Gen. Colin Powell stresses potential success, dangers of social media

Gen. Colin Powell argued the potential is there for the social enterprise, but you can't have leaders that are terrified of it.
Written by Rachel King, Contributor

SAN FRANCISCO -- Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff welcomed General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt and General Colin Powell in front a packed keynote hall on Thursday afternoon at Dreamforce '12 to discuss their perspectives on integrating social media throughout the private and public sectors, the Arab Spring, and job creation.

"I was born analog, and I've been desperately trying to catch up with the digital world," Powell said lightheartedly, describing how he was watched the "information evolution" change the world and reshape politics, economics, and barriers between people.

Nevertheless, the former Secretary of State asserted that "there are dangers with this revolution, especially the social part of it, where we are so interconnected that we might be too interconnected."

For younger generations, Powell acknowledged that we should want them to be very literate of and using these tools, but we have to make sure we are protective of them.

Immelt chimed in that one of the things you have to do with a 130-year old company like GE is to "stay young and fresh."

"One of the pillars of our culture is to be a learning company and always want to work on what's next," Immelt said. "So that just arches over everything."

Immelt replied that his two biggest challenges are fighting size and bureaucracy, but that social media gives him access to customers and employees, allowing him to jump over whatever barriers exist.

"Today organizations move too slowly," Immelt said. "By using technology, I think you can move faster. You get more transparency. You get more access."

Powell also touched on what social networks have done by speeding up the way people work now, citing younger generations coming into either the military or the State Department and the skill sets they are bringing.

"You better keep up with them," Powell advised. "They're not going to keep up with you."

Powell added that because of social media, there is "so much transparency, and we're moving so fast that we have to repsond to every bit of data that comes in," which has to be acted on immediately. 

"You have to have channels in place to distribute the information in a safe and secure way, but make sure it is usable without overwhelming the whole system," Powell advised.

Benioff has repeatedly cited the Arab Spring, in particular, as an event that demonstrated the power and revolution fed by social media. Powell also touched on this, noting that the challenge in leadership these days everywhere from the Middle East to GE is understanding and integrating social media into everything that you're doing.

"The potential is there, but you have to have leaders who are comfortable with the technology and not terrified," Powell said. "These leaders won't be able to stop it. You can't stop it. Vladimir Putin can't stop it, and the Middle East leaders can't stop it."

Powell and Immelt both discussed their thoughts on the global economic climate, with both speakers reiterating the importance of creating new jobs. Essentially, both of them agreed that new jobs come from encouraging fast-growing companies and entrepreneurs.

Immelt acknowledged that recovery won't be instantaneous, but he posited that "the U.S. economy gets a little bit better everyday.

However, he stipulated that figures like "8.1 percent unemployment can not be the new normal."

Powell added the "jobs that have disappeared aren't necessarily coming back," so we need to create new ones and educate children for jobs of the future.

Immelt suggested these some these jobs will come out of Silicon Valley, manufacturing, and simply just focusing on "what's possible with better methods."

He also commented that the days of "cheap labor" are over, citing how GE has moved some of its factories and plants back to the U.S. from locations abroad. Immelt said this could be good for the United States as it will force the country to become more competitive while staying closer to customers.

The general also told the keynote audience to keep in mind that we live i an "international economy," and that "we are all connected." He explained further that anyone who "says we should be protectionist and should only 'buy American' doesn't understand what America means anymore."

More Dreamforce '12 coverage on ZDNet:

Editorial standards