Going Green Grows Green

The View from GE

"Speed kills" is a staple of football punditry. The team with faster players will usually defeat a slower opponent.

In a general sense, sports and business are both about winning – whether on the gridiron or the marketplace. In this analogy, when a swift wide receiver – or high-tech startup, for example -- is competing against by a lumbering linebacker – or conglomerate, for example -- the receiver usually gets to the ball first.

Speed is not one of the first adjectives that come to mind when describing these corporate linebackers. Conglomerates, like many large organizations, can be as difficult to turn quickly as the proverbial aircraft carrier or oil tanker. They have too much inertia, too many parts moving in different directions.

However, according to the leader of one of the world’s most successful conglomerates, speed – especially when it comes to bringing innovations to the market in a form readily accepted by customers – is paramount not only to the survival of his company, but also for American leadership in the world.

So far, it seems that Jeff Immelt, who took the helm of one of the world’s largest conglomerate days before the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. in 2001, has fashioned a nimble, and successful, conglomerate.

With more than 320,000 employees – 45,000 of them scientists and engineers – spread out across the globe, GE (your parent’s General Electric Company) in many ways can be seen as a microcosm of the world.  It must contend with increasingly successful foreign competitors, deal with soaring health care costs and innovate to stay ahead.

Immelt believes that the lessons learned at his company can be instructive when facing the large issues facing the world. Not only that, he told the Raleigh Grand Challenge Summit attendees that his company can help solve the world’s problems, and profit from it too.

The world is quite different from the one of 120 years ago, he said, when Thomas Alva Edison founded the company. The U.S. is facing an erosion of its leadership position in innovation and a rapidly growing population in the emerging world, more and more of whom are rising to the middle class to become consumers of everything from light bulbs to refrigerators. The producers of new technologies must understand these new consumers better in order to succeed, Immelt said.

“To win in these markets, speed in unleashing technology is essential,” Immelt said. “From 2000 to 2010, for example, we developed one new jet engine. From this year to 2020, there will be ten different engines. In this new world, you need to have different products at different price points. You have to know what your customer wants.”

In the process of solving the Grand Challenges, the U.S. can re-establish its scientific and technological dominance, Immelt said. Whether it is in the development of more efficient and less polluting jet engines, cutting-edge medical equipment or the latest in green energy production and distribution systems, GE is aligned to lead the way, Immelt said.

“The U.S. needs to be a country of real engineering again,” he said. “It has to happen. That’s why the Grand Challenges are so important. We need more investment in innovation to improve the competitiveness of the U.S.”

He pointed out that there are more than 160 different technologies working their way through the company that could eventually play an important role in not only moving the company forward, but also helping to solve the world’s problems.

So where do engineers fit in?

“To be successful, you need first to be technically capable, and GE begins with technical depth,” Immelt said. “For example, we still do basic research. Five percent of our budget goes to research and development (R&D). Not only do we need technical depth, but we need people who can see all 360 degrees of problem, which includes technical innovation, public policy, political science and understanding cultural issues.”

Engineering students in the audience asked Immelt how is it possible for engineering students to gain technical depth, as well as breadth of knowledge, during a short four-year undergraduate education.

“I grew up in a linear world, and now you will be graduating into a more volatile world,” Immelt said. “I would recommend embracing the challenge of solving problems, don’t be afraid of them. Take difficult courses, take courses outside engineering and do internships. At GE we have more than 2,000 internships, where we put you to work with different production teams. In the future, it will be very important for engineers to know how to work in teams.”

Maybe the largest innovation Immelt brought to GE is the “Ecomagination” initiative intended to develop new technologies in such areas as solar energy, hybrid locomotives, fuel cells, lower-emission aircraft engines, lighter and stronger materials, efficient lighting, and water purification technology.

Before embarking on the program, “we allowed ourselves to be completely open to the data,” Immelt said. “We looked at it as a science.”

The numbers added up, he said. Going green will bring in the green.

Watch Immelt.