General Motors and Organization Design

I picked up an old copy of Fortune (12/13/04) to read on the plane…among other interesting stuff, it had an article on the reintegration of Saturn–which was once run almost as a separate company–back into General Motors. I was particularly struck by this paragraph:

Another thing buyers will notice about the new models is that the plastic body panels are gone. Saturn used to promote the panels heavily because it had little else to sell, featuring them in commercials that showed them fending off dents from trash cans and bicycles. Some had argued that they were integral to Saturn’s brand identity, but there was no room for them in GM’s complex global product development system.

Now, I don’t know if the plastic body panels are a good idea or not. Such a decision would involve many factors: cost, maintainability, and consumer preference/branding issues, among others. Probably in the scheme of things, it doesn’t matter all that much one way or another. But there’s a broader issue here.

Sooner or later, there will be something that one of the product line groups wants to do that does matter a great deal in the scheme of things–and that will turn out to matter for the overall future of GM, not just for the brand. What if that proposal doesn’t fit “GM’s complex global product development system”?

Were GM a more decentralized company, then the loop between the product change proponent and the ultimate decision-maker would be a shorter one. An individual executive could make the decision on behalf of his business unit, and develop product/process/technology approaches that would later–if they succeeded-turn out to be beneficial to the entire company.

Yes, there are clearly cost benefits in the centralization of manufacturing and product design. And, yes, part of the problem with Saturn in the first place seems to have been that as an individual brand it didn’t have sufficient scale to carry its own infrastructure. And in times of stress, there seems to be a natural human instinct toward centralization.

But when dealing with change, centralization can impose some serious limitations on flexibility and agility…and in today’s world, those can be devastating.

Language, Leadership, and Business

Financial Times (4/12) has an interesting article on the use of language in German business. Apparently, many German executives feel that it is easier to talk about things like “growth and ambition” in English than in German. “Imagine I want to say to some people: ‘Let’s go for it, and let’s do it together,'” says the head of a Munich-based consulting firm. “I can say this in English, and people will listen, but if I say it in German it takes up too many words, and (the phrasing) is impossible.”

A machine-tool CEO also remarks that many German words and phrases have been debased by their use first by the Nazi regime and then by the East German Communist regime. As an example, he uses the word Freundschaft(friendship) which he says under the Communist regime had political implications.

As a result of such considerations, some German executives are holding business discussions in English even when all the participants are native German speakers.

Others say that this is all pretty much nonsense and that a good speaker can get his ideas across equally well in either language.

Is there anything to this theory about the differential effectiveness of the languages? I took 2 years of high school German and more in college, but don’t really feel educated enough in the language to have an opinion. Would love to hear from bilingual German/English speakers on this one.

Discussion Question

The discussion centering around my previous question about “What would you do if you were running General Motors?” was fun and generated a lot of worthwhile thoughts. So let’s try another one.

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Dear Google

Dear Google:

It’s been over a year since you acquired the Blogger product line. I use blogger at Photon Courier (or try to) and it’s becoming increasingly difficult due to very frequent performance problems. Trying to use Blogger Comments at other weblogs is also an often-painful experience.

Presumably, you acquired Blogger based on some theory about how you were going to make money with it. How do you think you are going to do this when you are alienating your customer franchise, or at least the most serious part of it?

Integrating acquisitions is hard, but I would think this one would fall on the relatively “easy” end of the scale. What happens when you try to do a really difficult one? This experience does not fill me with confidence as to your abilities in the acquisition arena….

Savings Deficit or Capital Surplus?

There’s been a lot of discussion about a savings deficit in the United States. But recently, there have been several articles suggesting that the US…indeed, the entire world…now has a surplus of capital, and that this surplus is pulling down rates of return on investment. (In actuality, supply and demand of capital will always be equal, of course: the question is at what price level…in terms of returns on investment…the supply and demand curves will intersect.)

Floyd Norris makes the capital-surplus argument in The New York Times (3/25). As evidence, he makes these subsidiary arguments:

1)There are low rates of return on debt instruments, and long-term rates have proven to be “sticky”
2)Stock prices are high relative to underlying valuations
3)Countries defaulting on debt have been able to get away with it (he specifically mentions Argentina) implying reduced relative power on the part of owners of capital
4)Increasing management compensation levels, which he believes make the same point about relative power (in this case, of managers vs owners of capital)

These seem like good arguments, except for the last, which feels like a stretch. I’d also observe that many corporations are carrying considerable amounts of cash on their balance sheets, which they’d be unlikely to do if they were seeing lots of compelling opportunities for investment.

But on the other hand….

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