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Three Cultures of Management: The Key to Organizational Learning

Why do so many organizations fail to learn? According to Schein, organizational learning failures may be caused, not by resistance to change, human nature, or poor leadership, but by the lack of communication among three “cultures.” The culture of operators evolves locally in an organization or unit and is based on human interaction. Operators may use their learning ability to thwart management’s efforts to improve productivity. The engineering culture represents the design elements of the technology underlying the organization and how the technology is to be used. Engineers, whose reference group is outside the organization, share common educational, work, and job experiences. They are preoccupied with designing humans out of systems rather than into them. The executive culture revolves around maintaining an organization’s financial health and deals with boards, investors, and capital markets. As executives, whose reference group is also outside the organization, are promoted, they become more impersonal, seeing people more as a cost than as a capital investment. When organizations attempt to redesign or reinvent themselves, says Schein, the cultures collide and failure occurs. Executives and engineers are task focused and assume that people are the problem. Executives band together and depersonalize their employees. Executives and engineers can’t agree on how to make organizations work better while keeping costs down. Enough mutual understanding must be created among the cultures to evolve solutions that all groups can commit to. First, says the author, we must recognize the concept of culture. Next we must acknowledge that engineers or executives alone cannot solve problems, but must work together. Third, we must conduct cross-cultural dialogues. Each culture must learn how to learn and to analyze its own culture.

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