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One brand, different platforms (part 6) – GE embraces open innovation

9 December 2011

The world is too fast, complex and networked for any company to have all the answers inside

Yochai Benkler, author of The Wealth Of Networks

After our focus on Siemens’ online co-creation initiatives, where the focus seems to be on co-creating the future cities together, let’s have a look an another engineering giant: General Electric. GE is a very powerful brand, it ranked 5th in the last Interbrand ranking, but its position towards opening its business seems quite ambiguous to me. As you’ll read after the break, GE’s business is a particular (and diverse) one. Exactly like Siemens, GE has grown into a multi-activity conglomerate with a wide diversity of businesses, from which not everything can be opened-up somehow. Let’s have a look at how GE engaged in co-creation initiatives via the internet.

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In The Innovation Dilemma, published in the Journal of Product Innovation Management, Robert G. Cooper says that open innovation is a quite unpopular and uneffective ideation approach. Another surprising statement is made that, according to him, “seeking ideas from outside the firm applies best to a handful of industries, such as consumer goods […] but it may not apply well to higher-technology or engineering products“. He also quotes GE’s CEO, Jeffrey Immelt, who said in The Economist in 2007 that:

[GE is leader in numerous fields which require] doing things that almost nobody else in the world can do

But obviously even a company like General Electric has to jump on the value co-creation train. In Innovation Excellence, Stefan Lindegaard shares the GE’s view of open R&D. Partnering with external actors in their R&D has various benefits: cost, speed, quality, go-to-market and creativity. It’s obvious that, in such a company, open innovation needs to go beyond the co-ideation phase (in which creativity might be prevealing) in order to get the full benefits. I like the following illustration:

presentation slide pyramid

Value at GE has to be co-created along the whole value-chain, not only in the early ideation phase (image via innovationexcellence.com)

A famous example of GE is it’s Ecoimagination challenge. In a report about Open Innovation in Europe released recently, “[these challenges] are open to any type of potential partner including individuals, small enterprises… and is aimed at collecting any type of new ideas for projects“. But beyond ideas, GE is actually looking to embrace the open innovation trend too, because they know that it will be crucial to remain competitive. In an HBR blog post, Andrew Winston quotes GE’s Chief Marketing Officer and Senior Vice President, Beth Comstock:

We’re looking for new models of innovation. We don’t have all the answers or all the capabilities

Aha! Obviously, since Immelt’s quote from 2007, things have changed. Andrew Winston dubs it “a candid admission” in his blog post. In the report that I just mentionned, one of GE’s executives says that “Open Innovation is in our DNA” (p.27). In 2010, GE sollicited people about powering the grid, and then about powering the home. Since then, other initiatives have been launched, including the Ecoimagination Challenge geared towards China and the Healthymagination Challenge. Interestingly enough, the challenges are not only PR initiatives or idea funnels, but involve two-way value co-creation with small companies. Beth Comstock says that there’s a lot benefit to share:

What can we learn from start-ups? A lot, but there’s also a lot that a big company can teach a start-up

That was for the innovation-part. I also found a cool creative challenge that involves GE and Instagram, in which people from all over the world are asked to contribute with photos. GE already has a Tumblr on which they show photos of facilities all over the world, but this challenge will also be amplified via facebook and twitter. Also, as the following video says, the winner of the Next GE Instagrapher challenge will be invited to the UK, where she/he will visit an “world-class jet engine facility”.

Do you know of other co-creative / open innovation initiatives of GE that I have missed? I’d be glad to hear about it!

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