GE’s future is digital, says CEO John Flannery. Does that mean anything?

Photo: GE

We use some words so often they lose meaning. “Digital” is one of those words. When GE CEO John Flannery says the future is digital, I get confused. If I’m too dumb to understand this, how many of his other readers are similarly ignorant? A little more clarity — and a review from an editor — could have made his message a lot more effective.

Flannery’s LinkedIn post hovers just above actual meaning

A correspondent pointed me to Flannery’s post on LinkedIn, “Our Future is Digital.” Reading it, I found myself feeling fuzzy and disconnected — a feeling I often get reading technology reports and statements from tech executives. (Maybe Flannery is really saying “I can be just as opaque as a CEO in Silicon Valley.”)

The problem here is the word “digital.” Does it mean that something has a chip in it? By that measure my car, my oven, and most of my clocks are digital. Does it mean Internet-connected? App-enabled? You might as well be saying “electrical.” When dealing with ill-defined words like this, imagine replacing them with the word “magical.” If the result sounds absurd, maybe you want to define your terms better.

Here’s Flannery’s Post with my commentary. Weasel words (ill-define and meaningless intensifiers) shown in bold, jargon in italic.

Our Future is Digital

I wake up every morning knowing that my schedule will be jam-packed until the moment I send my last email that night. Customers and investors want to understand where the company is headed, and the GE team is looking for clarity. I have a lot of decisions to make in my new role as CEO, but one decision is easy: GE is all in on digital.

Commentary: I’m not all that fond of the “Gee whiz, turns out I’m the CEO of a huge industrial company,” tone. Putting that aside, what are your employees and investors to take away from “GE is all in on digital?” The steady march of computer-based improvement has reached every industry. Does this just mean you are into automation for automation’s sake? To create meaning here, you’ll have to define what “digital” means for GE.

We have fully embraced the digital industrial transformation, and we believe in its potential to change the world. For our customers, digital is bringing new levels of innovation and productivity— and they are seeing real, tangible outcomes. This is happening in each of our businesses. Now, we are taking these outcomes and transferring what we have learned directly to our customers.

Commentary: What is the “digital industrial transformation?” As a former analyst, I can make a guess — it means instrumenting all the equipment and controlling it with computers and tablets. But unless you define it, this reads as “Computers can make industry better,” which is tautological. I’m also trying to understand the difference embracing and “fully” embracing, and how much innovation and productivity represent a “new level” (is that 10% or an order of magnitude?).

GE is helping lead this transformation because we have the scale, the installed base, and the industrial expertise. We know what works for our customers, therefore we are now able to prioritize what we work on and the investment needed to achieve the best results for customers, and the best return for shareholders. Our strategic focus is on our verticals. We will leverage what we do best in energy, oil and gas, aviation, healthcare, rail, and mining, and draw on our core assets and equipment to deliver the best value and execution. We will broaden and strengthen our partner relationships to create a strong Predix ecosystem.

Commentary: The whole paragraph is meaningless platitudes like “We are able to prioritize what we work on,” “Our strategic focus is on our verticals,” and “We will broaden and strengthen our partner relationships.” The only thing that actually has meaning here is “Predix,” and without a link, there’s no clue what it is. But don’t worry, according GE’s site, Predix is “A Foundation for Digital Industrial Transformation: Digital industrial transformation [that] promises both immediate cost benefits and long term strategic advantages, [beginning] with a solid foundation. That’s so much clearer now that I’ve searched it.

Most importantly, customers are seeing results. Take, for example, the energy industry. Today, our Predix portfolio supports 4 percent of the world’s power generation. Exelon deployed GE’s entire suite of Predix software applications across their Generation fleet – which delivers 32,700 megawatts of nuclear, wind, solar, hydroelectric, and natural gas power. This has increased Exelon’s performance and reliability, leading to a 1-2 percent boost in annual wind energy production.

Commentary: A few facts appear, like an oasis in the desert. This would be clearer if we knew what GE’s definition of digital transformation was.

Our Asset Performance Management (APM) and Operations Optimization solutions have reduced asset failures, increased uptime, and improved production capacity – leading to cost savings and efficiencies for customers. RasGas, a liquefied natural gas producing company in Qatar, for example, uses APM to improve the reliability and availability of their critical assets. With GE solutions, they have seen $2.47 million in outage savings; they have increased availability to over 99 percent; and they have reduced outage duration between maintenance intervals, extending production asset lifetime. Joy Global, a mining company, uses APM to support their life cycle management processes, which helped them achieve 100 percent ROI in nine months and 115 percent ROI in one year. They continue to grow as implementation is rolled out to other regions.

Commentary: More facts, but we don’t get to hear what APM is, either. Again, a link would help.

The company I joined 30 years ago made machines that made the world work better. We are still that company, but the world has changed, and the industrial world is increasingly powered by digital applications. We are part of this transformation, and we have a focused strategy that I believe is best for our customers and for GE. As a result, we have gotten some good feedback from the industry. Analysts view GE as a leader in IOT software platforms, we have a comprehensive APM offering in the market, and we are leading in field service management. So, we are doubling down on what we know works.

Commentary: Again, what’s with the undefined “digital applications?” Please, for us to believe you have a “focused strategy,” we need to know what you are actually doing, and more important, what you are not doing. “Focused strategy,” like “digital transformation” and “strong ecosystem,” is a term that sounds good and means nothing without further definition.

Next month, I’ll join our customers, the GE team, developers and others at our Minds + Machines showcase on October 25 to talk more about these themes. Until then, I’m going to be on the road inside and outside GE delivering the same message – digital is our future, and it’s your future, too. I look forward to working together.

Commentary: The number of people who care about this enough to read it and don’t understand that digital technology of some kind is the future is approximately zero.

What Flannery should have done (and you should, too)

Who is the audience for this message? Since it’s on LinkedIn and from a CEO, we must assume the audience is anyone in the general public interested in GE, such as its customers, shareholders, and employees.

Flannery’s error is to assume that this audience understands what he does about digital technology and his company’s products like Predix and APM. He’s succumbed to the “curse of knowledge,” the unacknowledged assumption that the audience knows that the writer knows. The curse of knowledge is insidious, since it’s a product of immersing one’s self in one’s job, and a reflection of intelligence. It’s a smart person’s problem.

But it also creates a gap that most of your readers can’t cross, since they don’t know what you know. In this case, what they are lacking is the knowledge of what Flannery means by “digital.”

The cure for the curse of knowledge is an editor. If Flannery had sent this post to me before posting it, I would have pointed out that he needs to define what digital means for GE. A few short sentences about that — and about the other undefined terms in this post — would create the missing clarity. Since Flannery obviously has something important to say here, that would have made his post far more effective.

Learn from this. Before you post for a general audience, get a surrogate — an intelligent person outside your company or industry — to review what you wrote. What they don’t understand is what you need to define. Then your writing won’t collapse under jargon that most of your readers won’t understand.

And for lord’s sake, just cut it out with the platitudes, ok? Replace cheerleading with statistics and facts and your audience will be a lot more likely to believe you.

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