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GE Aviation's Quick Six with David Burns

June 21, 2018
GE would not be the company it is today without its employees. From working mothers to U.S. military veterans, GE has a diverse team that should be recognized and celebrated. So, we created a series called the “Quick Six”—six questions we are asking employees to help us learn about their talents and backgrounds. Together, GE works.

In our next installation of Quick Six, The Bike Shop sat down with David Burns, CIO of GE Aviation in Cincinnati, Ohio.

A nearly 20-year veteran of GE, David has a wealth of experience in GE’s Digital Technology function across GE business, including Aviation, Capital, Corporate, Energy, Oil & Gas, and Transportation, and is one of the GE leaders driving our digital transformation.

What has been the most exciting or inspiring moment of your career at GE?

Over the past 20 years, there has been a lot of excitement and there are plenty of inspiring moments to reflect on. Recently, I had the opportunities to visit one of GE’s operations centers in Miami, FL. The site was set up as an effort to insource the IT support services that our employees rely upon every day to remain productive. Historically as a company, we have outsourced this work to individuals who were far away from the environments our employees operate in. This past year, we made the decision to regionalize that support and hire entry level professionals into the company to take on this work. There was a concerted effort to hire a diverse employee population with diverse language skills.  It was inspiring for me to see GE investing in employees and providing technical training for people to build a career around. At the end of the day, to be a great company, you need to be a good company, and I am always inspired when I see GE investing in the communities in which we operate.

As a digital leader, what three ingredients do you consider essential for a successful digital transformation?

To be successful in a digital transformation you have to be open-minded and be willing to accept ideas wherever they come from within the organization. The way ideas are developed has changed. We no longer operate like traditional organizations, where deep domain expertise with 20-30 years of experience is the only thing that gives you credibility.  I think this is important because the reality is that in the digital world, great ideas can come from anywhere.

The second thing I consider essential to a successful digital transformation is curiosity. Having an appetite for learning helps us to create and maintain deep expertise in our fields and allows us to think about how that expertise can be applied. Technology is changing at a pace faster than business is used to changing, and I think leaders need to be constantly thinking through how they can ensure they’re being curious enough and looking on the periphery to find opportunities to drive disruption and ultimately affect our business positively.

The third thing I’d say is aiming for success, but having the willingness to fail. By nature, digital transformation pushes you into unchartered territories and you’re not going to get it right the first time. This is okay. You have to be able to underwrite failure, take risks, and find things to learn along the way, adjusting your plan and approach accordingly.

As a leader of digital transformation at GE, what would be your advice to those trying to get a buy-in for a digital transformation project on their teams?

You have to recognize that change is hard for people.  One way to motivate change is to ensure people understand the risk of not doing so. At the end of the day, the world is moving forward at an accelerating pace so you need to make sure that critical decision makers are aware that if you’re standing still you’re moving backwards.

The other thing I try to do when influencing key stakeholders is making sure they understand what’s possible. The proof is in what people see. The more tangible examples of digital transformation in action, the more momentum you’ll get behind it. Sometimes people get set in their ways and are comfortable with what they understand, but when a leader can see digital in action, that’s the biggest motivator for people. It’s a great way to build advocacy and help people realize the potential benefits of your vision.

How do you decide who to involve in the process?

We start with the problem we’re trying to solve, really making sure we have a clear understanding of the business outcome we’re trying to drive and achieve. Then, we make sure we’re tackling those problems with all constituents in the business that touch the process, whether it’s engineering, manufacturing, IT or finance. If they touch the process, they need to be involved in helping to understand the data trends.

Based on your experience, what are your key takeaways around digital transformation?

Going into a digital transformation, you’re not going to get it right the first time, and a lot of the times that’s scary. In companies, failure is viewed negatively, but failing allows you to learn faster.  Looking back on our digital transformation, we’ve made a lot of good decisions and we’ve had a couple missteps. It is only through the application of theories and understanding which theories work and which don’t that we were able to really drive benefits. So, my biggest takeaway is this: you just have to try, and you have to be okay with not getting it right the first time. If you don’t try, you’ll never figure it out.

What is one potentially surprising thing that people don’t know about you?

I met my wife on my first day at GE.  I remember the first time I saw her like it was yesterday.  I have many things to be thankful for from my time at GE, but that is by far and above the best!

Did you know Quick Six is a series? Read our previous features:

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GE Aerospace is a world-leading provider of jet and turboprop engines, as well as integrated systems for commercial, military, business and general aviation aircraft.