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Last Updated: Wednesday, 13 December 2006, 00:24 GMT
Bold moves on the road to ruin?
Peter Day
By Peter Day
Presenter, BBC Radio 4 and BBC World Service

Tom LaSorda, Rick Wagoner, Alan Mulally
The Big Three are worried about the future

A month before the annual motorshow in Detroit and it is no secret that America's Big Three car makers are in terrible trouble.

Indeed, the other week the heads of the Big Three had an hour with President Bush in the White House the other week.

They came out insisting that a Federal bail-out was not what they had been talking about.

The car giants seem to think their problems are caused by the legacy of pensions and health benefits granted to auto workers as part of those ritualised clashes every three years or so; these giant corporations are sometimes described as benefits clubs with a car-making business attached at the end, like a dog's tail.

And they think a stronger Japanese yen might help them fight back, seemingly oblivious of how many Japanese car companies now make their cars for the American market in the US, aligning themselves to what the customer wants.

The Big Three say they've "done" quality - yet they're still trapped in the 1950s GM view that tail fins and vrumph will win back buyers, or in the hope that Henry Ford's 1920s production line will sort it all out.

If not, 0% interest deals will, they say as they pooh-pooh Japanese working practices as un-American.

However, they're actually missing the point, over and over again.

Honesty appeals

But this could be about to change.

Bill Ford Jr. stepped down as chief executive of Ford Motor Company and in his place they appointed a non-Ford man, Alan Mulally from Boeing, a company that has only recently introduced the moving line into aeroplane production, after ignoring it for 80 years.

Brawn is having to give way to brainy solutions

And last summer Mr Ford started a grim, unfolding series of documentary films on the internet.

The website Ford Bold Moves is an unusual sort of advertising, tackling the company's difficulties in what appears to be a super-realistic way, unfolding in weekly episodes that have now reached number 21 and continue.

Few companies admit to mistakes, but here are episodes with titles such as "Change or Die", and "Fist Full of Doubters".

This is corporate advertising taking on a new tone of honesty to appeal to the new web viewers who are supposed to view these little films in the spirit of internet discovery, and pass them on to their friends.

The films have a tight narrative pace, using many of the techniques of investigative documentary making.

"The company could go down," says a journalist in episode one.

"Our pricing is totally irrational," says a corporate spokesman.

The "Director of Corporate DNA" (really!) thinks that "maybe we didn't care for the brand".

There are pictures of shuttered factories and sobs in the throat of the managers laying workers off.

Heavy stuff.

Change or die

If there's a hero, it's Mark Field, president of Ford North America.

Ford's Bold Moves website
Ford's Bold Moves could mark a change in attitude

At an autoshow walkabout, he puts his finger on the problem: "It's very easy in our own little offices to create our own reality about what it means to be competitive."

He ends episode one: "Change or die, baby. That's what it's all about."

I cannot imagine a British company executive uttering such observations in a corporate video.

Here's a man caught up in the drama of filming what he hopes will be a live turnaround to profitability by 2008. Or 2009.

But this is the interactive internet, baby, and reactions seem to be mixed.

Bloggers pile in to comment on the accompanying pros and cons articles about the future of American car making, if there is one.

It's the tactic politicians call for when they have little idea what to do about something: a debate.

These punchy filmlets are worth watching, though there's plenty of company propaganda as well.

But they certainly give the appearance of some kind of frankness. Of indeed a Bold Move.

The idea seems to make Ford into a heroic recovery story, shown in the launch of the new car called, oddly, the Edge.

At one stage Mark Field tells his internet viewers: "The American people love an underdog. That's us."

A company so bravely self-aware of its own drama is probably forgetting that the way, the only way, to return to profitability, is to make cars that Americans want to buy.

Bold Move?

Work in Progress is the title of this exploration of the big trends reshaping the world of work as we steam further into the 21st century; and it is a work in progress, influenced and defined by my encounters as I report on trends in business and organisations all over the world.


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