A Leadership Perspective on Human Capital Strategy

The HCA is a student-run organization within Cornell University’s Samuel Curtis Johnson School of Management and the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. HCA strives to drive the future of the HR profession through educational and professional development opportunities across the Cornell community. Its annual symposium provides a forum for students, faculty, and corporate executives to come together and explore the various human capital issues prevalent in global business.

This year’s symposium focused on the role of technology as a human capital decision enabler and its impact on how we work – now and the trends likely to impact the future.

Susan P. Peters, Senior Vice President, Human Resources at General Electric Company (GE), delivered the keynote address titled, “Evolving to Win in a Digital World.”

Ms. Peters discussed GE’s position in the global economy where an estimated 3 billion people are now “connected” via the Internet. Across its global operations, Peters outlined four of GE’s strategic imperatives:

  1. Simplification
  2. Growth market advantage
  3. Better service through analytics
  4. Technical leadership. 

As technology and other forces change the business environment, Peters said, “Our role as HR leaders is to help people make their way through the change.”

GE Chairman and CEO, Jeff Immelt, has called the new technological potential to connect machines and software the “Industrial Internet,” also commonly known as “The Internet of Things.” Peters said that the potential for GE to improve product efficiency by even 1% with this technology could save its customers tens of billions of dollars over 15 years. To build its software capabilities, GE recently invested in a new software center near Silicon Valley, in San Ramon, California. By the end of 2014, the center is expected to grow to 1,235 employees, a growth of nearly 70% since 2012.

Peters affirmed her belief in the importance of culture in achieving GE’s strategic goals. “You might have a great strategy, but culture eats strategy for lunch.”

The Lean Startup and its author, Eric Ries, provided inspiration and guidance for GE’s current efforts to transform its culture in an era that requires GE to adapt and get products to market more quickly. Coming out of this relationship has been a new approach to working called “Fastworks,” guided by the mantra: “Experiment…learn…iterate.” Peters shared the five steps outlined by the approach:

  1. Understand customer’s need
  2. Identify leap of faith assumptions
  3. Define your Minimum Viable Products (MVPs)
  4. Establish learning metrics
  5. Pivot or persevere. 

The goal is for engineers and designers to not go off on their own and create an impressive, finished product only to bring it to the customer and learn its features are not actually valuable to the customer, something Peters inferred has occurred in the past. Instead, Fastworks is meant to get customer feedback up front and throughout the process. Assumptions must be identified so they can be tested and calculated risks taken. Prototypes that are minimally viable should be created and presented to the market multiple times for feedback, thus allowing the product to improve via experiment and iteration. In this way, GE hopes to make products that are more aligned with customer preferences and be able to meet their needs more quickly.

To further support the cultural transformation efforts, GE is also in the process of rolling out five new “GE Beliefs” meant to provide directional guidance for GE businesses globally while being broad enough to allow for local interpretation and adaptation. They are:

  • Customers determine our success
  • Stay lean to go fast
  • Learn and adapt to win
  • Empower and inspire each other
  • Deliver results in an uncertain world. 

Peters concluded by saying that a company like GE, the only company from the original Dow Jones Industrial Index still listed today, could not have lasted 130 years without adapting over its history.