Thought Leaders Choke on GE Dog Food: A Cautionary Tale

There’s an ugly phrase that became popular around the time of the dotcom boom: “We eat our own dogfood.” Software vendors used it to give potential customers confidence that the vendors believed so strongly in their own products they used them to run their own businesses. (In retrospect, that doesn’t sound all that impressive, does it? If a company didn’t use its own software, one would certainly wonder why, wouldn’t one?) If one extends that metaphor, one could say thought leaders writing about GE – until just a few weeks ago widely acclaimed as the apotheosis of an old-line industrial company successfully transitioning to the digital age, and now almost universally believed to be smack in the middle of a rolling financial and corporate meltdown – got sick on GE's dogfood: the PR story of its triumphant digital transformation.

GE was turning itself into a digital company – which everyone accepts unquestioningly as a necessary and excellent thing to do, and it might well be. Much of the credit for GE’s presumptive success was given to its former CEO, Jeff Immelt, who quite recently was making such sweeping proclamations as: For the past 16 years GE has been undergoing the most consequential makeover in its history. We were a classic conglomerate. Now people are calling us a 125-year-old start-up—we’re a digital industrial company that’s defining the future of the internet of things.

That sounds great. Unfortunately, it turned out not to be true, or, at least, it's not yet true. And now Immelt is gone, GE’s valuation has fallen 42% this year, and a new CEO is closing research centers across the globe, selling off business units, and grounding the company’s fleet of corporate jets.

The future of the internet of things may have to wait.

What really goes on in big, multinational companies is generally unknowable. (Except, perhaps, to the CFO who reads the story as told by the general ledger, not corporate PR.) Quarterly and even yearly dips in revenue and profitability can be explained away easily by people expert in doing just that. A thought leader attempting to understand and explain a giant company’s activities and strategies is always dependent upon PR and communications people, who do not discuss problems (or, as our clients like to call them, challenges). Even executives in the know provide interlocutors stories that are rehearsed, polished, and scrubbed by those same PR and communications people. Therefore, when Bloom Group helps a professional services firm, or B2B company, conceive, write, and publish articles and white papers, we ask about the difficulties that have arisen in the execution of a business strategy.  

This is especially relevant when discussing something as ephemeral as digital transformation, a phrase that can mean… well, anything. However, what it always means is that a company is trying to change what it once did well to something it may not be able to do as well, at least not right away, and with which it most certainly has less experience. That means the transformation will not run smoothly and thought leaders should be suspicious when told it is. In this, they should follow the example of journalists, who are taught to be skeptical of everyone and everything. Thought leadership is different than journalism but questioning proffered dog food before eating it is a best practice.

GE’s transformation from exemplar to cautionary tale should remind thought leaders that you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. If one forgets that homely fact, one risks ending up with a face dripping yolk.

 

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