Schoenberger Looks at Fall of U.S. Business GIants By Ken Keatley They were the titans of corporate America, in many cases having created the very industries they dominated for decades. So why then, after surviving wars and depressions and competitive challenges, did General Motors, Ford, Xerox, US Steel, Pan Am and countless other industrial giants take sharp nosedives in profits and market share during the 1970s and early '80s? "All of them had once really led the world," said Erica Schoenberger, a professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering. "And they all kind of in the same moment walked right off the edge." Dr. Schoenberger, as an economic geographer, examines the ways in which firms and industrial complexes stay competitive--or don't stay competitive--in an often difficult and dynamic economic environment. "I do it because the basic processes of industrial change and territorial change really have a tremendous amount to do with how we're able to live, and under what conditions," she explained. "I've kind of lasered in on this process as being key to understanding a lot of other social and political issues." Dr. Schoenberger will provide an overview of her research findings during her Inaugural Professorial Lecture, to be held Tuesday, Feb. 28, at 3 p.m., in Arellano Theater. The title of her lecture is "Corporate Transformations: Culture, Strategy and Competitiveness." The relationship between corporate culture and strategy has long intrigued Dr. Schoenberger, whose specialty is analysis of high-technology industries in the United States and western Europe. She is currently writing a book on the topic, "The Cultural Crisis of the Firm: Strategy and Competitiveness in the Modern Corporation," that will be published by Basil Blackwell of Oxford, England. "An argument the book will make is that we need to rethink the connection between culture and strategy," she said. "We need to understand something about corporate culture in order to understand where strategies come from in the first place." Although her book is theoretical, she uses specific examples to illustrate her conclusions. Her insights come from lengthy interviews with managers at the highest reaches of corporations, by which she has attempted to understand the thinking behind corporate decision making. "If you ask, in general, why American firms missed the point about Japanese competition in the 1970s, one answer is that the Japanese are inscrutable, they're hard to read," Dr. Schoenberger said. "But I don't think the Japanese are necessarily so hard to read. I think they weren't on the reading list. If you're not paying attention to them, of course they're hard to understand." But, Dr. Schoenberger warns, the issues can't be oversimplified. Saying that American managers were arrogant, fat and happy, and culturally resistant to change is not the whole story. "Maybe it will turn out the answer is arrogance with a long footnote," she said. "Part of the book is trying to understand something about the identities and commitments of the people in power, to talk through the issue of who they were and how they saw themselves in the world." Dr. Schoenberger's is the third and final Inaugural Professorial Lecture of the 1994-95 academic year. The lecture series, instituted in 1993 by Dean Don Giddens, features newly tenured faculty members in the School of Engineering. Previous lecturers this year were Joseph Katz, professor of mechanical engineering, and Hugh Ellis, professor of geography and environmental engineering.
Go to Gazette Homepage