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How GM and Ford Unleash Social Capital to Drive Automotive Innovation

Self-driving cars. Electric vehicles. Ride-sharing apps. 

These and other recent innovations in the automotive industry are often associated with brash upstarts such as Uber and Tesla. But iconic brands General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. are taking new approaches—centered around connecting employees and sharing knowledge (i.e., social capital)—to strengthen and unleash the creative power across their ecosystems to spur the innovations that will keep them at the forefront as the auto industry continues to evolve.  

The bold steps GM and Ford are taking exemplify some of the six essential elements that distinguish agile organizations underscored in the recent i4cp study, The Three A’s of Organizational Agility (and represents the crowdsourcing component of i4cp's Talent Ecosystem Integration Model). One of those essential elements is purposeful collaboration, which can be defined in part by the priority the organization places on:

  • Ensuring collaborative efforts are tied to customer or business needs.
  • Helping people across the organization to build strong personal networks that help to break down information and knowledge silos as well as establish or strengthen interdependencies. 

Focused on the future

To be the type of organization that causes disruption in the marketplace, a company must first disrupt itself. In other words, leaders must be willing to rethink current ways of working, and continuously look forward in order to keep innovating and staying ahead of the pack.

Take General Motors’ GM 2020 program, for example.

The grassroots initiative was launched in 2014 on the heels of a conversation between GM Chief Talent Officer Michael Arena and the organization’s futurist, which focused on what would be most critical to the workplace and to GM employees in the year 2020.

At the heart of GM 2020—in which more than 4,000 employees have now participated—are Co-Labs. Open to all GM employees, these 24-hour, interactive workshops—part hackathon and part sales pitch—begin with an employee suggesting a topic or specific challenge, then focusing on improving everything from IT and procurement processes to onboarding activities and car interior design. Groups of roughly 30 employees work to build a prototype, for instance, and company leadership is always on hand to endorse the concept and ensure the development process stays on track.  

2020 members share the progress they’re making on various projects at quarterly sit-downs with senior GM executives, but the culmination of the program’s efforts comes at the annual GM 2020 summit.  

The two-day challenge event is empowering, Arena says. “It’s two days [of] high interaction, and what we’re really trying to do every year is reenergize a community that’s over 4,000 employees now; reenergize a community [of employees] to feel like they’re empowered to change the company from what it is today.” 

Conceived as a celebration of the GM employees taking part in 2020, the summit is also a way to encourage others to join the effort, and to instill the type of agile mindset that will help the organization discover its next great innovation.  

“It’s really about convincing them that you too can go do something radically different,” says Arena. “All you have to do is step in and make that happen.” 

Think critically. Be curious

Ford Motor Co. CEO Jim Hackett is no stranger to trying something radically different.  

When he stepped into the chief executive role in 2017, he brought some bold new ideas to keep Ford moving forward. Just this January, for instance, Hackett announced Ford’s partnership with cloud-based platform provider Autonomic to deliver an information sharing system, known as the Transportation Mobility Cloud, designed to enable communication between vehicles, bicycles, and mass transit.  

Internally, Hackett has introduced initiatives that he hopes will make the organization lighter on its feet, quicker to make decisions, and encourage new, innovative ways of thinking. He is also challenging the workforce to “think critically and be curious,” a mantra that Hackett is well-known for using within Ford.  

Consider “Curious Minds,” a weekly series conceived by Hackett as a way to cultivate a culture of curiosity while creating collective experiences, new dialogue, cross-functional collaborations, and learning within Ford. The company uses this initiative to give employees license to explore a range of topics that go beyond the automotive industry.  

As part of this program, Ford brings in internal and external authorities to engage with employees through a variety of platforms—panels, fireside chats, video recordings and presentations, for instance.  

Each session is recorded and posted to a Curious Minds web page, created to enable continued dialogue in which employees across the globe can comment, contribute, and shape conversations and future sessions. Topics have covered a broad spectrum, ranging from “Bored and Brilliant” and “Cancer Treatment and Car Making” to “Understanding Solar Eclipse” and “Life on Purpose.” 

By inviting in subject matter experts from outside the company, Curious Minds provides an important avenue for fresh perspectives, Felicia Fields told i4cp last fall—shortly before retiring as group VP of HR at Ford.  

“Jim likes using proxies,” she said of Hackett, “[in the form of] other organizations that do things very well, which can open up your constraints about how to approach problem solving and how to apply it back to your industry.” 

Moreover, Curious Minds is indicative of Ford’s dedication to creating a culture in which employees feel at ease going out on a limb to solve a problem or approach a given task, Fields said.  

“Trying, failing, and prototyping—and trying things that work as much as they don’t—is a new muscle and is incredibly important in this disruptive world. I would say that getting people to think more creatively and being more comfortable with risk taking so that innovation can flourish, and that we can practice and fail and feel good about it is a huge shift that we’re seeing, and it will be required going forward.”

Mark McGraw is a research analyst at i4cp.