The Most Important Question Facing General Electric

For decades, General Electric's (NYSE: GE  ) fate followed that of the global economy. As one journalist put it in 2007, "As General Electric goes, so goes the world, more or less."

Six years later, with the financial crisis in the rearview mirror, GE's more intent on shaping its own destiny. CEO Jeff Immelt often describes a new economic era that forces large companies "to go out and capture growth" and build more resilient enterprises. For General Electric to thrive, it needs to go on offense and become "antifragile," so to speak. But can a $275 billion company with operations in 160 countries really be antifragile?

That's the dilemma GE faces and the most important question investors should answer before buying shares in the company.

What is antifragility?
The term "antifragile" has gained popularity following the publication of the eponymous book by the former options trader-turned-scholar Nassim Taleb. The idea is that nearly everything -- objects, people, systems, companies -- are confronted with volatile environments, but the antifragile are the ones that thrive under these conditions. They love randomness and disorder, both of which force them to evolve and grow stronger over time.

Natural ecosystems, in the absence of human intervention, are inherently antifragile. A forest, for example, will be exposed to volatile and threatening weather conditions -- even intense wildfires -- over the course of centuries. However, the forest will develop mechanisms to prevent widespread disaster, and thus the damage will tend to occur in isolation. These isolated incidents will in turn bolster the strength of the entire ecosystem by making way for new growth.

Outside of nature, man-made systems with antifragile characteristics exist, although they seem less common in the modern world, at least according to Taleb. An admirable example, as he points out, would be the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) flight monitoring system:

Good systems, such as airlines, are set up to have small errors, independent from each other -- or, in effect, negatively correlated to each other, since mistakes lower the odds of future mistakes. This is one way to see how one environment can be antifragile (aviation) and the other fragile (modern economic life with "earth is flat" style interconnectedness). If every plane crash makes the next one less likely, every bank crash makes the next one more likely.

The global network of airlines conducting around-the-clock flights would seem to be the most complex and convoluted system that exists, and in some respects, it is. But a single flight failure is unlikely to reverberate across the entire system. A faulty battery on a plane crossing the Midwest will have little consequence for a flight landing in Hong Kong, for example.

Thus, airlines operate within a reliable and constantly improving system, and this is an industry Immelt is intimately familiar with. Furthermore, Taleb's quote juxtaposing airlines with banks turns out to be highly relevant to Immelt's conglomerate.

Building a stronger GE
For Immelt and GE, the banking crisis of a few years back proved incredibly revealing, if otherwise undesirable. It exposed the weaknesses inherent in GE Capital, an unruly bank subject to systemic risk across the financial sector. GE's banking unit needed an overhaul, but an immediate spinoff was not an option. More importantly, GE's management now recognized GE Capital as the exact type of business it should avoid in the future.

So far, the plan to fix its banking arm has been generally successful, but the last point hits on the most crucial aspect of GE's turnaround: which businesses GE should avoid and which it should pursue.

Immelt elaborated on this idea in a speech at Stanford University last year. He stated that leadership is as much about reflecting on success stories as "knowing and understanding how things fail" and "knowing the mode of failure of ideas and projects." This familiarity with risk and failure will influence how GE approaches big projects or industries in the future. From his perspective, leaders should focus on the following:

Designing systems to be reliable. Designing leadership processes for reliability. That's what financial reform is about. That's what the financial crisis is about. That's what the gulf spill is about...business and ecosystems that are not reliable. When a plane -- god-forbid -- crashes, I've got 200 people in the aircraft engine business and this is all they do. It's like poetry in motion. They go to the site, and they analyze the black box. These guys know within 24 hours all about every crash since I've been CEO...That's a system that works. We're going to have to build that on a global basis.

Similar to Taleb, Immelt admires the antifragility of the flight crash analysis methods. While specific, harmful incidents can be devastating for those directly involved, the system as a whole can grow stronger and more responsive. It's a model for the rest of the businesses GE aims to pursue and a stark contrast from the banking industry, which tends to mask fragility with periods of unnatural stability.

In the future, GE will pivot toward more reliable systems, including the much-hyped "industrial Internet" which Immelt believes will allow machines to "become instruments of understanding." He notes that this real-time communication with machines could lead to "saving money and producing better outcomes" for GE.

Further, GE is embracing traditional areas of strength like manufacturing while deemphasizing banking. The reasoning is simple: This is what GE's done best for more than a century. It's not a dose of nostalgia or an attempt to appease the critics of diversification, but a decision to build more resilient businesses during volatile times.

Learning to love volatility
Volatility, many profess, is the "new normal," and global companies will have to adapt -- or learn to love it. As Immelt commented in a 2011 letter to shareholders, "Volatility has become a way of life... Classic economic cycles will be shorter and more segmented. Long-term growth will be interrupted by short-term volatility."

GE's pursuit of antifragility won't be a smooth process or one that's easy for investors to digest. But, over the long haul, this will be the most important determinant of GE's success. Can this company flourish with the natural ebbs and flows of interconnected markets?

In the words of one of the best recent fund managers, Bruce Berkowitz of Fairholme Capital Management, "Business is a lumpy process." Hopefully, for shareholders in GE, that lumpiness is less of a problem than an opportunity.

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