Diversity, Discipline Mindsets, and Corporate Culture

In People Development

To develop induction resources for technical staff, I’ve been revisiting Schein’s 1996 Organizational Learning: What is New?

What’s been particularly relevant is his balancing of whole-of-organisational-culture proponents against the established cultures of technical disciplines.  He frames this balance from organisations as complex systems:

I am especially struck by the glibness of those who call for the creation of “learning cultures” or “cultures of openness and trust,” as if culture could be ordered up like an item on a restaurant menu.”

Schein highlights this complexity via the questions: “Why do sub-system transformations rarely diffuse to the main system? Why does culture change in one part of the organization not diffuse to other parts of the organization’s culture?”

“In every organization there will be one or more groups whose job is to design the various processes by which the organization delivers its products and services, and by which it maintains itself. Thus we have engineers or designers of production processes, sales processes, financial processes, and so on. The members of these groups have received their education outside the organization and they identify themselves on a global basis with their professional reference groups to a greater extent than with their colleagues inside the organization.

If we examine the essence of their culture we observe that its primary assumption is that technical elegance and simplicity of solutions is a primary value and that solutions must be efficient and error free. Since human are the most common source of errors, the best solutions should be free of humans altogether. I remember vividly the two engineers sitting in front of me on a flight to Seattle pointing out to each other as we were landing how redundant and expensive the cockpit crew was since the plane could be landed perfectly well by computer.

What I have observed in a number of organizations is that when the operators begin to tout more teamwork training and more support for teamwork, the “engineers” propose instead to develop technical solutions for the problems that the operator team is trying to address. We find then two sub-cultures that are not aligned and that, in fact, speak different languages, have different values, and are oriented toward totally different goals. Furthermore, we find that the ODC and LO oriented change agents tend to side with the operators and label the engineers as not being humanistic enough, forgetting that it is the engineering community that is, in a larger sense, the engine of major innovation in most industries.

Instead of figuring out how to increase mutual understanding between engineers and operators through creating real dialogues between them, we all too often call for the “humanization” of a community whose core assumptions state that humans are the source of error, noise, and messiness in operations.”

More recently, Schein makes an eloquent case for honouring diversity, and for becoming culturally literate.  He approaches this literacy through macro and micro occupational and broader cultures.