GE CEO Immelt Talks Connectivity, Speed of Business

Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff (left), GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt (center; also onscreen), and former Secretary of State Colin Powell (right) talk business at Dreamforce ’12.

SAN FRANCISCO—In a Q&A session here at the Dreamforce ’12 conference, General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt praised social networking and connectivity as a means for accelerating the pace of business and making better strategic decisions.

“In my world, I’m always fighting size and bureaucracy, and what social media does for me is give me access to customers and employees, where I can go over the top of whatever exists,” he told the audience during the session, in which he shared the stage with Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff—whose company hosts the conference—and former Secretary of State Colin Powell. “I can talk to all the managers in the chain.”

Technology can accelerate a company’s metabolism, and not only in terms of people talking to people. Benioff recently advised GE on ways the industry giant could evolve, proposing “GE Share,” in which employees used technology to not only collaborate with coworkers and customers, but also products under development. In theory, that means an engineer could receive regular updates from a jet engine or other component, and thus anticipate repairs or other issues.

“If we can change the way that our engines operate by getting real time data, that’s huge,” Immelt said, referring to that ability to “talk” to devices.

Organizations today move too slowly, he added, unless they can apply technology in ways that speed up processes on a strategic and tactical level: “It compresses time, it compresses layers.”

Immelt and Powell then discussed broader topics, including the state of the U.S. economy and the Internet. “It was the U.S. armed forces that sort of developed the Internet,” Powell said at one point, to laugher and applause. “We have to get a little credit for that, and the GPS that everybody uses.”

Given Salesforce’s wholehearted embrace of social networking as the paradigm of the future—in a Sept. 20 press conference with reporters and analysts, he said, “I think all software is going to look like Facebook”—it’s unsurprising that the various speakers and keynoters would tout connectivity and social as an all-around good. However, those speakers generally tend to focus on the connectivity benefits for regular workers using platforms like the Salesforce portfolio to collaborate with other employees and solve day-to-day problems; it’s more unusual to hear a CEO—not to mention a CEO of one of the world’s most notable companies—using those tools to sidestep infrastructure and bureaucracy.

Of course, that extra level of connectivity—especially if it incorporates input and output from machines and products—introduces an added flood of data into businesses. In turn, that creates an additional need for analytics tools, data storage, and other IT infrastructure. A huge company like GE can afford to pay for all those things; but smaller firms will need to be more selective in the software and processes they choose to embrace.

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