels natural, right? We all know what it’s like to try something new, the anxiety-laden sense that we’ve thrown something that we’ll ultimately need for the chance of something better.

In that brief moment it can sometimes feel akin to insanity — why would we do away with something that works, although terribly and painfully-so, for the unfamiliar?

I mean, that is insane, right?


“Good Luck… and Don’t Die”

For as long as there have been companies there have been employees and, as a consequence, a “new employee onboarding” of sorts. Unfortunately, the processes, systems, and experiences haven’t changed all that much in the modern workforce since the beginning of workforce development and creation.

J. Van Maanen and E.H. Schein in 1979 were some of the very first to research and understand what they called “organizational socialization” which was, essentially, the process by which people “learn the ropes” of a particular organizational role.

The new employee could learn how to do their job in a myriad of ways, from a quick “trial and error” to a long process of intentional investment through education and apprenticeship. Some of the earliest recorded “onboarding methods” were just that: Take this, do this, and good luck.

For instance, when the First Transcontinental Railroad (also known as the “Pacific Railroad”) was being built, they used veterans from both the Union and Confederate armies as well as thousands of immigrants to put down track bed, cutting and blasting through (and around hills), building bridges or trestles, and working 3, 8-hour shifts to do an estimated 10 miles (16km) of track per day.

Getting it done.

The work, needless to say, was hard, difficult, and resulted in deaths, especially during the winter when avalanches and snow slides were a constant threat. Howard Zimm, an American historian and social activist once said:

The first transcontinental railroad was built with blood, sweat, politics and thievery.

No Danger and Snow!

It gives you a reason to pause for a moment and be incredibly thankful for the working conditions that we all have today, right?

But the actual new employee onboarding for the three companies responsible for the Transcontinental (Western Pacific, Central Pacific, and Union Pacific) were all the same:

  1. Hop on to the local train (this was your offer letter and hiring agreement — just showing up).
  2. The train carries you to the end of the track.
  3. The newly minted employee jumps off, is handed a pick, a shovel, a few assorted tools, and told…

Good luck, we’ll pick you up later, and don’t die.

Strangely, how many of us have had eerily similar onboarding experiences in our much more “modern” jobs? How many of us have been given barely more guidance than our tools and the general direction of where we’re supposed to build (i.e. “that” horizon over there)?

Sadly, our professional onboarding experiences have not changed all that much for the last few centuries (and beyond) and yet the employees today are expected to do much more complicated work in a much more complex environment in an ecoystem that is infinitely more ambiguous!

This is our great anxiety and this is our great opportunity. As Bertrand Russell, a British philosopher, logician, mathematician, and historian once said:

The central problem of our age is how to act decisively in the absence of certainty.

You would think that our modern technology would give us all that we need to act “decisively in the absence of certainty” but we do not have modern tools for the modern workforce. We are still, as McLuhan stated, “attempting to do jobs with the tools of old.

It’s time we got just a little bit more than upset and built a real solution that works and we believe at TOMO that this is the problem that our modern businesses must solve if they are to ultimately fulfill their mission as a company and organization.

The future of the company depends on it (just look at the facts and stats!) and our world could be such a better place if we just fixed this problem.



I’ve already shared how New Employee Onboarding is Broken and I’m still collecting a ton of feedback on how to create the best modern tool available. I’ve been floored by the feedback but, if I’m to be honest, not entirely surprised since I have really never met anyone who has consistently had amazing new employee onboarding with the companies that they have signed up for.

In fact, everyone has a “story” to tell about an employer who, for whatever reason, had a “Transcontinental” onboarding system, process, or strategy. They were left with sour taste in their mouth and sadly it was part of how they remembered their time and tenure at those companies.

I’m still looking for feedback and will continue to do market research. Now, though, I’m looking for a few things, namely:

  1. Organizations open to dialoguing with me about their systems and allowing me to help them strategize a better solution. Phone calls, in-person visits, email exchanges — anything and everything would be great. I can learn and you can get some free advice and support! Email me here: info@trytomo.com
  2. Continue to answer this short survey and share it!
  3. Follow us on Twitter and subscribe to our Email Newsletter!

Go forward and prosper — we’ll talk soon.

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