03/27/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Whitacre Has Much More to Learn as GM CEO than the Car Business

At a news conference this morning, interim General Motors CEO Ed Whitacre announced that he is assuming the role full-time.

While there is a lot for a former telecommunications executive to learn about the automobile business, Whitacre has an even steeper learning curve in his understanding of how people research products on the Web and interact via social media. This is particularly important if GM is to bring younger buyers into their brands. People in the "first car age bracket" get their information via Google and Facebook, not the Wall Street Journal and NBC Nightly News.

I was shocked in early December when I learned that Fritz Henderson was ousted as CEO by the GM board. Having been critical of GM marketing and communications tactics in the past, I felt that Henderson was making great progress in this area. I enjoyed my discussions with Henderson in September and felt confident that under Henderson, the marketing area was finally opening up to the immense power of the Web as a communications tool. Henderson understood new marketing and was an effective leader in this area.

Of course, I don't pretend that my narrow interest in how GM communicates to its customers is the only important thing for a CEO of GM. But it does seem to be an area that is getting less focus under Whitacre.

Qualifications of a CEO of GM

As Whitacre transitions into the full time CEO role, he's got to personally build an understanding of how people communicate online. I want to see the progress that Henderson made continue and I hope the emerging culture of open and honest communications, especially online, will grow in importance.

This is important for Whitacre, 68, because from what I can discern, Web communications is beyond his comfort zone. While running some of the world's largest telecommunications companies a decade ago, he reportedly didn't have a computer in his office and didn't do email, preferring to write notes by hand and have letters typed by a secretary. While I'm told that he now does BlackBerry, his online expertise is far from that of Henderson, 51, who made it a communications priority.

To succeed in the new world of always on, YouTube-driven, social media enabled, real-time marketing on the Web, a corporate culture of losing control is required. The command-and-control, big-media, paid-advertising era of GM from the glory days needs to change for GM to be successful.