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GE CIO says IT leaders need to focus on customers’ revenue

Brian Watson | June 16, 2016
Understanding how GE’s customers make money has shaped CIO Jim Fowler’s leadership philosophy — and helped him carve out big goals as GE transforms into a digital industrial company.

In the end, they discovered that GE's competitive advantage was its platform. The custom, homegrown legacy system delivered more value to customers than any vendor package could. "All of a sudden, it clicked for people that we were making money because we were willing to structure products like no one else in the industry could," and because they had to the technology to make that happen, Fowler said. "That was the differentiator."

Setting big goals

GE's IT organization was well-respected before Fowler took the reins in October 2015. Its track record of innovation and results is impressive, and its legacy of producing Fortune 500 CIOs is unparalleled.

But early into his tenure, Fowler heard from some senior leaders a criticism that many CIOs have heard before: IT was communicating in terms the business didn't care very much about. Describing how the organization simplifying ERP and application landscapes is important, as is reducing security vulnerabilities, but the business partners wanted more substance.

So Fowler - driven by the lesson learned in his power-generation days - has changed the conversation. When GE CEO Jeff Immelt asked Fowler how GE should think about IT, the CIO said, "Think about me the same way you think about any other business leader." What was Fowler and his organization doing to drive revenue growth? What were they doing to drive productivity? How were they driving cash generation? "Those are the things stockholders care about, and those are the things you care about," Fowler recalled saying to Immelt. "So I need to have skin in the game and be signed up to deliver on those."

Based on his goals for the year, the message was received. Fowler has a $50 million sales target. Over the next five years, he aims to sell about $1 billion worth of GE products commercialized for the marketplace. And he has pledged to deliver on $500 million in productivity improvements across GE. (The productivity target is $1 billion over the next three years. Fowler says he raised his hand and took ownership of it when Immelt announced the goal in an executive planning session.)

Fowler says his focus on financials has not only changed the conversation with business leaders, but with his IT team as well. Take, for example, a recent situation in which a team member came to Fowler about a project to sunset a legacy COBOL system. The decision to retire the system came from simple logic: It's old.

Fowler asked why. In the discussion that ensued, they realized - just like in the power-generation services scenario - that the system was actually a differentiator, regardless of its age. It was working well, and it helped GE sell more products.


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