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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.

Right then and there, they wouldn't get rid of the system. Instead, they would invest in it. "Let's not sunset this," Fowler recalls saying in that discussion. "Let's take it to a place we had never intended." The point, he says, was about adding more features and functionality to a working system that was a source of competitive advantage.

When he moved the conversation to how GE made money, and how it differentiated from the competition, the mood changed. Framing decisions in financial terms takes the emotion of the conversation, Fowler says. It also eliminates IT-speak. That's a powerful combination, and one that is yielding results.

That change in focus comes in parallel to GE's transformation from being an engineering-focused culture to one that is leaner, more innovative, and more customer-focused - a shift for which Fowler credits Immelt's leadership.

CIO enters tech talent war

As GE reinvents itself, Fowler is, in a sense, taking steps to reinvent GE's IT organization. He currently has about 8,000 IT employees, but 17,000 contractors. In its previous era, as the poster-company for Six Sigma and extreme competitiveness, GE leaders saw outsourcing a shrewd strategy.

When Fowler looks at the table stakes today, he thinks the company went too far in giving up its technology capital. He's hired about 3,000 more IT and engineering pros into GE in the last two years, but he's looking to add another 2,000. He wants his internal/external balance to hit 50/50 by 2018 - no small measure in a talent war unlike any before, or for a company undergoing extreme change.

Speaking of extreme change, much of GE's transformation into the digital age is overseen by Bill Ruh, CEO of GE Digital and the company's chief digital officer (CDO). While some cognoscenti predicted CDOs would overtake CIOs, the evidence today is scant. GE is an exception: Fowler reports to Ruh.

When he took the global CIO job, Fowler heard from peers asking why he was sticking around, due to the reporting structure. "I told them, 'I'm sticking around because the job I'm asked to do is important, challenging and, frankly, pretty cool,'" Fowler says.

"There used to be a gap between internal IT and our customers' IT. Going forward, they're not different anymore," he continued. "Our systems are interlinked in a way that is different than anything we've seen before. If IT doesn't have that commercial connectivity, we're going to fail from our customers' perspective."



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