It had the embellishments of the latest corporate management training: a famous motivational speaker, a psychologist, a communications expert and a series of Harvard case studies.

But the setting was the Smithsonian's Baird Auditorium, the subject was transportation, and the audience was made up of civil servants. Transportation Secretary Samuel K. Skinner invited 500 managers and employees from throughout his department to a day-long conference yesterday to ask them to help him make DOT "the best organization in government."

The federal government spends more than $900 million every year on training, but much of it is spent on teaching civil servants how to use computers. More than half of all federal workers get some training every year, but the typical training session bears the same relationship to yesterday's DOT conference as a group piano lesson bears to a course at Julliard. The session cost $30,000.

A departmental spokesman said that the session was the first of its kind. More than half of transportation's senior managers -- representing aviation and highways, maritime and mass transit programs -- were exhorted to challenge the system, to change outdated ways of operation, to be proud of "doing society's important work."

The theme of the day was exhortation, not policy. No one said anything about gridlock in the skies or on the highways -- the issue on the table was organizational morale.

Marc Roberts, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and the John F. Kennedy School of Government, noted that transportation employees can take pride in accomplishments far more lasting than "being the guy who added the lemon scent to furniture polish."

"It was useful . . . good from a team-building standpoint," said Nick Stoer, budget director for the Federal Aviation Association. "It will probably alter the way I talk {about the secretary's new National Transportation Policy}."

"I thought it was wonderful," said Norma Bullock, who works in the Coast Guard's chief of staff office. "I think the purpose was to galvanize us to implement the policy by having a cross-section of DOT people spread the message up and down the organization. I know I read the policy for the first time last night."

Even so, the audience had its skeptics. "I thought it was a little too rah-rah for the secretary's policies," said a highway official who asked that his name not be used. "I would have liked to see a real discussion of what the department ought to be doing."

Skinner said that yesterday's conference was the beginning of a series of efforts to involve the entire department in making changes, where necessary, in people, mission and organization. Opinion surveys on the state of the department are being conducted, focus groups are planned, and eight "listening sessions" are scheduled through July 3.

Several speakers, however, made it clear that change will not be easy. Gregory May, a psychologist, said that a standard psychological survey of 1,100 DOT supervisors and managers revealed that the typical Transportation Department executive is fundamentally different in many ways from managers and supervisors in private industry.

More than three-quarters of the DOT supervisors were introverts, whereas 82 percent of comparable American business executives are extroverts. What this means, May said, is that DOT managers are more likely to be loners who don't like to communicate, and who can be territorial. At the same time, he said, they tend to be practical, realistic and logical, without necessarily being intuitively sensitive to others' feelings.

May, who is head of a management training firm, said that although federal managers can learn to become more extroverted, the skills needed to manage many new employees entering the work force with "poorly developed work habits . . . cut against the grain of many people who have chosen careers in government."

F.G. "Buck" Rodgers, former IBM Corp. vice chairman and a well-known lecturer on management, stressed the importance of personal leadership, respect for the individual and integrity in management.

He said that improving productivity is essential, but productivity is often wrongly defined as making people work harder and longer under increased pressure.

"As Casey Stengel said a long time ago," Rodgers said, " 'If you hit a home run, you can take your time running the bases.' "