As a corporation president, Sidney Harman made news with a bold experiment designed to humanize work in some of his factories.

Harman invited workers to share job-related decisions. He promoted the idea that individuals differ and "must not be perceived as replaceable parts in a machine."

At a plant in rural West Tennessee, for example, workers who finish eight hours of work in five hours can go home early. Or they can stay and attend a special free school at the factory were some classes are taught by fellow employees.

Harman, 59, was recently selected to become an under secretary of Commerce here, and he is eager to promote his ideas. He plans to start with a notorious beast, the bureaucracy, a prime target of the Carter administration.

As an innvoator and one of severl key subcabinet appointees entering government with momentum gained from success in other fields, Harman represents one way of effecting change under new leadership.

Short, tanned and fit-looking, Harman has been busy becoming oriented in his gold-colored office at the Commerce Department. Like a number of sub cabinet appointees, he has not been confirmed in his new post and has not had time to work out a specific program.

Harman talked recently about his desire to give federal workers a new sense of dignity in their work. He spoke of "generating a sense of harmony and interdependence" among competing or isolated departments of government and of defining the agency's mission in terms of the public good.

"I know," Harman said, holding up his hand," "I know, some people would call this unrealistic - idealism or humanism. Well, I believe in these things not as an idealist but as a pragmatist."

Accustomed to skeptics and scoffers, Harman is armed with statistics on the corporation he founded in 1953. harman International Industries makes hi-fidelity equipment and automobile mirrors. According to Harman, the corporation had "$135 million total sales last year, earnings of about $9 million, 93d best return on investment of all the companies listed in 1975's Fortune 500. . . .

"As a pragmatist, I believe absolutely in the necessity of an equilibrium between social-human concerns and technical or economic concerns. It is the only way the free enterprise system can flourish," Harman said.

Harman believes that "decision-making should flow from the bottom up" and that the process must, paradoxically, start at the top, with willing management.

Work improvement experiments are under way at several Harman plants in Los Angeles, New York, and most recently in Scotland. But the most advanced and most publicized is at the factory in Bolivar, Tenn., that manufactures automobile mirrors.

The experiment there began with studies in 1972 and was implemented in 1974. The primary units of change are small cocmmittees called core groups and made up of workers and management personnel.

The Bolivar experiment is unique in its proponenets. Previous such attempts always were directed by management and located in new, nonunion plants; this one was worked out by management and workers, at an old plant where physical conditions were bad, where hostility had increased between workers and bosses. The plant recently had been organized by the United Auto Workers Union.

The union, which helped set up the project, made it a pilot for similar programs at other auto industry plants, and several foundations have contributed funds or expertise.

As a result of the core group meetings, workers decided to rotate certain jobs so one person did not always have the msot tiresome task. They also agreed to work in teams, instead of separately, and to make other changes in their work areas.

When the company came under pressure to reduce its price on the Cadillac mirror, managers explained to the workers that if they lost the Cadillac job, 70 to 75 workers would lose their jobs. After many meetings, assmembly-line workers helped plan cost-cutting, including a new machine on the line's first station that combined several operations. Ultimately, an engineer-worker team was able to cut the number of workers on the two lines from 19 to 12.

Despite initial suspicion on all sides and problems to be negotiated, workers and managers at Bolivar have reported a shift in the plant atmosphere from hostility to friendliness and mutual respect.

As a happy byproduct, Harman noted, production, at the plant has increased.

Harman reiterated testimony he gave last year at Senate subcommittee hearings on alternative work patterns. There, he cautioned employers against paying mere lip service to such ideas in order to increase productivity. "One must begin with the conviction that there are deeper satisfactions than simply making a buck out of the running of a business," Harman said.

He said a high degree of work-related alienation and fear exists not only among blue-collar workers but at the highest levels of management. "Executives are some of the most terrified people in the world. They often feel they're only passengers, along for the ride, who would never be missed," Harman said.

A man of varied interests, Harman has a background in engineering and business. He also served in the late 1960s as president of an experimental Quaker college and has worked in the civil rights movement.

In 1973, he received a Ph.D. in social psychology from Union College's graduate school in New York. It was the result of his desire to form what he calls a "philosophical base" for his new work programs.

Harman came to the Commerce Department after newly appointed Commerce Secretary Juapita Kreps read about him in a transition team briefing book, a spokesman said. Kreps invited Harman for an interview, and the spokesman said, "He conducted himself well; she liked what he had to say, and he got the job."

Harman is moving to Washington from his home in Westhampton Beach, Long Island. He plans to sell his business to avoid conflict of interest, in accordance with Carter administration guidelines for presidential appointees.

Commerce employees seemed hopeful about change. "Morale here hasn't been the best," said one 65-year-old career civil servant who has been at close tothat of the Secretary. "We've had 10 Secretaries since 1961. I've seen this corridor fill up and empty many times. What we need are people who will come in and stay and learn," he said, adding that he favored the new management's "forward-looking ideas."

The Commerce Department often is brushed off as a diminished agency and is referred to as "the old gray lady of 14th Street," employees noted. As a proving ground for change, Commerce would be a "unique challenge," with its personnel scattered in more than 1,600 locations, "more than any other federal agency," according to personnel director John Golden.

If Harman's Tennessee plant was an industrial backwater, "then it might be said that the Commerce Department is a bureaucratic backwater," said Dr. Michael Maccoby, a psychologist and author, who directed the work experiment in the Bolivar plant and now is working on a similar on in Scotland. He is director of the Harvard Project on Technology, Work and Character.

"If there is any approach that is going to work on the bureaucracy, I think this is it," Maccoby said. "It is an attempt to create a new kind of spirit . . . not a matter of imposing schemes on people."

It is too early to tell exactly how these theories will be applied at Commerce, Harman said. But, in keeping with his theory that decision making should flow from the bottom up, Harman will begin by studying employee suggestions.

One unusual approach he has tried at commerce involved a series of group interviews for key department positions.

Each session ostensibly was a three hour seminar to "teach the new kid in town" as much as possible about various divisions of the department. But invited participants included several persons interested in heading a division, as well as experts in the field who were not seeking jobs.

"They became involved in the process and displayed themselves in a much more significant fashion than in an individual interview. And it was a more efficient use of time," Harman said.

According to participant hired for a top post as a result of one seminar, "It was a game situation. A lot of stress, like running a race . . . There was an audience of transition team members, so you knew you were being judged by a whole bunch of people. But I though it was fair, even enjoyable."

Harman's commitment to workprovement programs grew out of a realization that "times have changed since the days when the labor force was made up largely of immigrants, escaping from some form of tyranny," he said "They had come to America to lend themselves to the industrial system as an extension of machines."

The importance of the family in those days made harsh working conditions more acceptable, he said.

"The focus today among working people is not so much on the family as on the character of our lives. It is the nature of the work that is important to people," he said.

Harman cautions that this sort of experiment is risky and not for the meek. The specific direction or consequences of an "honest, open? work-improvement program cannot be forcast, he said.

As Harman told the Senate subcommittee, "If one is frightened rather than heartened and challenged by the possibility of such a transformation, let him not begin."