General Motors’ Donnee Ramelli Drives Innovation to Boost Business

To address the unrelenting economic and competitive pressures General Motors has recently faced, the automaker charged Donnee Ramelli, president of General Motors University, with ensuring GM’s 80,000 employees focus on innovation, technology and mission-

In the 16th century a military engineer named Agostino Ramelli published what is considered to be one of the most important books on machinery. The book contained 194 detailed engravings of pumps, cranes, saws and foundry equipment and was printed in both Italian and French. Many of Ramelli’s sketches were successfully manufactured and sold two and three centuries later. Donnee Ramelli, president of General Motors University, isn’t sure if he’s actually related to the elder Ramelli, but he does feel some affinity with the man. Both have rooted their work in machinery, and both, directly and indirectly, are devoted to creating learning that can be enjoyed across borders.

Global learning impact means more now than ever to the popular automaker. General Motors Corp. (GM) had a rough 2005. As competition from foreign automakers increased, so did the pressure to do more with less. But rather than doing what many corporations do when they feel an economic pinch, GM did not automatically cut money from its learning and development programs. Instead, the company gradually eliminated cost and maneuvered reductions by focusing on innovation, technology and mission-critical training.

Ramelli has responsibility for the company’s 80,000 salaried, professional and technical employees worldwide. During his six years at GM, he has leveraged career experiences in operations, consulting as well as learning from companies such as AlliedSignal Honeywell, Coopers & Lybrand and the United States Navy in order to build a global learning strategy that’s fast, flexible and focused on performance and results. “Given GM’s immediate need to turn around our business, I think my greatest challenge today is keeping everyone focused on the turnaround priorities and at the same time positioning learning to keep us on the leading edge,” Ramelli said. “We need to make sure we do everything right today, and we need to be ready for the future. This means an intense focus on mission-critical training that either designs or builds or sells our vehicles, yet constantly innovating to make sure we’re saving costs and resources and using technology to deploy that learning not only here in North America, but around the world.”

In order to orchestrate that turnaround, Ramelli uses three words when talking with his team: innovate, innovate, innovate. GMU also looks carefully at every purchase and asks what can be eliminated or reduced. “We use a new approach, a new technology, a new vendor or even something that we call DIY, do-it-yourself technique like videotaping the expert, digitizing and deploying the expert, because we do have studios. We do use our studios for satellite broadcasts. With this mind set, I’ve watched my people do incredible things. They’ve taken out over 65 percent of the cost of learning since 2000, and they are clearly going to make the kind of reductions going forward that will continue to drive that curve.”

A focus on mission-critical training versus what Ramelli calls “the nice-to-have training that you sometimes find in corporate universities,” has driven some of the reduction, but much of the savings have come from efficient use of technology and vendor leveraging. GMU uses WebEx to record its experts, then reuses and repurposes learning at a fraction of the price of its traditional design, develop and deliver model. “I think webcasting or WebEx will exponentially improve the leverage and drive out more cost. It’s all about mastering the mix. Do you know how to use the technologies to move from a concept about what people should know to do their job better, to the deliverable? The idea is to move quickly.”

“The other big thing has been Leaders Teach,” Ramelli explained. “We have gotten more leaders engaged in spending time on a formal and informal basis with people around what they need to know to be successful in this turnaround. When leaders do this, they have a chance to engage their folks, empower them, energize them to drive the right results, and it also causes a great two-way dialogue that reconnects the leaders with the realities of the operating environment. It gets them in front of the people and role models leaders’ commitment to change, turnaround and getting the right results. In our leadership curriculum alone, Leaders Teach has probably taken out $10 million in cost year over year because rather than using an expensive outsourced executive development firm, our leaders get up and tell ‘em how the business is and what we need to do.”

Ramelli said that he is simply continuing a model that began when GMU was formed in 1997 to consolidate the 32 different training organizations that were developing learning. Now there are 14 colleges for the different business functions that share best practices and resources, thereby removing considerable duplication and fragmentation and ensuring that GM has the right training available and focused on things that matter. “That’s the reason for the convergence and the colleges, which represent each global, functional process like finance or HR or engineering. They can now get to a globally common and consistent curriculum that helps people collaborate around the world. We use one engineering system. We used to use 27. In order to train that, they took training from an outsource model to an in-source model, and saved about $20 million a year during the start up of that training. Now everyone communicates on one CAD-cam system, so we can start to design in Detroit, they can work on it in Korea and Germany, and we’re all working off of the same drawings and the same math-based engineering design. That’s huge for us. That’s where the value is created, and if we do that right and well, we end up making great products.”

An emphasis on mission-critical training has significantly impacted GM’s stance on executive coaching as well as its move to a more digital business model using the global IT infrastructure to carry out the work process. Ramelli said that being able to coach new executives and people who are developing the bench strength and talent for GM is valuable, but with the turnaround mission never far from mind, the company has made some beneficial changes using learning as the primary driver. “We would pay external coaches a great deal of money, and the decision was taken to go ahead and show HR professionals how to be good internal coaches to those new clients. In a matter of a year, they certified over a hundred coaches, there’s another 100 on the way, and that’s pretty helpful if you want to develop the best global bench strength and leadership capability. That’s sort of an on-the-ground, one-on-one approach, which saves us (money). We would pay $25,000 for an external coach for one executive, so you can imagine the savings that generates. These coaches do this in addition to other HR and OD responsibilities. It’s not their only job, but they’re positioned all over the globe, and I think that’s pretty powerful.”

Leveraging technology across GM’s entire global organization also has played a substantial role in the company’s turnaround plan. GMU has moved from 5 percent to 34 percent in terms of e-learning volume over the last five years, and besides the obvious cost savings over traditional classroom learning, Ramelli said there is a big hidden benefit there as well. “Most people that are coming into our workforce are sort of the global Google generation. They want quick learning. They want to be able to get at it, and they want it available anytime they want, not when Detroit is awake. We all love to go to great classroom training. It’s a social interaction that introduces you to the culture and the experts. It makes us connect with our network and we’ll still do that, but a lot of what people need right now is to get after the job aide or the neat tool that is being used in their process or a quick reminder from an e-learning course. I think we’re on a journey to move to not only a higher percentage but a higher effectiveness with e-learning. We have been mastering the mix, but we’ve been doing it with a traditional mindset, and we really want to have stuff that’s effective, efficient and robust in this global diversity that we’re presented with. We’re all around the world, and if we can use technology to either video a great expert and ship that through CDs, a webcast or even allow a local trainer to see that and repurpose and retranslate it so that it’s useful, we can move to a quicker learning profile.”

Ramelli said GMU works to ensure learning standards from the beginning of every program. The learning organization distributes automated Level 1 evaluations for every course, session and instructor. Each college is partnered with a learning development expert, and the deans of those colleges — the functional executives — look through the evaluations with their partner in order to decide what’s working, what’s not and what needs improving. “We take Level 3 evaluations, which give you an idea of how learning has been applied and used six to 12 weeks later, and we ask them how would you evaluate the effectiveness of the course and how it’s helped you. Those are identical questions from a Level 1, and we can begin to see over time if they really still feel that way and how much did it help. We ask, ‘How did it improve your performance? If so, by what percent, and what percent of your job is this?’ When you use those two factors, you can come away with a primitive view of ROI on those courses. We haven’t run Level 3 on everything, but the initial results for the most important mission-critical courses is that there is about a three-to-one return on every dollar spent on that training. That’s including the time of the individual.”

“We at General Motors — particularly today, and it’s been accelerating over the last 10 years dramatically — look at learning and skill building as an incredibly important aspect of the people capability side of our business,” said Kathleen Barclay, vice president, global human resources, General Motors. “As we look at General Motors University and Donnee’s role, it’s incredibly important that it’s focused on the needs of the business, and the changing profile of the business to make sure there is a really good funnel to take all the things that you’d want to teach and have your people learn worldwide. Donnee, when he came to General Motors, really brought a fantastic ability to do that. When I was recruiting for the president of the GM University a good number of years ago, that’s specifically what I was looking for. I wanted someone who had proven in a significant way that they deeply had the ability to understand the needs of the business and could translate the learning and capability building directly to that, so you could see some real return on investment. Donnee had proven that in the AlliedSignal company. He worked with the top leadership of that company to really do what I just described, and he certainly has translated that here at GM.

“In addition, Donnee had some experience in different parts of the business. At one point in his career, he was the head of quality or definitely involved in a very significant way. When you speak to Donnee, one of the things you’ll notice is he’s a very good businessman. He deeply understands what’s happening in our business. He keeps his fingers on the pulse of what’s happening, how it’s morphing and changing, and how those learning needs are changing. Then he does a great job of translating content through GM University and all the channels that we use to deliver that learning in a cost-effective, really efficient, productive, very meaningful way, and he measures how much return we’re getting and how it really is impacting the business. It’s been great to have him. He has a great reputation in the business. He brought a lot of credibility with him from AlliedSignal.”

“This CLO thing is very important,” Ramelli said. “They haven’t all been successful because they forget something about the larger environment. Have they cultivated the right leadership support? Have they linked to business performance? Are they mastering this new mix of things I talked about? Do they think like the boss or the chairman? The more they get out of the day-to-day operation, and it’s hard to, the more they will increase the value of whatever they’re doing.”

—Kellye Whitney,

Name: Donnee Ramelli
Title: President, General Motors University
COMPANY: General Motors


  • Linked learning to business goals and turnaround priorities, supporting important business efforts with mission-critical functional training and global technology leverage.
  • Focused learning on key talent areas and skill needs, improved GM’s performance management focus and created award-winning leadership programs where “leaders teach,” reducing costs by $10 million per year.
  • Increased e-learning from five percent to 34 percent of volume. Launched 600 global e-learning courses in multiple languages.
  • Enabled key business and cultural change efforts through action learning and global change management consulting, saving more than $100 million since 2000.
  • Improved training effectiveness and yet reduced costs by 65 percent since 2000 through a focus on mission-critical training, innovation, technology and vendor partnerships.

Learning Philosophy: “People drive results… Learning accelerates performance and capability.”