​Startup paranoia keeping General Electric on its feet: GE Australian chief

As General Electric transitions from an equipment manufacturer into a software company, its Australian chief executive said fear of becoming redundant added to the success of the shift.

It is fear and paranoia of a startup disrupting its business that has kept appliance giant General Electric light on its feet, according to Geoff Culbert, president and chief executive for GE in Australia and New Zealand.

Speaking at the Data 61 Live 2016 event in Sydney, Culbert said that GE is constantly worried about being disrupted, and has stayed on top of its game by redefining its own business model.

"You're constantly worried about if you're going to be around for the next 130 years," he said. "We drive ourselves to constantly change and innovate because we know that we have no choice if we don't be disruptive."

As GE transitions from a company that manufactures and deals in heavy metal to one that also makes software, Culbert believes GE is becoming a software company as rapidly as it is becoming a hardware one.

"We're a big company and we started off making light bulbs," he said. "Over the last 130 years we've evolved to be a manufacturer of aircraft engines, power plants, wind turbines, diagnostic health equipment -- but we're going through the biggest change and evolution in our 130 year history right now."

GE is currently focusing on integrating its software applications with its equipment, with Culbert saying the conglomerate is concentrating on embedding software into the likes of aircraft engines, using the copious amounts of data created to run equipment more efficiently.

"We're putting that technology all over our equipment and this is going to be a big differentiator for us over the next decade," he said.

"We don't worry about being disrupted by two guys in a garage building a new aircraft engine because there's billions of dollars of R&D that goes into that, but we worry about two guys in a garage building software that makes our engines run more efficiently and then we lose control of the hardware."

According to Culbert, GE has spent a lot of time thinking about the culture of its organisation.

"[We ask ourselves] are we fast, are we agile, are we nimble, are we too slow, are we being bureaucratic, are our decision making processes too burdensome, are we risk averse," he said.

"We've got a lot of cultural processes that we've got to invest in to enable us to be able to compete with the startup community and the entrepreneurial community that are in many respects our natural enemy. That's what we think a lot about."

Collaboration between industry, academia, and startups is also something GE has taken a shining to, with Culbert saying the company has been collaborating more recently than it ever used to.

"It used to be the case that when you were a big company like ours, you thought that the best ideas were always within the four corners of your organisation. We no longer think that way," he said.

"We now look to collaborate with big companies, with organisations such as CSIRO and Data61. We look at partnering with the startup community, with universities, research centres, because we know that the best ideas don't just live within our company."

Last year, the conglomerate formed GE Digital, a unit combining its various technology efforts, with a focus on the Internet of Things market.

Headed by Bill Ruh, the creation of GE Digital is likely to be more of a threat to the likes of IBM and large analytics players, with GE anticipating it to become a top 10 software company by 2020.

Earlier this month, GE's new Power Services business signed an agreement to deploy advanced robotic inspection tools to inspect Alinta Energy's gas-fired power plants in Australia and New Zealand.

Under the agreement, GE's Robotic Inspection Tool and TurboRotoscan Technologies will alert the utility provider to potential generator issues, responsible for inspecting 19 generators manufactured by GE, Alstom, Mitsubishi, and Brush at seven of Alinta Energy's plants in the region.

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