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Transcript: Ed Schein talks to Karl Moore

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KARL MOORE: This is Karl Moore of the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University, talking management for The Globe and Mail. Today I am delighted to speak to Ed Schein who is a senior professor at MIT and has written about change for many, many years now. Good morning Ed.

ED SCHEIN: Good morning.

KM: One of the things that you are best known for is your understanding of writing, research and corporate culture. What have you come to about corporate culture these days? What are you thinking about it?

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ES: What are my thoughts about corporate culture? I have just finished revising one of my two books on that subject and I am in the middle of revising the other. The biggest learning that I have had that is forcing me to change the focus is that occupations have cultures, nations have cultures, ethnic groups have cultures and with globalization it is not just going to be about organizational culture.

For example, in many organizations, the dilemma between engineering, finance and marketing is much greater than the problem of their overall corporate culture. In medicine, for example, the conflict between the nursing culture and the doctor culture and the administrator culture is much more of an issue than what is the corporate culture of the whole hospital system.

So, in rewriting I am pushing toward these subculture issues as being the real problem. Then, when you take that into the international scene, you not only have occupational subcultures, but you have the national cultures; you have the doctor from India and the nurse from some other country in a hospital run in the U.S. and all of this has to somehow come together.

I have begun to think about this notion of cultural islands. Where can you actually get multicultural units into a talking relationship with each other so that they can begin to explore their common ground? It is not going to happen in the daily work scene. I think that we have to create cultural islands to allow that kind of communication to occur.

KM: So for a general manager, they need to become bicultural, tri-cultural and really understand the world of the marketing people, the finance people.

ES: They do not have to actually understand those cultures; what they have to be able to do is create settings where those cultures will understand each other enough to get aligned. You are never going to integrate all of these cultures but you have got to get them aligned and get them working toward the same purpose. So the good general manager understands this and creates forums, such as taking everybody to Japan, to allow the communication to occur.

KM: How often should an organization change its culture?

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ES: It should not change its culture at all. It should work out its business problems.

KM: That would lead to a corporate culture change.

ES: Well, usually the culture is what the corporation has learned that has made it successful. So the culture is mostly your strength; so you only want to change it when you have a business problem and the culture is what is in the way. Most of the time, even with [New York's]Consolidated Edison, they are calling all of this culture change, but most of the culture of Con Edison is intact, as evidenced by their ability, for example, to train 10,000 people in a few months on what is a hazard. That sort of training-oriented, top down, is the essence of their culture and without that they would be a much worse organization. The idea of culture change for its own sake is nonsense.

KM: This has been Karl Moore of the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University, talking management for The Globe and Mail. Today I have been speaking with Ed Schein, a senior professor at MIT.

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