NEW YORK: General Electric, the industrial goods to financial services group, is enhancing its approach to innovation, particularly by exploiting technologies such as mobile apps and social media.

Beth Comstock, GE's chief marketing officer, told Innovation Excellence that the firm has increased in-house R&D expenditure by 31% in four years and spent $50bn on product technology since 2000.

"Things are changing so rapidly that you're always looking around the corner," she said. "At the same time, we have this challenging dynamic where half of the world is growing and advancing rapidly while the other half is in recovery."

In response, GE has pioneered open innovation, or working with third parties to develop products, most recently via the "Healthymagination" scheme offering $100m for ideas to fight breast cancer.

Among the additional trends reshaping innovation are moves towards digital connectivity, shown by GE's MyEngines smartphone and tablet apps enabling airlines to monitor engine performance remotely.

"As gadgets are getting more mobile, and more powerful, we have more information to process than ever before," said Comstock.

"The role of big data, and the ability of our innovators to make sense of it and translate findings into better, more efficient, low cost solutions for customers is now a major focus."

These shifts also lets multinationals like GE integrate their global operations, for example by forging ties between its R&D centres in China, Brazil, Germany, India and the US.

"We are investing to make sure we have the framework in place to connect capabilities and technologies across the globe ... and to harness local capabilities and talent to even better understand local markets," Comstock said.

Social media is also fulfilling an increasingly important purpose in the firm's strategy, firstly by allowing the company to tell "stories" about its staff and products.

More broadly, it plays a key role in building links with business-to-business clients, such as in the medical profession, and with consumers, especially for GE's electrical appliances unit.

"I think social media is changing the way we engage. It's not just listening. It really is what can you tell us, what can we giev you back, and together changing the way we innovation," said Comstock.

"I think it's a new definition of the focus group ... You're creating a new kind of value. I think listening is the first step, but working together is the new focus group if you will."

Data sourced from Innovation Excellence/Mashable; additional content by Warc staff