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GE’s Appointment of Beth Comstock as Vice Chair Has Deep Meaning

It's the last gasp of summer and the world will probably not notice a small story in today's Wall Street Journal. But it might be quite important.

Beth Comstock has been named vice chairman of General Electric for the express purpose of overseeing the company’s efforts to unleash the power of the Internet and data analytics to improve the way it makes things.

I can see three deep interpretations of this:

  • If GE, a bastion of manufacturing, is elevating someone to the vice chairman’s level to oversee the push to transform the way it makes things, that’s a bold statement. It means that every other manufacturing company has to consider how it is structured and whether it has the right people in the right places to make sure it captures the latest advancements in manufacturing know-how. GE is calling this the “industrial Internet” era.
  • Secondly, Comstock worked her way up the ladder through public relations and marketing, which is highly unusual in the Fortune 100. But she has displayed real imagination and originality. She came up with the notion of “ecoimagination” to describe how GE was trying to make things to improve the environment. She created a partnership with BuzzFeed, of all news organizations to choose. Her elevation may mean that the nuts-and-bolts operations guys or the number-crunching accountants may not possess the right skills to operate at the top level of such a major corporation.
  • Lastly, obviously, Comstock is a woman who now joins a boys’ club dominated by CEO Jeff Immelt. Three other vice chairmen also are men. It’s suddenly not crazy to suggest that Comstock could one day become CEO. What a red letter day that would be! GE’s corporate culture has been incredibly macho, thanks in part to the tender ministrations of Jack Welch. What if Jeff Immelt thinks that a different type of culture needs to be created at the top? That would set off more shockwaves in corporate America.

So dear readers, if you’re still on the beach, big things are happening in small articles.


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