Dan Farber provides an interesting report on a talk by Google IT executive David Merrill about how the fast-growing company works. What particularly struck me is the simplicity of the company’s process for sharing information among the many projects it has under way at any given moment. Actually, it’s not even a “process.” Its just “an email posting of a list of bullet points” that anybody in the company, “‘from engineering to sales to folks who sweep the floors,” as Merrill puts it, can read and add to. It kind of makes you wonder about all the time and money companies have dumped into complex information systems for “knowledge management.” Google uses similarly simple email systems for evaluating the performance of employees and collecting comments on potential new hires – two other processes that companies often “automate” with complicated technology.
Also of note is Google’s practice of keeping its people on the move: “Part of Google’s innovation strategy is to keep its employees challenged, and the company does that by moving people from project to project, Merrill said. An average project lasts three months or less, and employees spend only a year to 18 months in one area.” He notes that this practice creates its own set of problems, such as “maintaining continuity,” but despite the drawbacks it seems like a good way to keep smart people engaged and motivated – and thinking about the broad interests of the company rather than their own pet projects.
Less valuable is Merrill’s discussion of the company’s deliberately messy organization. “‘We always over hire,” he says, and the structure of the organization is in constant flux. Google currently has the luxury of being inefficient because of its enviable position as the most powerful member of an oligopoly controlling an exploding market (Internet advertising). Most other companies don’t hold such a lucrative position, and they can’t be so cavalier about expenses. Sooner or later, Google will have to run a tighter ship.
Farber also notes that Google’s commitment to transparency ends at the boundaries of its own organization. “Working at Google,” he writes, “is about openness, flatness and transparency, which is pretty much the opposite of the company’s interaction with the outside world … Google is enlightened on the inside but closed to the outside.”