Other Editorials

Death Watch 104

Robert Farago
Wednesday, December 20, 2006


Gary Cowger recently sat down with Wards Automotive. GM's group vice president of global manufacturing and labor relations asserted that his employer's new products are being unfairly overshadowed by news of the company's financial woes. Gary blamed the disconnect on excessive media coverage and speculation. "Theres a lot of noise in the system, and that's because we live in an age of transparency like the world has never seen before. It's almost too much information out there." In that admirable spirit of bridled free speech, Cowger has taken steps to rectify the situation- at least in-house.

In 1999, Cowger installed [at least] one "communicator" in every GM plant and office. Cowger charges his management mouthpiece with explaining GM's hopes, dreams and ambitions. Gary's convinced that his human int network has already delivered big dividends. "I think the open communication with people at all levels helped facilitate our ultimate health-care deal, because everyone was convinced there was a problem and everyone was willing to work to solve it."

At the risk of bringing the noise, note Gary's unintended irony. Deploying a bunch of company stooges- sorry, "communicators" to "convince" the rank and file to swallow a health care deal on behalf of upper management and the UAW doesnt sound like the definition of "open communication" to me. Yes, but- you gotta give Gary credit for holding his nose and jumping into the "new media." His department now conducts regular on-line chats with 40 GM employees from around the world.

In the interest of openness, participants aren't required to reveal their identity- although the fact that Cowger selects the group's members may obviate that advantage. Gary assured Wards that these "what's up with that?" cyber chats create positive communication for all involved. "They will tell you honestly and in volumes what we should be doing," Cowger revealed. "I think it's great for not only cutting through the clutter and getting to the heart of things, but it's a way of building a better GM."

A better GM. If only. In all probability, Gary's electronic forums do nothing more than give a small group of inherently disgruntled employees a chance to blow off a little steam- and raise expectations that won't be fulfilled. Although Wards didn't press him on this (or any other) issue, can Mr. Cowger point to a single important change in GM's process or products that stems from his twisted take on Glasnost?

While I have no doubt that ramming a faux health care concession down employees' throats constitutes a victory of some sort ($3b health care VEBA anyone?), the methodology involved indicates that GM's culture of paranoia, bully-boy tactics, unaccountability and corporate constipation continues unabated.

In fact, nothing significant has changed over at RenCen since we began this chronicle of GM's declining fortunes. Factories are closed. Departing workers have been paid off. Output has declined. New products have been launched. And? At the fundamental level, it's the same old, same old: same leadership, brands, dealers, union contracts, marketing, fire-sales, auto show extravaganzas, etc.

The company talks-up global platform development, but GM still consists of eight brands- and attendant fiefdoms- all fighting for corporate resources. The fact that they're going to do it on an international basis isn't a game changer. Saturn now sells an Opel-derived car alongside a rebadged Pontiac. So?

According to turnaround specialist Gregory Charleston, any business facing declining market share must make radical changes. The Managing Director of Conway MacKenzie & Dunleavy says that companies must cut deep across the board. Big companies like GM with a long history in the business are usually reluctant to bite the bullet when it comes to pruning middle management, but prune they must.

"If you have to do things in a new way, you need new people- or less people- to do it." So how's that particular part of the program going over at GM? "My sense is that there's still a LOT of room there."

Charleston's focus on GM's stultified middle management reflects his belief in the overriding importance of corporate culture. Charleston says GM's entrenched bureaucracy should be pushed out the door, and fresh blood brought in. So where does that leave CEO Rick Wagoner, a man who never worked a day outside GM?

"I'm always leery of corporate executives who grew up within an organization- The question is, can he turn around GM's corporate culture when he's known nothing else? I imagine that's a question that GM's Board of Directors has been grappling with for years."

Or not. Maybe Gary Cowger should recruit a random sampling of blue and white collar workers and put them online with GM's Board of Bystanders. They could discuss Rabid Rick's ability to lead a cultural revolution within GM. Or would that be too much information?