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strategy and business
 / Winter 2005 / Issue 41(originally published by Booz & Company)


Recent Research

To determine the role played by e-mail in organizational conflict, Lindred L. Greer, a Ph.D. student at Leiden University in the Netherlands, and Karen A. Jehn, a professor in the management department of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, examined the use of e-mail by political activists over three years. The groups studied included an international women’s organization, an environmental organization, and a community improvement organization. More than 7,500 e-mails from 165 individuals were analyzed and rated.

The most salient finding from the research is the importance of a good verbal style — characterized by clear language, correct spelling, and the absence of “non-fluencies” (such as “you know” and “like”), qualifiers (“maybe,” “perhaps,” and so on), and indefiniteness (“somewhere,” “stuff,” etc.). Verbally adept e-mails are less likely to produce relationship conflict, the authors found, and more likely to resolve task-related conflict. Verbal mastery gives credence to arguments, suggests attention and consideration, and encourages respect from other group members.

“Soft influence tactics,” such as flattery and ingratiation, and “rational influence tactics,” such as using logic and sharing information, also lessened the likelihood of relationship conflict. Flattery, even by e-mail, is a “useful conflict management tool,” say the authors. Conversely, hard tactics — abruptness and direct orders — are likely to increase conflict.

Direct and immediate, e-mail amplifies both communication and the opportunities for conflict: Communicate with care.

Toyota vs. GM: Game Over?
Steven J. Spear ([email protected]), “Why General Motors Lost and Toyota Won,” Harvard Business School Working Paper Series no. 05-080. (No URL. Paper available only from author.)

It used to be said that: “As goes General Motors, so goes America.” But that is no longer true. For years, GM, the former heavyweight champion of the automotive industry and U.S. economic bellwether, has been losing ground to the ultimate lean, mean car-making machine, Toyota. Watching these two giants face off has kept observers on the edge of their electrically operated seats for more than two decades. But the game is now over, declares Steven J. Spear, assistant professor at Harvard Business School’s Technology and Operations Management Unit. Toyota has won.

To back up this point of view, Professor Spear contrasts the recent performance of the two companies.

By April 2005, because of declining sales revenues and rising pension costs, GM’s credit rating was downgraded to junk. Moreover, its share of the U.S. car market had slumped from 30 percent in 1995 to just 26.7 percent. In June 2005, desperate to shed inventory, GM launched its “Employee Discounts for Everyone” offer, in which it offered all consumers the same deals on its cars that it offers GM employees. That temporarily lifted the automaker’s market share to 33 percent, but at a cost to the company of $450 on every vehicle sold.

Meanwhile, Toyota has overtaken Ford as the world’s second-largest automotive producer, and DaimlerChrysler as the third-largest in North America. Toyota’s profits now exceed those of all its major competitors combined. (GM lost $1.1 billion in the first quarter of 2005 alone.) And although supply would outstrip demand in the U.S. car market by as much as 20 percent if all automakers were operating at full capacity, Toyota is unable to keep up with increasing demand for its cars.

So why did Toyota win — and what can other companies learn from GM’s failure? The glib answer is to point to the Toyota production system (TPS) and the company’s famously lean manufacturing process. But, according to Professor Spear, there is much more to it. The Japanese company’s success, he says, is based on “coupling the process of doing work and the process of learning to do work better.”

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