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3 Digital Transformation Lessons from Beth Comstock
This past September, marketers from around the world gathered at Spring Studios in New York for Transition – a conference about how digital is disrupting the marketing industry and the wider world. Our Co-Founder and CEO Noah Brier sat down with Beth Comstock, Vice Chair at General Electric, as she shared lessons learned during her tenure leading GE’s innovation business.
1. Data is at the heart of visibility
It’s impossible to transform an organization, product, or process without being able to visualize it. For Beth, this meant ensuring that GE was collecting the right data and using it effectively. From there, they could start to predict outcomes and create operational efficiency.
For their products, this means embedding sensors and controls in every piece of hardware, enabling visibility both for the customer and for the manufacturer. Beth shared the example of hospital nurses, who on average spend 20% of the workday looking for equipment and materials. “Imagine if everything had a sensor and a control. Then things can come to you,” explains Beth. But the first step to any transformation is to understand the current state and get visibility into how things work – and don’t work. GE has taken this approach beyond their products and transformed how they produce their marketing, implementing a system that enables them to track, reproduce, and analyze their campaign plans and content.
“If I could go back in time for us as a company, I would have focused on our digitization as a company before focusing on our products.” – Beth Comstock
2. Think like a startup
While Beth admits that GE couldn’t have lasted 125 years without knowing how to evolve – enacting change in a large organizations is still a challenge. The changes the company has undergone in the last decade have required the entire GE team to start thinking and acting less like one of the world’s largest companies and more like a startup.
From Beth’s perspective, in today’s fast-paced, digital world, you can’t wait for everything you produce to be perfect. Instead, her team uses feedback loops to inform and perfect their processes over time. This was the basis of FastWorks – the framework GE developed to enable their teams to be more agile. At its core, FastWorks relies on testing and learning with constant input from early-adopters. This “lean startup” mentality is critical to GE’s digital transformation strategy and has been used both developing new products and creating marketing content.
Of course, institutional change also affects an existing customer base. With customer and market input a key part of the FastWorks process, GE developed a methodology for diagnosing customers’ willingness to adopt new technology. Those that are eager to be a part of the refining process play an important part in offering feedback and shaping future iterations. Ultimately, the focus became about aligning their energies with customer needs and priorities and bringing in detractors early.
3. Marketing drives change across the organization
At GE, marketing has played a key role in communicating these new methods and setting teams up for success. As Beth sees it, the market fundamentally forces marketing teams to answer challenging questions about the failures of the past and direction for the future. So, marketers have long made measuring, learning, and adapting part of their process. Marketing is also inherently cross-functional, bringing together the perspectives of sales, engineering, design, existing customers, and the market itself. For example, at GE, Marketing partnered with Human Resources to eliminate periodic performance reviews and institute a constant feedback loop, ensuring that collaboration wasn’t slowed by traditional hierarchies and processes.
For companies like GE, digital transformation is as much about how your employees work and collaborate as how your customers experience and buy your products. Some of the most enduring and innovative digital transformations are driven from the inside out – starting with internal tools and processes and extending to farthest reaches of your brand.