The third corporate culture, the engineering culture, is personified by engineers and technical specialists, particularly in information technology and process engineering. They are stimulated by puzzles and problems, and by the design challenge of creating an ideal world of elegant machines that operate in harmony. The only thing they’re impatient with is the other people. This culture, as Professor Schein puts it, is preoccupied with “designing humans out of the systems rather than into them.”
For instance, the engineers of the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit trains designed a fully automated system, only grudgingly adding those downright unnecessary human conductors, just to reassure people and make them feel safe. The former Digital Equipment Corporation CEO Ken Olsen was a classic example of the engineering culture, passionate about machine design but unable to grasp the implications of a sales-to-employee ratio that was way out of line with everyone else in the industry.
People immersed in any one of these three corporate cultures have a hard time seeing that others have a different view of reality. Thus, operators who see people as potentially valuable team members, executives who see them as expendable resources, and engineers who see them as troublesome nuisances may bristle when confronted by someone from a different professional culture. They don’t understand why their cross-cultural counterparts are being so difficult.
It was just such a conflict that led Edgar Schein to recognize the three corporate cultures in the first place. A fellow MIT professor, John Carroll, had studied efforts to install more effective anti-disaster systems at nuclear power plants. The operations managers demanded training; they “knew” that only good team skills could keep the plant running. Engineers preferred to redesign the controls, “so we need fewer operators. After all, most error is human error.” And the executives of the power companies ignored the operators and blocked the engineers: “If we let the engineers design what they really want, they’ll bankrupt us,” they declared.
As Professor Schein listened to this story of frustration, the theory emerged. He gave a couple of talks on it, and published a brief article about it in the Sloan Management Review in 1996, but paid little attention to the theory after that. It cannot be found in Professor Schein’s books — not even in his recent guide to in-house culture diagnosis, The Corporate Culture Survival Guide (Jossey-Bass, 1999). Nor is it mentioned in Reflections, the MIT Press journal he edits.
Despite this, the three-cultures theory has taken on a kind of cult status among learning organization and organizational change professionals, if only because it lingers in the mind — and because most OD people don’t know quite what to make of it.
When I asked Professor Schein why he has not published anything more recent about the theory, he said he hasn’t had time. But I suspect that something else is going on. The three-cultures theory calls into question many of the practices that OD people take for granted, particularly in their most cherished work, up-close coaching with CEOs and other executive leaders. Edgar Schein has devoted his life to showing people how to “do no harm” in organizational consulting; he would naturally be reluctant to lob a bomb, even a small one, into the heart of his own profession.
For if this theory took hold, then OD people (and internal organizational consultants of all stripes) would finally stop advising finance-oriented executives to be more humanistic and compassionate. “All this humanism is potentially making them less effective at being a CEO,” Professor Schein said in a recent interview. A really good OD consultant at GM, for instance, might have tried to help Robert Stempel navigate that transition to CEO better, coaching him to become more sophisticated about high-level finance and more attuned to the signals he was sending large investors. Very few OD people could accomplish this, so they’d have to cede the role to a different kind of coach. Similarly, if this theory is correct, then they could no longer (in good conscience) put engineers through team-building or out-of-the-box creativity sessions; instead, they would try to help engineers be better engineers.