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Transcript: How to invigorate your company with an outsider's view


Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

KARL MOORE – This is Karl Moore of the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University with Talking Management for The Globe and Mail. Today I am speaking to Mary Yoko Brannen who is the new Jarislowsky Chair of the University of Victoria.

Welcome to Canada, Mary Yoko.

MARY YOKO BRANNEN – Good afternoon, Karl.

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KARL MOORE– Mary Yoko, you have been doing some very interesting work with Tesco, one of the largest supermarkets in the U.K. and indeed in the world. What are some of the key takeaways you have gotten from working with Tesco?

MARY YOKO BRANNEN  – Yes, I have been working with Tesco over the last six months and what they have asked me to do is, in the wake of the change of CEO from Terry Leahy to Philip Clarke, one of the things that Philip Clarke is leading is a re-invigoration of Tesco's core in the U.K.

Primarily because when he took the helm, for the first time in Tesco's history – save for the last 20 years – Tesco's profit in the U.K. had fallen by about 0.5 per cent, which was significant because it was the market leader in the U.K. and the third most successful retail food store in the world. On the other hand, profit-wise worldwide it had gone up 30 per cent and this was led by its Asian subsidiaries. So, this novel project was to train nine of his Asian managers in its six Asian subsidiaries, to become insider ethnographers of Tesco U.K.

KARL MOORE – Two questions: What is an insider ethnographer? And secondly, what did he try to accomplish by bringing these people from Asia and having them spend three months in the UK?

MARY YOKO BRANNEN – An insider ethnographer is a novel thing: It is not normally done. Normally, ethnographers are anthropologists who go out to foreign countries that maybe we have never heard of to try and understand the cultures of these tribal communities. But it is a research technique that is being used more and more in organizations to study organizations as culture or the culture of organizations.

He wanted to use insider ethnographers for three reasons basically. One, it is very difficult to see what is going on in your own context or understand your culture from within your own culture. For example, a fish doesn't understand that it needs water until it is taken out of water – people don't understand their context while they are in it. So therefore, to have people that understand Tesco, managers who have worked at Tesco for a least five years to come to the U.K. understanding Tesco's organizational culture but not understanding Tesco's U.K. context, they may be able to see things that the people in Tesco U.K. themselves take for granted.

A second point for using insider ethnographers is that by using insider ethnographers that come from the periphery or subsidiaries of Tesco in Asia – the market where they are doing very well – they are able to compare and contrast the operations of Tesco in Asia with the operations of Tesco in the U.K. and therefore they are able to see what aspects of Tesco might need some continuous improvement. They might be able to bring some novel ideas and novel practices, and help re-invigorate the things that Tesco is well known for.

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The third aspect of this is that by doing this, Tesco is able to meld its organizational identity because these managers now from six different Asian countries will understand how Tesco is in the U.K. and thereby Tesco can retain a sense of it's own unique identity and meld it throughout its global footprint.

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