March 19, 1996

Gm Expected to Name Chief Learning Officer


DETROIT -- Seeking to better harness the knowledge of its employees worldwide, the General Motors Corp. will likely appoint a senior-level chief learning officer to coordinate the spread of information around the company's vast holdings, a executive said in a speech late Sunday.

Harry J. Pearce, vice chairman and an executive vice president of the giant automaker, also said that General Motors might add a foreign-born director to its board in an attempt to gain perspective on world markets. "We have been looking worldwide for appropriate candidates for the past year," Pearce said at a meeting of the America-Israel Chamber of Commerce of Michigan in Troy.

In creating the new executive learning position, GM joins several American companies, including General Electric and US West, that have recently added similar positions. Pearce said that GM would seek advice from those companies in the next few months.

Marvin B. Lieberman, a professor of business strategy at UCLA's John E. Anderson Graduate School of Management, praised the move. "That would be a major departure for GM and I think one in the right direction," Lieberman said. "GM has certainly been faulted in the past for being a very slow learner."

In recent years, GM has tried new manufacturing and retailing techniques with its Saturn small car division, and other divisions have adopted some of Saturn's successful efforts, Lieberman said.

Pearce said that because the automobile market in the United States was mature, General Motors would increasingly focus on foreign markets. "Globalizing" its operations, he said, offers GM the most significant potential for growth and the best opportunity for returns to shareholders. Indeed, he said that if GM failed in those efforts, "We will have put our whole company at risk, including, I might add, those high-paying U.S. manufacturing jobs."

To better compete, he said, General Motors has to take three important steps. First, it must more frequently transfer its United States-based executives abroad and vice versa. Second, it must begin a "GM University" training program to teach far-flung employees new skills, sometimes reaching them via direct broadcast TV. And third, it has to better select the information it distributes to managers worldwide.

Management consultants have been suggesting that companies better manage information to compete in today's global markets, and some believe that General Motors can now take such steps because it has regained financial health. David E. Cole, director of the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of the Automobile, said the company's turnaround had allowed it to focus on the future rather than on "stopping the bleeding arteries."

But he warned that it takes time for such changes to take hold in any large organization.

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