GM’s collaborative history project

Posted on February 6, 2008 2:07 pm by | Business | Social Media | Wikis

There is no limit to the uses to which companies can put social media, but companies have to be willing to experiment in order to discover those uses. A lot of companies are reluctant, for one reason or another, to undertake such experimentation. (See my post on why companies resist social media for elaboration.) General Motors is not one of them.

imageTomorrow, GM will go public with a wiki that has been available to employees for a while—the “Generations of GM Wiki.” (The link won’t work until February 7.) The wiki—part of the overall GMnext initiative—is a collaborative effort aimed at compiling the 100-year-old company’s history through contributions of people who have worked for and with GM, past and present—including customers.

Company histories are nothing new. I have a few coffee table books that present a glossy overview of the organization’s past. One is from Phillips Petroleum, produced by Joe Williams. My friend John Gerstner was enticed to stay with his sole employer, John Deere, rather than retire in order to produce a similar book called “Genuine Value for the venerable heavy-equipment manufacturer. Both books are stellar examples of company histories.

Oral histories also are nothing new. One of my favorites is the visual history from the Shoah Foundation, documenting the Holocaust from the viewpoint of survivors. Over 52,000 testimonies are archived there.

Both coffee table books and oral histories, though, are carefully controlled efforts. The books produced by the company highlight just what the company wants to highlight. And the contributions to oral histories are edited and the segments selected to ensure relevance; a lot of footage (or audio) winds up on the cutting room floor.

GM’s history wiki, though, is in the hands of people who contribute to it. That’s why a comprehensive entry is available on GM’s development of a futuristic car for the 1993 Sly Stallone movie, “Demolition Man.” (That’s the flick where Taco Bell is the only fast food joint remaining on the planet.) In a book limited by page count, such a recollection would probably rate a footnote, if anything at all. And an oral history might also reduce the reference because, well, it just doesn’t contribute to the overall understanding of a company’s past.

Shel Holtz

But that’s not what GM is interested in. The “Generations of GM Wiki” seeks to capture anything that contributes to the creation of a comprhensive view of GM and what the company has meant to any of its constituents. As the “about” page notes,

You are encouraged to contribute your personal stories, recollections, anecdotes, factual information, photos and videos to augment the official timeline and provide a uniquely personal history as told through the eyes of employees, retirees, associates and the generations of families who shaped or experienced GM???s history firsthand. Personal stories posted to the Wiki will not be edited in any way but will be screened to assure they follow the “Rules of the Road.”

There’s nothing onerous or unreasonable in the “Rules of the Road,” just the usual warnings against personal attacks and the like. The rules also make it clear that the wiki is not a discussion forum, but seeks instead “historical account(s) based on fact.”

It’s a pretty gutsy move, but one that is entirely consistent with the rest of the GMnext campaign, which builds on the social media street cred GM has built with its Fastlane and FYI blogs.

Incidentally, you can hear two of the people behind GMnext—Christopher Barger and Scot Keller—discuss the initiative with Neville and me on an FIR interview recorded on January 3.

02/06/08 | 4 Comments | GM’s collaborative history project



  • 1.Coffee tablebooks are classic strategy to may a company sparkly and shiny in the public's eyes. The PR firm GM has hired should be very effective with this.

    Eliana | February 2008

  • 2.I'd say congratulations to GM! This move will certainly make their costumers like they are part of the company.

    Natashiya | February 2008

  • 3.Shel, thanks for citing the corporate values book I worked on -- Genuine Value: The John Deere Journey, published in 2000, still available on Amazon & others). It was a labor of love and brought back some nice memories. I salute GM's smart deployment of a wiki to create their history. It's a tremendous way to involve all employees in a very worthwhile project. Sorry wikis weren't around back then. If so, I know we would have used them. Come to think of it, had we done this project as a wiki, we might have saved the trees and just published the wiki! Cheers!

    John Gerstner | February 2008 | Fountain Hills, AZ

  • 4.Not sure you're aware of PR Watch's coverage of GM's battle with the Rainforest Action Network over this project:

    James McNally | February 2008 | Toronto

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