Johns Hopkins Gazette: February 27, 1995

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
     "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
     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
     "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.

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