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Fast Talk: The Connector

Research chief Mark M. Little on how GE really does bring ideas to life.

Fast Talk: The Connector

Mark M. Little

Senior Vice President and Director, GE Global Research
Niskayuna, New York

Little, 53, heads GE's central research labs, which comprise 2,700 technologists in four locations working on 10 main areas of focus. Here, he explains how to manage ideas in such a large organization—and, more important, how to get those ideas to businesses that can use them.

"The purpose of our work here is to drive growth across GE's businesses. So it's crucial that we connect those businesses with ideas. On an ongoing basis, there are program managers who know where the businesses are headed and also have a window to the research portfolio. But we also do something two or three times a year called Session T, for technology. A marketing team from one business and a technology team come together with scientists here. They talk about a marketplace need, translate that into a technical need, and then brainstorm around that.

For example, it's clear that emissions requirements for railroad locomotives are going to get tighter. Out of that marketplace need come new technology ideas—for combustion control, catalytic systems, or hybrid locomotives. We also have a big research program in composite materials, which produced the GE90 aircraft-engine fan blade. It's 4 feet long and weighs just 50 pounds. So where else can we apply that lightweight strength? At the Session Ts, the composite researchers learned that in the wind business, you have turbine blades that might be 150 feet long—and at that length, a lightweight composite becomes pretty attractive. So the aircraft-engine team has been pushing its technology hard into the energy business. We're working on that right now."

A version of this article appeared in the March 2007 issue of Fast Company magazine.