We speak with Robert D. Austin, Professor, Information Systems at Ivey Business School, and an affiliated faculty member at Harvard Medical School about his best-selling case, Digital Transformation at GE: What Went Wrong? This case examines the digital transformation that GE had been attempting and the challenges it encountered, and is especially timely as many organizations accelerate their digital transformation efforts as a result of COVID-19.
Our conversation also touches on such topics as: strategy disruption, looking for – and following – compelling case stories, translating and scaling complex issues into a readable and easily understandable case, and teaching cases in tandem. We conclude our discussion with Rob’s thoughts on the evolution of the case method and Rob’s advice for new case authors.
Robert D. Austin is a professor of Information Systems at Ivey Business School, and an affiliated faculty member at Harvard Medical School.
Before his appointment at Ivey, he was a professor of Innovation and Digital Transformation at Copenhagen Business School, and, before that, a professor of Technology and Operations Management at the Harvard Business School. At Harvard, he chaired the executive program for Chief Information Officers (CIOs) for more than ten years.
Professor Austin has published widely, in both academic and professional venues, such as Harvard Business Review, Information Systems Research, MIT Sloan Management Review, Organization Science, Organization Studies, and the Wall Street Journal. He also is the author of nine books, more than 50 published cases and notes, three Harvard online products, and two popular Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) running on the Coursera platform. His “Cyberattack!" Simulation won the 2020 International Serious Play Gold Medal. His research on neurodiversity employment programs is funded by SSHRC.
Hello, I'm Mat Quinn thanks for joining us again for decision point from IV publishing at the Ivy Business School today. I'm excited to be talking with rob, Osten and information systems. Professor at Ivy Rob Discusses this year's Ivy Publishing Best Selling case digital transformation at g. What went wrong as well as the acceleration of digital transformation efforts at the outset of the global pandemic. Our conversation also touches such topics as strategic disruption. Looking for and following compelling case Stories Translating and Scaling Complex issues into readable and easily understandable cases and teaching cases in tandem. We conclude our discussion with rob's thoughts on the evolution of the case method and his advice for new case authors. I hope you enjoy. It rob thanks very much for joining us. Let's dive into the case digital transformation at g. What went wrong last year, it was the IV publishing best selling case for the most recent academic year. Why do you? Why did you write it, and why do you think it really resonated with audiences yeah? So I I wrote it because I think it's a very, very interesting story of a topic that a lot of people are interested in right now. You know the story of GE. I think everybody pretty much. Everybody knows that Jack Welch, who is the CEO until two thousand and one was highly regarded. One of the business magazines declared him the best manager of the twentieth century when he retired and, of course those would be hard shoes to fill, and he the job for that fell to Jeffrey Imel, Jeffrey Amel, in about two thousand and ten, two thousand and eleven began to develop a very intriguing vision of how Ge would be cub, as he called it one of the top Ted software companies. So this was a story about a company the way people talked about. It is it. This is a story about a company that is preemptively, transforming itself. It's not waiting for others to force it. It's developing its own visio that they were kind of the poster child for the right way to do this. Yet the vision you know when I've taught the case, everybody agrees that the vision is really intriguing. He was trying to make ge into a company like Amazon or Google, but about October of two thousand and eighteen everything just fell apart in you know, Sinst Ge has had a very tough time of it. They've had a cash crutch which was totally alien to General Electric, and so you know it went for being there. The poster child for digital transformation success to them being kind of a cautionary tale about biting off too much or over hyping digital transformation, or something in that, I think, is the heart of the case right trying to understand what went wrong, which is the title of the case, and I just think a lot of people are interested in that story. It's a good story, and, and how much do you think you know, of course, the last eighteen months have had you know? Disruption is everywhere, we're seeing it in the news we're seeing it in you know the Harvard business or view of the Ivy Business Journal. You know how much of the timing of this case do, you think is contributed to the success or is business kind of catching up now, with you know the need to self disrupt or how to manage it yeah. I think that probably is a factor that you know. What of the things that's frequently been observed about the coved die team pandemic is that it has accelerated digital transformation efforts. So I think there are companies that, were you know, people who were thinking about this as something that they would eventually have to do that in the time of pandemic, have suddenly decided that they must do it sooner than they thought, and so you know, I think it just makes this GE story all the more relevant. It's a story of an established firm tried to do what they all think they may now have to do even sooner now, in the process of writing the case and obviously teaching it, you're likely noticing a lot of emerging issues, the things that are unique to digital transformation disruption. What are some of those emerging issues that leaders and managers are really forced to deal with? Well, I think the whole issue of digitaltransformation is incompletely understood by a lot of practicing managers. I think you know there's this thing going on out of the world that I sometimes referred to as a new chapter in the Strategy Textbook that it's you know it goes by a lot of different dames platform, be Cotoy Platform, didatic platform, competition and generally it refers to what's going on with companies like Google and facebook and Amazon in China. We chat ten set Ali Baba and the like, but they do, I would argue they do compete because I'm not the ole one that ar news is they compete differently that traditional what you might call pipe light firm. So I have a draw contrast between platform, FERB and pipeline firms. By pipe light, I mean these are companies that take rawmaterial, transformed them and then sell a value added product on to a group of customers, whether consumers or businesses doesn't really matter. That's a pipe like business bottle platform. Business lovels are more about connecting and growing net works and leveraging network effects and the you know. The reason I think this is important is because I think, there's whole generations of very good vantages very experienced managers out there that haven't yet got their heads around how big a change this is it what's great about the GE case. In my one of the things that I you know, one of the reasons I wanted to write about it is because GE did get it. They understood that if they did do something sap, Microsoft, Google, somebody was going to jump between them of their customers. So it was, you know they were worried and I think legitimately so that in the industrial internet of things, space, Microsoft or or Google or someone might do to them what Microsoft did to a lot of other companies where they captured the desktop standard. In H S, you know they rode that for being a tidy company to a one of the biggest companies in the world in the in a you know a cross two or well three decades really, and so GE realized that if they were able to do that, the you know, with the industrial ate out of things standard that GE was going to be relegated to be sort of a second order for in that is the potential fate for a lot of other established firms. So so there's an urgency, I think to people. You know confronting this issue and getting their heads around it, and I, like you, said it is so relevant in a lot of industries so yeah it really hits a lot of marks. Now. Do you think about that? When you're thinking of Writing Cape- and you wrote quite a number of cases, his hot topic- is it relevant across a number of industries? Do you think about that? When you write a case or you, do you typically go to it's a great story, that's relevant to you yeah. I think I have done. You know yeah you're right. I've probably written dozens of cases, I haven't done a count in a long time, but but I think I have historically dug more of the latter than the fover that made. You know more of the story approach. You know this just looks so interesting. I have to go, learn more about it. I do you know mostly look for cases that are in my general area of interest, whether it's research or teaching or both, but but I think I've been relatively. It's been relatively less frequent in my case. Writing that I've said I have a slot to fill in session for of this particular case, and here are the learning objectives for that session. Let me go fight a case that helps me teach that I can think of some examples of that in cases I've written, but far more often, I think it's more of an exploration. It's me trying to figure out what's interesting, so you're pulling on the thread and seeing what comes up there and then just really listening to the narrative of of the story. That's being told to you to yeah, that's right it often. I am not sure what the focus of the case will be when I start in that's part of what I'm DRI to figure out and you know what's to focus, what's alerting objectives, I've a sense that there's something really important here, but I don't necessarily know what it is when I start in well, that's and that's, I think, good advice for a new case writer like follow the story, let it almost like expose the real learnings and the objectives as you dig into it. Let it tell you the story too yeah. I would definitely a Dorse that approach now when you're writing a case like that- and you know in this case in particular, you know, did any challenges arise in the process? How did you overcome those those challenges particular case? The biggest challenge was: How do you fit this into tip pages? A text and five exhibits. Were you know five pages of exhibits, and you know just to give you an idea before I read this case is a really excellent case by Karibat. That is a Harvard busness school case. That is, it's set up a few years earlier, but it's also about g's digital transformation, but his case is like thirty five pages long. I mean just because the story's so big right and you know frankly, there's some practical problems with using a thirty five page log case, especially with undergrads, but in general, even with exacts right. Thirty, five pages is a lot to ask people to read Yep now. How did you do it like? Tactically? How did it was it constantly reminding yourself to cut and edit, where there's some other tactics that you employed to get it down to a more manageable level and make it more simple in narrative well by my specific approach, usually is to in this one I should not. I worked with a student on this. Who did the first pass, but even when I work with students, my advice to them is go find everything you think is interesting, pile it into a file organize it under. You know the headaches that you think are a merging, and often the headings for case to case are similar right. So there's usually an opening. There's usually a background. Often there's a section about competition and so on so pilot all in there and organize it a bit, and what you typically realize is that the case is about two and a half pages as long as it should be that you can never. You know, you O, never publish it at this length, so you have to go there and you know some of it. You could do through writing. You know if you're, if you've got a lot of quotes, not every quote needs to be a quote. You can often express it more economically by translating quotes into prose. You know your pros quotes. I think you reserve the that space for quotes that you know our points are things that are very insightful that you ought to put in the words of the characters in the case, so you can shorten it part of the way that way, but then you reach a point where the case is still significantly too long. You love everything, that's still there and then the hard part comes is you have to you have to do two things? I think you have to start to think really hard about how you're going to teach the case, because how you teach the case determines what needs to be in there. So you can take things out that you don't be pedagogically, but you also just have to be willing to the. I think it's not life phrases, as somebody else invented a long time ago. You have to be willing to kill Your Dar likes right, fill with things that you can't part with until until you've got it into a containable length and with a story as big as the GE story, it's really hard what there's an Oscar wild quote right that he starts a letter or so the story goes by saying. I'm sorry! This is such a long letter. If I'd had more time that would have been shorter, yeah save for same principle, right, yeah, simple and shorter is really really hard to do. You know I want to take a little bit of a side knowing because you mentioned teaching- and you know how you're going to teach it can inform how you write it, and I know that you've used this particular case in tandem with others, which is a great way to utilize cases. Can you walk us through how you've taught this case and in tandem? I know you've used it with the seaman's case and a JP Morgan Chase case as well. What are some of the advantages, and maybe some disadvantages of that yeah? I very much like to use the GE case along the side, a case it's by dig, so it's called the it's called Sevens: Canada, digital transformation, digital transformation- and I you know it's a great paring, because Semans, if you ask Ge who its biggest competitor was in most categories that it compete said they would probably say sevens, and if you have seven the same question I guess is that they would say gee, and so these are, you know comparable companies, because they're in similar businesses, but they're also very different in bitias. Obviously, one's based on the US one based in Germany but theyre also, you know stylistically very different, tes very financially oriented Siemens is very kind of engineering. Geeky oriented they their approaches to digital transformation were very different and you know I don't know that Stevens would say. They're finished yet, but they definitely have not experienced the sort of everything going off the rails problem that that Ge Ha has experienced. So it's just a it's a very effective strategy. I think for teaching to compare similar companies that have gone about roughly the same task. It very different ways. It's just kind of you know the old exam question, comparing contrast, yeah, that's the idea. I've also used it a lot with the JP Morgan Chase, open banking case, because that gives you an opportunity to look at a specific industry banking and how they're dealing with the you know the intry into their space of those same tech platform. Companies right, Google Apple Ebizo are all in trigge banking. In the you know, the cove bags, like J P, ere good chase they have to. They figure have to figure out what to do about it and what they're going to do about it probably is it just imitate the tech platforms, because they've got a lot of legacy constraints, but you know I mean it's a good, it's a question that a lot of existing firms are having a good front in specifically what of the topics we touch on? There is, if you're not going to be able to do it all yourself who are your partners and who are your rivals and are the people that you thought were your rivals? Actually, your partners in advising yourself? No that's interesting, and you know that partner versus rival and how that can evolve over time. You know, as the world shifts things are constantly changing for organizations. Now I want to change the Lens a little bit from looking at different industries and companies just mentioned. You know, banking as one I like to talk a little bit about cases and case method and the evolution, and I know you and I have had some great conversations about new ways to write and deliver cases and how the methods evolving. You know what do you foresee as of the last eighteen months of going online, we've tried some new things. What are you seeing on the horizon for for case method? In case writing? Well, the the last eighteen months, or so you know it's been a jolt, it's been it's not as the pandemic, I'm talking about. Of course it's knocked us out of our: U Usual Patterns and our usual ways of teaching and of there's a historical fact that I've done some research, this area, that these kinds of jolts often lead to significant innovations, and you know for me- I've always really liked writing cases of developing cases, partly because I like to think of cases as a living form an incomplete project that still evolving for one of my former colleagues when I was at Harvard David Garvin, really great case writer, great teacher, he used to say unfortunately, he's not with us that he were, but he used to say that a case is a literary work. It tended to be discussed that he compared it to a play script, which he called a literary work that is intended to be acted out on the stage, and so, if you think about you know what are the various forbet of a thing intended to be discussed? There's a lot of scope for experimentation, some of the experimenting I've done over the years. You know the I preverse, which has been widely used. It was the first graphic novel case it was published by Harvard- and I remember what I first presented the idea there. There were some people who had a reaction like okay. You want to write a comic book and put the Harvard logo on it. I'm not about that right, but but it has been, you know really very a very successful case over you know more than a decade and then but we've also recently. You know: We've experimented with pure audio cases, which are compelling the roadway because of the power of voices right hearing someone tell their story is: is another kind of striking and engaging kind of way to draw someone into o some business issues? It's some business question, so some of the most intriguing experiments I've seen hibited places where the case method is due case teaching, so it or what said Puna, India. It had a lunch conversation with a guy who is doing some really interesting experiments in terms of translating the case method into medical contexts in part of the reason he was able to do. It is because he just wasn't fixed in his ways right he was a he was a hugely experienced, but that was also that was also a freedom that he had mwe. You look outside of cases and case method. I'm thinking you know. How are you consuming books and movies and Games et CA? You know where some places that we could look for. Inspiration like where do you look at and go wow? That is a really cool way to tell a story. Anything come to mind. Well, I definitely do look at movies. It plays at books. You know that, are you know not necessarily in the Business Chalda, so I do think you know I've. I've offend what I've taught case. Teaching Setas pointed out that both cases in case discussions have plots very much in the same way that a book does or a movie does or a play does in that one of the reasons that cases are powerful as a form of learning is the same. It's the same reason that that you know that movie, you love because there's a weird plot twist at the end, that makes you go, wow cases work the same way. You know students come into class, having read the case and analyzed itself in thinking that they've concluded things that are pretty solid, but then, in the course of listening to their classmates and understanding the way they thought about it. You know with the orchestration of of a careful facilitator, they start to shift what they think right, so they shift their interpretations, they shift their conclusions and they shift what they recommend the terms of action. So there's a real power in that kind of reversal that you know in a dramatic form, is a plot twist, but in a case discussion it's Oh my gosh. I think I'm changing my mind right. I'M gonna recommend the opposite of what I thought I was gonna recommend when I came to class today- and you know importantly, they come to that conclusion on their own right I mean there is. They are listening to others and they're taking input but they're, making their own judgments they're, not just you know, taking notes, while, while a professor lectures in changing their mind that way, they're not being overwhelmed by facts or something to change their mind. They're reasoning on their own in deciding to you know, arrive at other road at a different conclusion, so you there are other ultimate forms that I think are operate. Similarly to that simulations is simulations are really intriguing thing that you know I've done a certain amount of, I think I've doubt designed three onlike simulations, two of which are already productized, that the other is of the the process of being productized and they operate. Similarly, simulations have an added advantage. You know when you read a case and then come to class and talk about it. You have the advantage of having read the whole case and processed the whole thing, whereas it a simulation. You often experience it all in real time in the order that it would happen. You know out of order out of the most convenient order. So you know you haven't had a time that you haven't had as much time as you have in a case is causin to organize everything in structure things that analyze as much. You have to do your sense making. You know in real time as things come at you, so I think simulations work a lot like case discussions of the sins that they are simulated real life, but they also move a step closer. I think to actual experience, there's like that active unveiling that you'd have of living it almost through a simulation absolutely, and I would really encourage those that are you know just starting out in their case writing to take inspiration from their day to day lives or their students lives. How are they consuming stories and you know think of ways pitch ideas to to US or other publishers to go. You know I want to take this in a different direction and try it out o the last thing I wanted to lean on n on you with his. You know: you've got lots of experience. You've tried different ways of presenting narratives, you know if you could leave the listeners with an important piece of advice. You especially those new case authors, you know what would you have them consider? I think I would say to UKASE authors. I would say: Don't be constraint, don't be formulaic, you don't have to follow the same rules that that someone else has followed. I would say it's a good idea to read cases and especially cases that you like in cases that you like to teach one of the things that early in my career, I learned a lot from a case teacher David Upton, who is was a professor at Harvard of the later at Oxford. At David he used to talk about cases that teach themselves. You know he would talk about a particularly artfully written case. You could walk into class. You could ask an opening question and did just sit back and let the discussion proceed, because it's just going to go where it needs to go anyway. I think it takes a while to get to that level of artistry, but read cases like that right when you've had a really successful experience, teaching try to understand why that case has led to that successful experience, but then don't try to copy that just try to learn from it. It incorporated into your own style, I think ultimately case writers in case teachers have to fight their own voice, their own way into the form. It's not you know by copying part of the way. One case writer does a part of the way another case writer. Does it it's by fighting your road approach, your own style? Well, that's great and- and you know, rob a couple things that I'm going to take away from this, as you know, find your own style. You make it your own, but then also let the case and let the story almost tell you let it lead you for how it wants to be written, and, I think that's you know. You've mentioned a couple of other great writers for those that are listening. You can go on to the website and encourage you to register and you'll. Have the ability to check out robs cases and look at the teaching notes as well. The sea get into the mind of rob as the author and what he was thinking and how he used. He hes in the classroom thanks so much for taking the time as always rob your a great colleague and you're. Always you know willing to teach me and and and get in front of the camera or in front of the microphone to to help others learn from your experiences. So I always appreciate it. Well, thanks for having to be bat and fix for for doing all that you do there and publishing you and your team thanks very much we'll talk to you soon or later. If you enjoy today's episode, subscribe to Decision Point on spotify or wherever you listen to be sure, to check out the show notes for links to cases, resources and more have any feedback, send us an email at cases at IV, dot, CA, t
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