It may not be a British company, but the General Electric Company – better known as GE – is critical to the British economy. The UK is the second largest employee base for GE after the US. In the Mayfair office of corporate CIO Neil Dyke is a pair of maps that show the scope of his role – one is of Africa and the other of the UK, the latter showing GE's sites in places such as Truro in Cornwall, the Midlands, Wales, Scotland and of course the London HQ.

“There are 20,000 GE employees in the UK,” Dyke says. “There are two ways of looking at a country from within GE: as destination sales and as an operating centre. In the UK we have several global headquarters managing destination sales across the world.”

GE has eight business units and all eight have a presence in the UK; for two of them, the UK is the global headquarters. The eight units are: Capital, Aviation, Healthcare, Home and Business, Oil and Gas, Power and Water, Energy Management, and Transportation.

In the UK the 11 aviation manufacturing sites employ 5000 people. GE Healthcare has its global headquarters in Buckinghamshire, while the transportation business makes signal systems for railways here. GE Capital also has its EMEA headquarters in the UK with 3,000 employees, and the Energy Infrastructure businesses produces technology for all parts of the energy sector whether oil, gas, nuclear, coal, wind or renewable.

On its website GE says that since 2002 it has invested £10 billion into the UK, mostly through acquisitions. This means the map in Dyke’s office features 45 locations, 25 of which are manufacturing operations, in a country that some claim doesn’t make anything anymore.

A singular challenge

Dyke’s role is an example of the complexity of the GE business. The CIO has to deliver singularity in a environment of multiplicity.

“There is no one GE. We are highly regulated in the banking sector, highly regulated in the healthcare sector and heavily regulated in the aviation business and again in oil and gas,” he says indicating the intricacy that surrounds each of these operations.

GE CIO Neil Dyke

Strangely, Dyke says GE doesn’t have good brand awareness in Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA), the regions he has a remit for as CIO. This is a challenge for a company that he says thrives on talent recruitment to ensure it has the best engineers, technologists, management and bankers in the business.

Some of this may be because what GE does is to add the really clever but unseen critical element in a business process – a bit like being a CIO. GE is not a rival to BP or Shell in the oil and gas business, rather its role is critical in creating and making “rotating machinery that helps get the oil and gas out of the ground,” Dyke explains. Transferring gas down pipelines also requires specialist machinery as the gas needs a form of locomotion to flow. In the case of the Alberta oil sands operations that have attracted great controversy in Canada, the technology to extract oil from sand is another example of a GE development.

Drilling down

But increasingly, GE isn’t just a provider of impressive machinery but also a technology company developing and supplying software for gathering rich data from these machines and offering that data as a service to the users – in this case the oil firms.

“We see ourselves as a technology company rather than engineers, for example our healthcare operation is very high-tech with the scanners it produces,” Dyke explains.

Yet although the company has 25 manufacturing facilities in the UK, it is its banking business, GE Capital that has the largest presence here, constituting 40% of GE UK.

Dyke manages a shared service operation across EMEA, but illuminating just why there is “no one GE”, he explains that the lighting and appliances operations have short product cycles and very fast turnaround, while the oil and gas sectors are “very long cycles from order to win, often with a year of negotiation”.

“The challenge is in the types of IT you can provide across these. For our MoD and aviation clients I can’t outsource for example. That’s what makes my role interesting and I will go through five or six different businesses in a day and all their different needs and requirements. There are big differences, but they rarely conflict.

“My primary responsibility is to provide shared services across all the EMEA businesses, sometimes as a provider and sometimes as the negotiator with a vendor. It depends on whatever makes sense.

“Shared services include the data centres, fixed line and mobile telecommunications, providing our private cloud, financial applications, payroll and properties,” he explains. Dyke has 100,000 end users depending on his operation, which has a budget of about 2.5% of GE’s turnover.

“Of the 13 growth regions that GE has identified, five are in my region: Russia, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Africa and Turkey, but also Algeria and Germany is a growth region because we are not getting a big enough share of the market.

“In Europe of course Greece is struggling, but the UK is not that bad,” Dyke says. GE chief executive Jeffrey Immelt explained in a recent interview with The Guardian that GE was in a unique position of providing the infrastructure and finance the emerging economies need to become competitive while also supporting the developed western world in its challenge to cope with excessive energy usage, an ageing population and the rising costs of healthcare. For Dyke, it is meeting the technology needs of emerging markets that provides the greatest challenge.

“The big challenge is how we keep up with the emerging markets. In Africa the challenge is the use and availability of technology. Their use of mobility is far more innovative so we have to think very different about how we do things.

“In the Middle East the technology is there, but the costs are extremely high. Africa is a key challenge for me as we are growing and we want to provide world-class IT in an emerging market. I believe in equal IT citizenship so that they will all have the same tools.”

Delivering that equal citizenship is not only challenging across borders, but equally across organisations – Dyke explains that businesses such as GE Capital make greater demands on his IT budget than, say, GE’s lighting business.

GE CIO Neil Dyke

“There is a huge recognition that IT enables the business, so the penetration of IT is 100% and we are investing in collaboration at the moment to improve video and document sharing. There is no part of the business that is not investing in IT for productivity improvements.

Standard aims

GE is one of the most acquisitive organisations in the global economy and Dyke explains that he has a full-time integration team putting newly acquired organisations onto the GE shared service.

“We try to get to standard technology platforms quickly. We run a lot of councils, as we call them, to get people onto standard platforms, whether its storage, the PCs or software. We get benefits of scale; we’ll never get benefits from fragmentation,” says Dyke.

“Over time we have moved to a common email. Twelve years ago when I joined we had multiple email providers and installations, now the company is on a single instance and platform.

“The very first thing that the team needs to be focused on though is operational excellence. We can’t have discussions about innovation unless we do what we do well. When I started in this role we were not as good as a service provider as we might have been.”

You’d be forgiven for thinking that with an EMEA remit and a constant programme of integrations, Dyke has a massive staff resource to call on, but he has just 120 in his team, smaller than many local authority IT teams and dwarfed by Whitehall. This is in part because of GE strategy’s of using large-scale outsourcing.

“We are a virtual organisation and there are people who have made the step up from regional roles to a global role,” he says of his team that is split across 26 countries.

Matrix manager

The size and diversity of business units means GE operates a complex matrix management structure that could be daunting.

“GE is a matrix, but it is fun and it makes things interesting as I have to make sure everyone’s requirements and objectives are met. I lose count of how many boards I am on – you should see my calendar,” he quips.

Dyke has 15 direct reports and the nature of GE means that he and his team can draw business people in from all over the organisation to create a virtual team to deliver a given project.

Some 70% of the IT provision Dyke is responsible for is outsourced, but denied that this is difficult to manage considering the breadth of businesses within GE and their diverse requirements.

“You’d be surprised how straightforward it is,” he says. “With good service agreements we know if we acquire a company we can add, say, 5,000 GE employees to our support contract.

“It works very well and we always have a flexibility and if we go down in demand we don’t have to make difficult decisions,” he says. Dyke doesn’t believe in naming his supplier base in case it causes issues for both parties, but says most vendors are present within GE.

As a company that is itself pushing the boundaries of technology in energy production and healthcare Dyke and his fellow technologists are keen to push the boundaries of enterprise technology within GE.

“We are looking at the public cloud more and more but it depends on the use case. Our instant messaging is on a public cloud, but we wouldn’t put our engineering drawings there. Our ITIL processes are on the public cloud and our enquiry to order software is a public cloud solution. We are looking at the risk in using public cloud in other areas.

“We use a private cloud for email and we have a development and demand system that is on our private cloud.

“Of course public or private cloud is a debate that is very much about the eye of the beholder, so for our clients we provide lots of data from our systems, so they are using a cloud service we provide.

“It’s not just about cloud it’s about enabling access to common data. For our machinery in oil and gas or aircraft there are a lot of remote monitoring that customers can access and use.”

And with consumerisation on most CIOs’ agendas, can users access this data on their own devices?

“BYOD is kind of enabled and we can control the devices and the employees sign up to that. We are also providing more PC choice so that there are more devices available, I now have a Mac, this follows the typical feedback of ‘I have a better computer at home than I have in the office’,” he says.

As our interview ends Dyke tells me that he’s soon off to visit South Africa and a number of neighbouring nations in what he says is a pretty typical travel agenda for his role. It’s a challenge for the father of a young family, he says, and yet he finds time – perhaps on those long?haul flights – to do an MBA.

Neil Dyke CV

2002-present: Corporate CIO EMEA, GE
1999-2002: Group Information Systems Manager, The PII Group
1990-1999: IT Department Manager, Procter & Gamble

GE CIO Neil Dyke