Powell, GE's Immelt: The Social Work Force Is the Future of Business, Politics

NEWS ANALYSIS: General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt and former Secretary of State Colin Powell bring a unique perspective to the Information Age and how it has permanently changed the way businesses run, people communicate and whether governments rise or fall.

At first glance it might seem unusual that former Secretary of State and former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Colin Powell would be a keynoter at a tech conference. But onstage at the Dreamforce 2012 conference hosted by Salesforce.com, Powell declared his tech bona fides.

“I’m proud to say that it was the American armed forces that sort of developed the Internet; we’ve got to get a little credit for that,” he said. “It was also the United States armed forces that put up the [global positioning satellites] GPS that everybody uses.”

Powell talked tech alongside General Electric Chairman and CEO Jeffrey Immelt in a question-and-answer session moderated by Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff as Dreamforce 2012 was winding up in San Francisco.

Benioff sought to make this 2012 conference not just about Salesforce’s latest software-as-a-service (SaaS) offerings or the multitude of customer case studies presented at the show, but also about a broader “vision” for the tech industry.

Besides product keynotes about Salesforce Chatter, Data.com Social Key and Salesforce Touch, Benioff sat down with business and industry thought leaders such as Sir Richard Branson, chairman of the Virgin Group; motivational speaker Tony Robbins also appeared.

The roster of high-profile names also included Immelt and Powell, who shared with Benioff their vision for how the Information Age is changing the economy, society and geopolitics.

Given Salesforce’s embrace of enterprise social media delivered in the cloud, the conversation turned to social media as a way of improving communication within an organization. It’s shown results at GE, which Immelt described as a 130-year-old company with 300,000 employees operating in multiple business units around the world, including in aerospace, aircraft engines and sophisticated medical equipment.

“I’m always fighting size and bureaucracy and so what social media does for me is it gives me access to customers and employees where I can just go over the top of whatever [barrier] exists,” Immelt said.

He said he recently used Salesforce Chatter to communicate with sales people in the division that makes mining equipment, inviting them to share with him issues they are having in the market. He said that with the information he gathered from the Chatter Feed, he was able to reach out to sales managers in the unit and ask, “What’s going on here, guys?”

For the past two years Immelt has authored his own internal blog in which he can speak frankly to employees; he said he doesn’t submit it to GE’s general counsel for review before posting it.

Social media and other Internet communications have been given some of the credit for facilitating the Arab Spring movement of the last year and a half, in which dictatorships were toppled by popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

However, those and other countries are still in turmoil as indicated by mass protests and attacks on U.S. embassies in the past few weeks including a fatal attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11 in which the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were killed.

Investment in tech industries could be an important way to stabilize the region, said Immelt. He’s hoping that companies such as G.E. could spur the development of small and midsize businesses in countries such as Egypt.

Powell concurred and shared an anecdote about a conference he attended in Egypt as Secretary of State to President George W. Bush that included representatives of European Union countries as well as others. An Egyptian representative asked for the floor.

“He said, ‘Let me tell you what the greatest problem we have in the Middle East is today,” and I said, ‘Oh, goodness, he’s going to say Israel,’ but he didn’t. He said, ‘Jobs.’ "