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Study finds that major French company suffered from amnesia when it came to foreigners' key contributions to its success

June 1, 2012

In more than a half century as a major world player in the manufacture of airplane engines, the French company Snecma has experienced extended periods of foreign involvement -- most notably in its heavy reliance on German engineers in the decades after the firm's founding in 1945 by order of General Charles de Gaulle and in its subsequent prolonged partnership with General Electric in building a family of hugely successful and profitable civilian aircraft engines.

According to a study in the June issue of The Academy of Management Journal, these partnerships were "essential to [Snecma's] survival." But in some 5,600 pages of company news published in the internal bulletins of this government-owned firm over a half century, the critical role of the foreigners is scarcely mentioned.

"Nationalism is a dominant theme not just in the immediate post-war years when France was struggling to get back on its feet but right up to the 21st century, even as the country plays a central role in the creation of a unified Europe," comments Michel Anteby of Harvard University who carried out the study with Virag Molnar of the New School for Social Research. Seen in the context of the current strains in the Eurozone and European Union, the picture that emerges in the study is sobering, Prof. Anteby believes.

Thus, between 1953 and 1970, years when, in the words of the AMJ paper, "German engineers almost single-handedly positioned Snecma as a crucial supplier to the French Air Force," on only four occasions did company bulletins explicitly cite the contribution of German engineers, either as a group or as individuals. The space allotted specifically to the German engineers amounted to less than two and a half pages in total over the course of 18 years even though in 16 of those years company bulletins devoted an average of about 6 pages yearly (97 pages in total) to German-related activities (for example, the highly regarded ATAR military-airplane engine), while omitting any mention of the Germans themselves.

"During a period in which European unification was a major theme of French foreign policy, it would hardly have been surprising for this state-owned company to flaunt the cooperation of French and German engineers in this world-class, high-tech company," comments Prof. Anteby. "Instead, as far as the company's internal bulletins are concerned, the Germans were a big secret."

Much the same has been true of General Electric, which began to collaborate with Snecma on the production of civilian engines in 1969. "By the early 1970s the collaboration produced the first of a successful line of civilian engines, the CFM56," the study notes, adding that "overall, Snecma controlled only 27 percent of the total value of the engine; GE controlled most of the remaining value." So successful was the collaboration that "by 2006, civilian engines represented 78 percent of Snecma revenues. One rare public indicator of Snecma's dependence on GE-related activities is the fact that, by Snecma's own estimates, 34 percent of its revenues in 2004 flowed from GE-related collaborations."

Still, GE's contributions were rarely explicitly recognized in the company's internal bulletins. Over the 30-year period, 1970 through 1999, some 300 pages were devoted to GE-related activities, but only about 18 specifically mentioned GE or its people. This pattern reflected not only the perspective of the company's leadership but that of 70 retirees who were interviewed as part of the research for the new study. The overwhelming majority "tended to focus on activities and developments occurring in France, with few mentions of U.S.-based activities. The use of wording suggesting that Snecma (alone) built or sold engines was the norm. In all but four interviews, interviewees stated with no reference to GE that Snecma manufactured the CFM56 engine."

Comments Prof. Anteby: "For the suppression of foreign contributions to go on so long, nationalism has to be deeply ingrained in the culture of the company. What makes this phenomenon particularly surprising is that these are high-tech professionals in a state-owned company during decades when Europe's evolution toward unity was a major world development."

Adds Prof. Molnar: "It would be interesting to read the house bulletins of companies in Silicon Valley, firms that are such a great source of American pride. Would Indian and Chinese names be notable for their absence? Given the outspokenness of corporate high-tech leaders in the U.S. on behalf of liberalized immigration, one would tend to doubt it."

Prof. Anteby, who was born and raised in France, concedes that he was initially disturbed by Snecma's apparent determination to suppress aspects of its success that weren't specifically French, but that reflection led him and Prof. Molnar toward a view that was more sympathetic. In the words of the study, "What General de Gaulle did not mention in 1945 was that France at the time lacked the expertise to build the plane engines that is military wanted...Thus, the presence of the German engineers at Snecma underlined the French aeronautics industry's limitations. The fact that these hires were former enemies exacerbated the uneasiness about the collaboration."

While this last problem did not exist with GE, here too "collaboration proved partly contradictory with Snecma's national identity." In 1973, the company's labor council, an elected employee body, protested that "an unequal cooperation with GE in which Snecma played second fiddle directly challenged Snecma's national identity," a complaint echoing an earlier council warning of a "nefarious agreement" with the United States that rendered most French aeronautics firms "more or less under the control of the American corporations."

In the end, the study's authors withhold judgment on the propriety of Snecma's suppressing foreigners' key role in the company's long-term success, simply noting that "societies and ethnic groups are often prone to forgetting events that represent a threat to their identity...An unanswered question is how much forgetting might be too much."

Snecma (an acronym for Societe Nationale d'Etudes et de Construction de Moteurs d'Aviation) was merged in 2005, in a deal engineered by then-finance minister Nicholas Sarkozy, with the French telecommunications company Sagem to form the state-controlled company Safran. From 1953 to 1999 Snecma produced 347 company-wide bulletins, written by a succession of a dozen editors and approved by the company's top management. All 309 bulletins conserved in a state aeronautics museum (Musee de l'Air and de l'Espace) were analyzed for the new study.

The paper, entitled "Collective Memory Meets Organizational Identity: Remembering to Forget in a Firm's Rhetorical History," is in the June/July issue of the The Academy of Management Journal. This peer-reviewed publication is published every other month by the Academy, which, with more than 18,000 members in 103 countries, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. The Academy's other publications are the Academy of Management Review, Academy of Management Perspectives, and Academy of Management Learning and Education.

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