Feds to attempt culture change at GM

It’s grim when the federal government is taking on culture change:

But it will be up to the federal government, which will own a majority of General Motors when it emerges from bankruptcy, to tackle what is perhaps the most difficult challenge in Detroit: transforming G.M.’s insular culture — at times as bureaucratic as the government’s — to make the company more competitive.

If the effort fails, the Treasury may never recoup the $50 billion it has provided G.M.

“Addressing cultural issues is just as fundamental to our assignment as addressing the balance sheet or financing,” said Steven Rattner, the lead adviser to the White House on the automobile industry.

Good messages.  Alas, in my experience consulting to federal agencies and teaching government employees, the will is there but the means are weak.  Culture change in the federal government has a checkered past–Reinventing Government being just one example, and Homeland Security being another–not least because the government works pretty much as designed:  it is a bureaucracy with checks and balances to ensure fairness, often at the expense of efficiency.  Put another way, a certain amount of deliberative process and, dare I say, sluggishness is designed into it.

Of course, the Times article is discussing the culture change the federal government intends to do to GM rather than for itself.  What happens when one bureaucracy attempts to regulate another?  Unintended consequences.  Lots of them.

Just to review:  culture comprises the values and norms of an organization.  It can be thought of as the “way things work around here”.  It is beliefs and it is behaviors.  Furthermore, despite assertions to the contrary, culture is not vague, soft, mushy, or nebulous.  It is concrete and tangible.  It is also largely beneath the surface, which requires a skilled mind to analyze and a very deliberate, thoughtful approach to change.  Behaviors become ingrained for a reason.

There’s a massive body of literature out there on culture change, and I hope the Feds and GM will take advantage of the many great minds who think, write, research, and teach about this stuff.  I’m just not optimistic.

[Note:  image above from eBACS.  As with all models, caveat emptor.]

One response to “Feds to attempt culture change at GM

  1. Pingback: Week in Public Organizations, 15Jun2009 « PublicOrgTheory

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