GM, Duke ink fuel cell partnership

General Motors Corp. is beginning to imagine a world of cars no longer running on fossil fuels. To further their goal, the University will work with GM on a multi-year, interdisciplinary teaching and research project aimed at developing a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle by 2010, officials from both institutions announced last Tuesday.

"Fuel cells represent a radical technology. If this technology is accepted, it will mean major implications in the way business will be run and how consumers will be affected," said Deputy Dean of Fuqua School of Business Richard Staelin. "So, both research and teaching will be involved in how this technology will affect organizational structure and consumer behavior."

Faculty and graduate students from Fuqua, in collaboration with the Pratt School of Engineering and the Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy, will be using their expertise in technology and business to come up with a strategic plan for GM on how they should go about commercializing fuel cell cars.

"We are thrilled to be right in the middle of this technological revolution that has broad, global implications," said Fuqua Dean Douglas Breeden in a statement last week.

The graduate-level course, Interdisciplinary Issues in Introducing Radical Technological Change in the Established Business, is composed of 30 students--three-fourths from Pratt or Fuqua, and a couple from the Sanford Institute--and began last Wednesday. The course will be repeated again this upcoming fall semester.

"GM's sponsorship will help advance the research agenda of talented faculty members, link this research to an ongoing course and provide value to the parties trying to implement radical change," said Fuqua Executive-in-Residence James Rabenhorst, who is responsible for coordinating all aspects of the initiative.

Although it is common for Fuqua to be teaching courses around particular "living cases," the magnitude of the this hydrogen fuel cell project is particularly challenging.

"This project is probably the most complex [among the case-based projects we work on], in that it involves three different schools, five to six faculty members and could have huge impacts on society if successful," Staelin said.

Not only is the breadth of the project daunting, GM's goal to have a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle by 2010 steps up the pressure another notch, Mitchell admitted, though still optimistic.

"Is 2010 viable for GM? It's a complicated puzzle. The challenge now is to break it down into smaller puzzles, which I think is doable," Mitchell said. "Each of the puzzles, when you break them down into smaller pieces, is doable. The biggest goal for Duke is to teach our students and generate generalizable knowledge. It's not just a case."

Fuqua professors Wes Cohen, Michael Lennox and Mitchell, as well as a handful of graduate students, will be tackling the research aspect of the project's puzzle. They will be looking at radical technical change, both specifically related to the impact of fuel cell technology on the automotive industry and generally involving issues of change.

There are a couple key parts to the research agenda. In one part, Fuqua faculty will investigate the role of internal organizational restructuring of a firm in enduring a radical technological change. Mitchell said they will be looking at the role of managing alliances as well as the feasibility of creating a second organization to initially commercialize the radical technology and then reign it into the preexisting firm.

Their other goal is to take a look at past cases of technological change and establish patterns, describing what happens to firms affected by such changes. These patterns will be used to determine if there is a way to predict why some firms disappear and others continue to adjust and flourish in the face of radical technological change.

Often, Mitchell said, technological change is beyond the resources of one firm to control and disrupts existing organizations in the market. Advents in automotive engine technology, fuel distribution, breaking systems and standards of road safety have historically caused companies that existed before the changes occurred to disappear, Mitchell added. Such a particularly harsh history for firms in this industry is one reason why GM initiated this collaboration with Duke.

"This is a top priority for General Motors," said Larry Burns, vice president of research and development, and planning. "Collaborating with Duke's outstanding faculty and students is providing GM with an excellent opportunity to further explore the technical, policy and business aspect of strategic decisions involving disruptive technological change."


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