GE CIO Jim Fowler talks collaboration and IT transformation

General Electric's (GE) CIO isn't interested in picking a winner or loser when it comes to collaboration apps. Nor does he want to preclude any of GE's 333,000 employees from using the collaboration tools that work best for them. "Collaboration is a noisy space right now because there are so many different tools," Jim Fowler said during an interview this week at's CIO 100 event in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. "I'm not going to get in the middle of it. I'd like to see how it works itself out on its own." 

GE CIO Jim Fowler. 

Fowler says some GE employees choose to use collaboration platforms that GE owns and has certified, such as Yammer in Microsoft's Office 365 suite. Others gravitate to apps like Slack. GE's employees have access to federated apps such as Yammer and Skype for Business, but they are also free to use other collaboration tools if they adhere to what Fowler calls "guardrails," including support for single sign-on, and audit and data-sharing controls. "If somebody finds that there's another tool that works better and we can license it in a legal way, and we can run it in a secure fashion, and they don't put certain types of data in it, I'm also not going to get in the way of it."

GE CIO on a mission to redefine culture of IT

Collaboration is a key component of GE's overall digital transformation, but it's just one of many ongoing IT challenges. The company's "Digital Thread" program, for example, aims to drive productivity at GE by improving various data systems and processes that affect GE's bottom line. The initiative resulted in an additional $250 million in productivity during the first six months of 2016, and it's expected to hit $500 million by year's end, according to Fowler. "I've signed up for $1 billion in productivity between now and 2020 just from initiatives we're going to deliver there across the company."

Fowler's is also working to redefine the culture of IT at GE and convince leadership that technology can deliver value in core areas of the business. "We've got processes that have been ingrained in the company for 30 or 40 years," he says. It's Fowler's job to show GE staff a better way. And he expects some of that change to come from automated processes, machine learning and leading by example.

"During the next five years, our jobs are going to go from knowledge workers that are responding to what happened last month, last quarter, last year, to really be modeling jobs where they've got to model future outcomes," he says. Such a transition won't be possible at GE until it creates a "better way of working," according to Fowler, by automating processes and removing unnecessary manual interactions for all employees.

[Related: GE's Jim Fowler on the CIO role in the digital industrial economy]

As a function, and as a leadership role, CIOs are at a crossroads, he says. "We're at this fork in the road where you're going to have CIOs who want to be the traditional IT leader in the back office, back of the house, head down, under the radar, running things — and I think those jobs are going to go away," Fowlers says. "Or you're going to have a set of CIOs who are going to pull their chair up to the boardroom table and say: ‘Guys, I actually know your business better than you do. I know how it runs, I know your processes and there is a better way.'"

By 2025, enterprise technology leaders won't be CIOs or IT leaders, at least not in the traditional sense, according to Fowler. CIOs will have to become commercial leaders, he says. "You're either going to become more commercially oriented to position yourself to be the business leader of the future or, frankly your job is just going to be absorbed into every other function … and you're going to have a hard time justifying why you exist in the organization."

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