MIT CFO Summit: A lesson in change from GE CFO

The message from the MIT CFO Summit: Get out of the office and embrace change. Also in Searchlight: Facebook and Google crack down on fake news; cloud boom expected.

At this week's MIT CFO Summit, Jeff Bornstein, SVP and CFO at General Electric Company, said he is no stranger to being wrong, uncomfortable and quiet -- situations that Hal Gregersen, executive director at the MIT Leadership Center, said are at the heart of being a successful business leader.

Gregersen said those situations -- allowing yourself to be surprised, getting out of your comfort zone and taking time to listen instead of talk -- unlock unexpected insights that help business executives ask the right questions and be better leaders.

"If we do not systematically put ourselves in these kinds of situations -- especially outside of headquarters, outside of our office, with people who are not like us and in places that we're not normally in -- we will not find the surprising, unexpected information that will open up the future for us and our company," Gregersen said during his MIT CFO Summit keynote.

A veiled allusion to the recent presidential election? Maybe. But, as Gregersen's interview with GE's Bornstein made clear, there's lots of disruption to go around in the workplace where technology is undercutting traditional business models it seems on a daily basis.


Bornstein is seeing change at all levels of GE.

Historically, it was very rare for GE to hire outside the company for an upper-level management or "officer" position, he said. Now, it happens all the time. The company has also had to hire massive amounts of new, younger talent to keep up with the industry's changing demands. This includes people from acqui-hires, as well as from Apple and Google who bring skills like machine learning and AI.

"[New employees] come from a very different place than where a traditional GE employee comes from, with very different experiences -- both professionally and [in terms of] life experiences -- and it's very quickly changing the culture of the company," Bornstein said.

Compensation systems are changing, as is the dress code -- Bornstein told the room of suits that he wears jeans to the office these days. So is the pace of workflow and how the company thinks about and describes success. Bornstein says these changes are all for the better, opening up GE to a completely different way of thinking and problem solving.

But the change in workplace culture is not without its challenges. Reconciling the new and the traditional has become Bornstein's latest CFO imperative.

"My challenge is how I get mid-career and late-career people to walk across the bridge and understand enough about technology and where technology is going, so that they can ask the right questions -- or maybe more importantly, they're not getting in the way of the people who do understand…that they're not a barrier," he said.

He thinks 50% of people will never get across that bridge -- something he'll have to address.

Meshing together different outlooks, contexts, intellects and problem-solving methods at this modern GE may not always be easy, but it is paying off.

"We do our best work at GE when we have cross-functional, mission-based teams that are focused on answering one question," Bornstein said. "And the question has to have absolute clarity….when you do that, you get magic."

Staying relevant in the digital age

Part of GE's success is owed to its ability to course-correct.

Not so long ago, GE itself was "a decade behind technologically," and the architectural backbone of the company was not even close to where it needed to be, Bornstein recalled. He said the threat of disintermediation was real. That's when they asked themselves the question, "How do we use software and technologies like deep machine learning, artificial intelligence and additive manufacturing to drive more value."

That line of questioning led Bornstein and the company to develop an industrial internet platform, Predix, which "improves productivity at a system level" by allowing "assets to communicate and digest data, use algorithms and get differentiated insights," he said.

Whether Predix will become the go-to platform for the world's industrial space remains to be seen, but GE's journey to this moment speaks to the importance of not only asking the right questions, but also the ability to adapt.

Whether from digitization, AI or 3D printing -- which he said will massively disrupt how business in the industrial internet is done -- your company's business model is not only constantly changing, but also constantly under siege.

"Our biggest challenge is how, as CFOs, we stay on top of these trends, stay on top of these emerging technologies, stay on top of threats to your business model and how do we use all of this technology to run a better shop," he said.

That goes for CIOs too.

CIO news roundup for week of Nov. 14

The CFO Summit wasn't the only big story. Here's what else was happening in the world of technology this week.

Fake news. Facebook and Google announced this week they have updated their policies to ban fake news websites from generating revenue through their advertising networks. Facebook banned fake news sites from its Facebook Audience Network and updated the policy which now reads, "Don't integrate or display ads in apps or sites containing content that is illegal, misleading or deceptive, or that promotes … fake news or anything that falls within any other categories that are prohibited by the Facebook Community Standards." The policy update comes in the wake of Facebook being criticized for not banning fake news from the social networking site during the U.S. presidential elections. Google came under fire after a false story claiming Donald Trump won the popular vote recently ranked first on Google search results for "final election vote count 2016." The search giant banned fake news sites from Google's ad-selling software and will prevent Google ads from being placed "on pages that misrepresent, misstate, or conceal information about the publisher, the publisher's content, or the primary purpose" of the website, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Cloud boom. Annual global cloud traffic is expected to reach 14.1 ZB per year by 2020, up from 3.9 ZB per year in 2015, according to Cisco's Global Cloud Index report. Public cloud growth rates are expected to grow 35% CAGR from 2015 to 2020, compared to a 15% CAGR for private cloud. "In the six years of this study, cloud computing has advanced from an emerging technology to an essential scalable and flexible part of architecture for service providers of all types around the globe," Doug Webster, vice president of Service Provider Marketing at Cisco, said in a statement. By 2020, 92% of workloads will be processed by cloud data centers and 68% of the cloud workloads will be in public cloud data centers, Cisco predicted.

Technology professionals wary of AR benefits. A recent global survey by business technology and cybersecurity association ISACA revealed AR adoption rates are slow among enterprises and that consumers are more positive about the benefits of AR than IT professionals. Only 21% of the 6,600 technology professionals and businesses surveyed believe that the benefits of AR outweigh the security risks and 63% said their organizations lack policies to address the use of AR apps, the study found. "We expect to see these numbers change in the very near future as businesses begin to view AR as a valuable technology that can deliver positive business outcomes, such as improving training, education, marketing and customer experience," Rob Clyde, board director of ISACA and executive advisor at BullGuard Software, said in a statement.

Samsung moves into connected cars space. Samsung is set to acquire Connecticut-based car-infotainment and audio company Harman International Industries in a deal valued at $8 billion. The South Korea-based conglomerate, which was in the spotlight due to its Galaxy Note 7 fiasco, believes the deal will help Samsung create a significant presence for itself in the rapidly growing auto technology market. "Working together, we are confident that Harman can become a new kind of Tier 1 provider to the OEMs by delivering end-to-end solutions across the connected ecosystem," Young Sohn, president and chief strategy officer of Samsung Electronics, said in a statement.

Assistant editor Mekhala Roy contributed to this week's news roundup.

Next Steps

Check out our previous Searchlight roundups on what Trump's win says about data analytics, the Microsoft Teams collaboration tool,  Microsoft's foray into immersive computing and Gartner's recent CIO Symposium in Florida.

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