GE is moving the top 800 executives to a downtown Boston zip code, signaling a trend in multinational companies that it is time to double down on their Unified Collaboration (UC) strategy to provide virtual lifelines while physically isolating senior management from their workforce. GE expects to benefit by association with Boston’s booming high-tech industry, but the company may be overestimating the maturity of today’s collaboration technologies and ease of executive product adoption.

Welcome to Boston

Corporate collaboration solutions have blown past rudimentary interoperability between desktop video and traditional videoconference conference rooms. Robust experiences that integrate data analytics and high-resolution visualization and SaaS are emerging in this product space, which is exciting but keeping platform maturity just out of reach. The lure is potential to radically enhance productivity and innovation. Thus, enterprises can either wait out the bumps or try to adopt to these new tools and stay ahead of the competition. With the move to Boston, GE’s senior executives will have to tolerate significant volatility and embrace a new collaboration culture in order virtually span the chasm they are creating inside their organizations.

Bluescape’s virtual whiteboards (Takahashi, 2014)

Bluescape’s virtual whiteboards (Takahashi, 2014)

GE Not Alone in Exclusive Isolation

While setting up shop in premium office space in Boston’s Seaport District in 2016, the rest of GE’s employees are leaving the expansive Fairfield headquarters and heading for lower rent suburban office parks in Connecticut and Massachusetts.  Executives desire the notoriety of the high profile address, but without the cost housing their entire workforce in Boston (BasuMallick, 2016).

Boston Skyline (BasuMallick, 2016) 

Boston Skyline (BasuMallick, 2016) 

Slimming down the executive office is “a badge of honor” (Chesto, 2016), and just like Con Agra’s move to downtown Chicago in 2015, GE will be seen by shareholders as getting “leaner and more nimble” and more in touch with today’s consumers (Trotter and Jassen, 2015). What happens to Con Agra’s remaining rank and file in Omaha remains uncertain. Morgan Stanley, for example, plans to reduce its footprint in Manhattan by hiring more staff in Mumbai and Budapest (Chesto, 2016).

GE’s 300,000 employees in 170 countries (Nickisch, 2016), may be seasoned veterans at collaborating across a highly distributed workforce, but yesterday’s voice, video, and application-sharing products worked in isolation, and not interoperable with desktop or mobile solutions. High resolution walls that provide data manipulation and annotation are also new to scene and require integration. The timing of GE’s physical transition comes when unifying collaboration technologies are just getting a foothold in the workplace. Separating the top 1% and simultaneously introducing innovative solutions may place unexpected burdens on senior executives to quickly become high-tech collaborators themselves.  

Telecommunication and other advances in communication technology make it easier to split up a workforce among several locations
— Jeffery Immelt, GE Chief Executive (Chesto, 2016)

Unified Collaboration is one of the most rapidly changing technology sectors today, and GE’s execs are positioned to be early adopters.   According to Irwin Lazar from Nemertes Research, “Unified Communications is poised for rapid change that will be driven by a perfect storm of mobilized workers, innovative technologies and a changing vendor landscape.”  (Lazar, 2016). In order to avoid significant disruption to productivity, GE would be wise to implement a multi-year strategy that integrates changes in multimedia (specifically display technology) alongside unified collaboration changes at the desktop, as well as the phone, and the data center: all towards the cloud.

Ashford (2016 )

Ashford (2016)

Current State of UC Affairs

Unified collaboration solutions are evolving at a brisk pace, challenging the ability to productionize infrastructure across a world-wide enterprise without set-backs and revisions impacting user experience and product adoption. Most corporations today have a Cisco data network, Microsoft at the desktop and Avaya for voice services. IT departments are attempting to leverage these existing infrastructure investments, and update products versions that claim to interoperate, while trying to avoid disrupting their users with an endless series of changes. Meanwhile, new collaboration solutions are popping up that are more cost-effective, efficient and versatile. UCC strategists are compelled to either rip and replace, or face gestation paralysis because of the infinite options or products lacking the last 20% of an enterprise scalable solution (Ballarin, 2016).

For example, during the competitive upheaval between Cisco Jabber/WebEx and Microsoft Lync/Skype-for-Business, game changers arrived on the scene, such as Zoom, Spark, Prysm and Rigel. These new products leverage a new cloud and a UCaaS investment strategy that may take years for companies to fully integrate, secure and stabilize. Whether companies wait or jump on board, the clear trend emerging from all this upheaval is that concept of collaboration is moving away from the passiveness of conference room presentations, and toward much greater personal engagement. 

Prysm  (Digital Production Middle East, 2014)

Prysm  (Digital Production Middle East, 2014)

Senior executives like Immelt are counting on their technology experts to make the UCC explosion transparent to business processes, but the bulk of the transformation lands squarely on the hands of the users, putting executives on a path of removing the “white gloves” and rolling up their sleeves. In an enterprise deployment, electronic collaboration surfaces like Surface Hub, Prysm and Bluescape must require users to login to avoid abuse. Once GE’s executives to adjust to authentication, they will realize that the sharing-power of these tools is dependent on their direct interaction.

For example, the CIO gets alerted to a serious cyber threat. Historically, the executive briefing would have consisted of a videoconference and a power point slide deck. With this next generation product, senior leaders are manipulating multiple data sources with their hands (or pens), contributing their executive perspective to reach the best decision for the company. The experience is substantially more agile because not everyone is in the same room. Separating the senior decision makers requires experience has to be virtual, thus accessible and responded to in real time. Self-identity and engaging directly with the technology are just two cultural curves that will be arriving at the same time GE’s executives move into their new offices and try to manage their teams with increased physical isolation.

Cisco’s Spark  (Garey, 2015).

Cisco’s Spark  (Garey, 2015).

Hello Micro HQ's

The “Mad Men” days of the expansive downtown campus appear to be over (Chesto, 2016). GE’s move to Boston coincides with office space planning trend of scaling down the square feet per worker, replacing individual offices with open spaces scattered with shared, self-managed collaboration stations. Combine the technical transition of GE’s products and services with imagery of a technology-fluent city like Boston, and everyone will expect GE’s executives to become more tech-savvy too. 

In some ways, General Electric mirrors Massachusetts’ transition from blue-collar manufacturing to the knowledge economy. The company once best known for making light bulbs has transformed into a global services firm at the forefront of energy, health care and Internet technologies.
— Curt Nickisch, WBUR (2016)

Predicted Challenges

The transition to more a personalized, dynamic and relevant remote-collaboration experiences will encounter service disruptions. Up until now, executive leadership and middle managers have experienced technology “bumps” from different vantage points. 

Most executives conduct business with zero tolerance for technical failure. They are shielded from hiccups that can cripple a middle manager’s meeting. Executive support staff prepare for meetings in advance, closely monitor conference calls and rush in to resolve equipment and transmission failures at a moment’s notice. The C-level execs may never know their meeting flirted with disaster, but dedicated staffing aside, too-big-to-fail meetings require significant device and network redundancy that is too costly and complex to implement at scale.

Comparison of Use Experiences (Trending to the Right)

Meanwhile, the middle managers are directly engaging with the next generation User Interface (UI), due to a reduction in support service (part of operational cost-cutting), encouraged to connect their own video calls and use meet-me bridging services. Dialing into a bridge lessens the dependency of technology working in specific rooms, but increases expectations on the UI being intuitive, as well as product capacity and reliability. Managers are best served to establish contingencies, like audio conference bridges, because desktop software meetings introduce more variables and thus more points of failure.  

In successful Skype for Business calls, managers are either engaged or observing their staff taking advantage of the rich sharing and annotating features of these software applications provide. Unfortunately, the User Interface for these collaboration products is rapidly changing in response to greater functionality: Lync (2013) to Skype for Business (2015)  to Project  Rigel (2016). The success of GE’s middle managers engagement with in this next generation of collaboration technologies is key because they will be sitting at the far end of the executive calls, influencing their leadership’s product adoption. 

As collaboration sessions become more impromptu, and traditional meeting structures diminish, such as booking specific rooms, new service logistics emerge: distributing virtual meeting room PINs, logistics around compliance and escalating support calls. Executives are familiar with conference calls, but with virtual data collaboration there is a greater demand for pre-staging meeting material so that it can be accessed from any location, marked up, retained and retrieved for the next session. These requirements reinforce the importance of security and validate the need for executive administrators to proxy their executive’s engagement with the technology.


Microsoft’s Project Rigel User Interface (Logitech, 2016).

Microsoft’s Project Rigel User Interface (Logitech, 2016).

Just because executives and managers both have Microsoft applications at their fingertips does not mean that a product like Skype for Business (S4B) should become the common interface applied across the entire collaboration portfolio. It is unlikely that executives, administrators and line managers will be comfortable with transitioning from a touch panel to a mouse and keyboard, nor should companies be beholden to Microsoft for determining how their business units engage in collaboration. And when applied to a touch panel, the Microsoft “experience” gets lost in translation. The best feature of the Skype Meeting experience is the one-button-to push to join a call. While this functionality fills a significant gap in traditional videoconferencing, is also bypasses the user authentication requirement occurring for desktop participants at the other end of the call. The solution, since the touch panel is IP, is to replicate browser page and provide identity prompts that are a more palatable for conference room engagements.  This extraction can now become a common UI across all non-desktop systems. Unfortunately, even if the UI is perfect, senior managers will continue to depend on staff to set up calls (to avoid technical snafus that impact their productivity), so a tolerance for proxy authentication has to built into the solution.


Predicted Growing Pains as Collaboration Technologies Emerge on the Executive Landscape:


The adoption of GE’s executives to next generation of unified collaboration products illustrates the need for the architecture to align culture, process and technology to optimize the experience. Fragmented legacy processes (both manual and automated) have to be transformed into an environment that is responsive to change and supportive of the delivery of the business strategy. Within the next two years, organizations will move their UC&C model to hybrid and cloud-based environments, with enterprise organizations leading the change. A successful UC strategy is in continuous motion, finding ways to reduce business operations and change-management costs, providing staff with greater agility, and with capabilities shared across the entire organization.


TURNING POINT is Mark Peterson's personal take on innovation and collaboration influencing today's corporate strategy. To have a conversion about what takes to implement collaborative solutions efficiently and at enterprise scale, contact Mark Peterson



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