Fall 2000


Visit GM online at http://www.gm.com

Dr. Coles was featured in the January/February edition of Knowledge Management Review. While the issue is not available online, this is the issue offered as their free trial copy. Request your own copy at http://www.km-review.com

Coles is working with several organizations outside of GM:

Boston University

IBM’s Institute for Knowledge Management

The Performance Group

She is currently reading:

Ishmael , D. Quinn (1995)

Ackoff's Best , R. Ackoff. (1999)

The Many Aspects of Mobile Home Living , M. Clark (2000)

Under Construction: From The First Ball To The Last Ball , N. Bollettieri (1998)

One of her favorite websites:



I met Dr. Wendy Coles where you might expect to meet any world-renowned knowledge-leader, beside a tennis court in Negril, Jamaica. She was having a heated discussion with my husband Karl about his perceived mistakes in GM’s product line and the decline of the American tennis industry. Karl Conner knows tennis. Wendy Coles knows both cars and tennis. When I asked her later that evening if Karl was insulting her employer or her personal job, she smiled, and with more than a hint of irony said, “Both.” Wendy’s personal job is leading the development of GM’s knowledge network and organizational learning initiatives. Could it be that I’d met someone my husband could argue with and I could swap experiences with? Surrounded by beautiful weather and fabulous food, this was going to be a perfect vacation.

Recently I talked with Wendy (Dr. Coles to the rest of you) about her experiences at GM, from her first job there 22 years ago on the manufacturing floor, to her current role as director of Corporate Strategy & Knowledge Development. It proved just as delightful as our first tennis matcheseducational, and a terrific workout. Most astounding to me in our conversations is the notion of scale. She doesn’t have to look at the issues of knowledge sharing and change for a small company, a mid-market organization or even a really big company. Her dilemmas are for the organization that ranks #1 on the Fortune Global 500 List and employs 338,000 people around the world. If you were in her [tennis] shoes, wouldn’t you need a few vacations?

Conner: Let’s begin with some background about the team you lead at GM and your mandate.

Coles: We are part of an internal consulting group at GM. We bring fresh new faces into the company—MBA graduates, some from consulting firms, some out of schools, and some out of other businesses. We give them a two to three year work opportunity to solve messy problems in the company. The intent is that these people will become the future executives of GM.

Within the group, we have identified some core capabilities we think are fundamental to effective organizations and leadership. One of those is learning. So, we expose these people to the principles around organizational learning and how to set up the infrastructure within an organization. In some cases, they actually go on projects where they are contracted like a consultant to a part of the company to address a problem. While they are doing that, they look at a process whereby the organization continues to learn and adapt relative to this new intervention.

Conner: What are some of the messy problems you deal with?

Coles: My current assignment is thinking about a knowledge network for the company. The project offers a multidimensional view of the challenges we face. We aren’t just trying to understand the vibrant interaction between people and what is delivered verbally or through print, but we’re trying to answer, “How do we actually network around the company?” As far as the information technology infrastructure for the organization, that is, of course, translated differently in many places. We must use knowledge internally to continually learn how to improve and make better decisions over time.

I’ve been running this pilot over the summer in partnership with information technology people to understand how to use collaborative space effectively to support learning. There is a tendency to provide people with software on computers and assume the rest will take care of itself. Our pilot demonstrates that you need to think about many factors right away.      

One prerequisite is defining the work that people do collectively, and understanding who the players are. We look at the notions of defining work processes, understanding systems thinking, and asking how work flows. We have to put discipline into the system so that people understand their interdependencies and what they need from one another. This is critical before people can begin to think about learning and sharing together.

In the information and knowledge category, we need to instill discipline into the organization so people stop and think about where there might already be knowledge in the company before they start a task or problem. This is so foreign to most of us. Many of us resist even taking that first simple step of inquiry that allows us to think about what information we need to make available for people as they do their work.

If we are going to use information technology to support people doing their work more effectively, we have to look at all these dimensions and develop a strategy that engages them all. I am going on the speaking circuit within the company to address our next challenge: Where is the cross-functional group within the organization that feels ownership around these multiple dimensions and can take on responsibility of orchestrating the whole, instead of getting caught in functional silosthe IT community thinks about the technology, the training department thinks about training, and it all splits up. 

Conner:  What is the cost if you don’t succeed in orchestrating this effectively?

Coles: Our president’s mantra is to be one company and go fast. He wants to leverage our size, which means a hell of a lot of knowledge, but also to be able to execute quickly. We are a 92 year old company. If we can leverage the history, and the simultaneous activities that are going on, we can be the smartest and most proactive company on earth. But it requires orchestration and an investment to look at the world differently, pull these pieces together, and liberate our people from an old bureaucratic methodology before we’ll really be able to respond more effectively.

Conner: Sounds like learning is not your objective, but rather doing your work.

Coles: Well, I agree. Winning in the marketplace is our focus. Learning, thereby doing the right things more effectively, is a means to that end.

A piece often missed is surveillance. By surveillance, I mean continually monitoring the larger organizational environment (be it within the company or the extended enterprise within the marketplace) and recognizing it is a key component of a learning, adapting system. Unless you have that surveillance to know what’s going on in the larger system, your organization really runs the risk of dying.

Conner:  What else do you think people miss?

Coles: So often people think about learning as transactions: you take courses, you progress through grades in school, you think in terms of incremental steps. In contrast, the people and the companies who really get smart put learning in the framework of becoming. This is a totally different mental construct of the engagement. With becoming, people value and build on the past and understand that it, too, is part of the path to becoming.

Purposefulness is the key. There is that teachable moment, a crisis, or event where insight is required and learning occurs. That is purpose. Making that translation to organizations is the reason to learn: be it to fill a performance gap or to take the organization to the next step of becoming. I don’t know that human beings or organizations can survive without a sense of purpose.

Conner: This clearly links to the point you made earlier about the president of GM and his mandate to be more nimble. Do you have an example where purpose has been at the heart of the actions you and your group have taken that provides focus for learning or the issue of becoming?

Coles: We organize all our learning initiatives around performance gaps. To take one example, the Aztec is a new hybrid vehicle that has just come out. The Vice President of our car group told the program manager (and I’m paraphrasing), “I want not only your program, but I want the whole organization to learn to go fast, based on what you do with your program. I want to learn whether this vehicle can change how we are perceived in the market place. Can this vehicle help us be perceived as a more innovative company?”    

That was a very specific arena to concentrate our learning. How do you design a vehicle faster than before and can we change people’s perception of us as being more innovative. There was enormous interest and rallying of the organization, and the vice president himself, the guy who is in charge of all cars for the company, not only wants to learn what can be done so that all cars and trucks can be designed faster, but he wants us to link it.

There was no resistance in the organization about sharing and learning from one another because it was clearly focused on performance. We also put resources behind it, including a fulltime person who collected the insights, did the analysis, and helped the team feed back to the organization what they were learning.

Conner: That’s a great example of purpose.

Coles: Another project we are working on is called “Order to Delivery.” The business process the company has targeted is to reduce the response time from car order to delivery. A special team is addressing that issue. They’re addressing what happens in the dealership, what happens when people go on-line looking for a new vehicle, the whole interaction with the customer, to how is that request transferred into the company in terms of the product mix, manufacturing scheduling, shipping of the finished goods, and networking back to the dealership, and ultimately to the customer. The special team has clusters looking at innovative best practices that need to occur along the whole order-to-delivery process. They are coming up with best practices that then need to be continually shared so that the larger organization is simultaneously learning, and thereby willing to engage and apply these practices down the road. We have learning support folks dedicated to helping think about the process for engaging the larger organization to learn from these pilots and thereby be able to effect changes in the larger company.

I want to stress that this is the mistake of capturing learnings and wanting to transfer them, rather than realizing that the best way for adults to learn is through their own experiences. How can we create linkages in the organization so that I, as an individual, even if I am not intimately involved in what is occurring, have a linkage and learn simultaneously rather than after the fact. As I am learning simultaneously, I too can shape the questions and what needs to be explored so that I am hooked and become more interested and willing to act upon what is learned.    

Conner:  What are some specific things that you and your group have done to really help that learning process?

Coles: When talking about organizations, many say people don’t want to learn, and ask how to overcome that resistance. First, organizations often load people’s plates way too full for them to be the collectors, analyzers, and synthesizers of insights. Second, it takes a special skill to really develop gems of insights. Learning is not free! It requires resources, time, focus, and a hell of lot more than hoopla statements that crow, “We are becoming a learning organization.” Companies that want to create learning environments often miss that resource allocation and individual’s capabilities are key issues.

Our group provides resources. We have people with strong analytical skills trained in looking at things systematically so that they understand what is occurring and how it relates to the larger system. They are skilled at analyzing systems objectively, understanding why systemic behaviors are occurring, and they capture and share that with the larger organization so change occurs.

Conner: What you are saying is that your organization has found the best way to capture what you have been doing, attack problems, and streamline, analyze, and understand, is to have people whose specific job it is to understand what is happening and to do something with that.

Coles: Yes. I think it’s a new skill-set that people need to look at in organizations.

Conner: You made the comment earlier that a lot of people have so much on their plate they can’t do things differently simply because they don’t have the time to think differently. You are actually taking different actions and creating different roles within your organization, and as a result, different things are occurring.

Coles: As a result, we get into fabulous programs exploring different perspectives of learning. For instance, we’ve been looking at creativity and how, somewhere in this dimension of learning, we need to shift paradigms and see things differently. We’ve been developing interventions that address how to collect intelligence from multiple streams within and outside the company to get a picture of what’s known today. This gets into the whole area of information architecture, and how to display what we do know in a visual sense so a team can hit the ground running when they try to solve messy problems. We’re also looking at what sort of processes we can use to help teams define the problem in different situations, because at least half the challenge is really defining the problem. These are all the different perspectives of learning that we work on.

Conner: Thank you for your perspective on dealing with “messy problems,” and for sharing your innovations with us.

Dr. Wendy Coles is director of Corporate Strategy & Knowledge Development at GM, where she is in charge of developing the company’s knowledge network and organizational learning. She is a frequent presenter on knowledge strategy and an avid athlete. Contact Dr. Coles at wendy.l.coles@gm.com.

Marcia L. Conner is LiNE Zine’s editor in chief and CEO of the Learnativity Alliance. She also speaks at events and works out more than her brain whenever possible. Write to her at marcia@linezine.com.




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