What Would Google Do?
There’s this example in Jeff Jarvis’ new book What Would Google Do? where he talks about how newspapers could respond to Huffington Post setting up a new blogging venture in Chicago. He basically says that they should become their new best friend – forget that they are competition and think long term. They’d get more out of magnanimity than being territorial.
But, he concludes, it doesn’t matter because “news organizations don’t yet think that way.” The thing is, no one does. People, like Marcus Aurelius said, are “meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly.” We shouldn’t be surprised when they act that way.
The benefits of being open minded, collaborative, honest, and helpful are not new. We’ve been extolling those virtues since Aesop. Or on Google’s business end, being scalable, keeping overhead low, treating your customers like partners, pocketing less value than you create. Those are the basic, bedrock fundamentals of business.
My point is that we already know all that stuff is good. Awareness isn’t the problem. Children know that you shouldn’t be evil. We don’t need to praise it anymore. What we should be discussing is how to practice it.
Hypebot, for example, is a very forward thinking blog about the music industry. It knows exactly what Google would do and points people in that direction all the time. And yet, the writer just can’t stop doing posts of nothing but links to himself, treating his Twitter account like a constant pledge drive and phishing for diggs. Institutionally there is some conflict between knowing what’s right and the pressure to do the opposite.
The book itself falls into the gap between knowing and doing. Jeff misses a very teachable lesson at the juncture where he is mature enough to admit that it’s sort of contradictory to take the most old school way of publishing his idea – advance from a major publishing house, syndicate part of the book in a magazine right at the release date, etc. His words: Sorry. Dogs got to eat.
Right. Welcome to reality. Where we all live. Where some entertainment companies would probably do innovative things but are tied to crazy artists. Or, companies controlled by petty bosses or signed leases or long term contracts or institutional inertia. The problem isn’t that they haven’t asked the right rhetorical question. If doing what Google does was easy, they’d have already done it. Since it’s hard, they haven’t.
This book and books like it lack concreteness. What would Google do is a great question. It’s a wonderful title for a book. But it’s not well served by 250 pages of proof that it’s the right one to ask. We know this. Our collective wisdom knows this.
So what specifically makes Google able to ignore the barriers that trip other people up? How do they keep the instinct to be surly, meddling, dishonest and jealous from taking over? How can people put the brakes on a direction they know is conflict with their long term goals? In other words, we’re trying to solve organizational problem with psychological treatments and it’s never going to work. WWGD? has all sort of great examples of good – as in not evil – decisions that Google and other companies have made. What is doesn’t have is much introspection as to how they fought the resistance towards making it.
I’d really like to read a book that doesn’t think the solution lies in more talking. If you were to suggest one of the ideas in the book where you work nobody would tell you it was stupid – they’d just say “it’s not realistic.” THAT is where we need pages. Not to say Jeff’s book isn’t good (it is), it’s just not what it could be. It’s lame to treat all this as some revelation because it’s not. It should be a starting off point.
For the first time ever, we are at the stage where transparency and communication can excel in leaps and bounds due to low transaction costs.
He’s on the right track, but it’s the actual organisation and development of platforms that will get us there.
Good post, while I still think psychological treatments (some) have a place in helping to deal with org issues.
It’s a from the bottom up view, vs top down. Take care of the employee, who will choose take care of the org vs take care of the org which will keep the employee in line. Taking care being, acting in highest moral regard…. although that is subjective…Hmm.
I think that psychology applies to the individual, to better help them come up with strategy and philosophy which leads them to create the organization, it’s values and culture. This leads to the actions that the company is able to take. Highly macavelian philosophies, created by leaders that are not healthy mentally who think that macavelian strategies are the way businesses work create companies that are highly macavelian.
The leaders of google and the like, I think, are philosophers, thinkers and idealists… and part of that is people try to live up to those ideals set up by their org. They take into account that people will act that way, and allow them the freedom too, while expecting them to live by higher standards. When their needs are met, they naturally act in more psychologically healthy ways, ie, happier, more caring etc…
They design an organization in accordance with their philosophies, perspective for the world, and knowledge… which is based on their psychology and how healthy they are mentally.
So their company is an extension of their perspective and psychology?
Thinking out loud,
“The leaders of google….are philosophers, thinkers…”
“When their needs are met, they naturally act in more psychologically healthy ways…”
I’ve always been annoyed with people who call themselves philosophers because they sit around and think but do nothing (and probably smoke a lot of weed). Saying things like “act that way” “allow freedom” is extremely vague; that’s more of the same talk. It’s not easy to be “happier” or “more caring.” I don’t think it’s natural to behave in these ways, these people aren’t inherently different. It’s a continuous conscious effort, examining their actions and possible outcomes — really understanding this, people who check and balance each other when the shady alternative is the easiest.
Perhaps you could write a post about some of your favourite blogs? I had a quick look in your archive and found what you think are the top three, and added the two I don’t already read to my Google Reader. But other than that I don’t have much quality there.
Keep up the good work.
There are a lot of people that want to paint morality as this big gray area of human understanding, where everything is indeterminate and subjective. But it is irrelevant whether there is some sort of universal morality when there clearly DOES seem to be a morality that holds for about 99% of the people you will encounter.
What Google understood is that it would be worth the extra energy and forfeited short-term profit to establish themselves on a plateau of morality and consistent effort. They knew that there was a level of effort that people would take advantage of and then there is a level of effort that people would admire and want to contribute to. To keep pushing through that first level takes some serious discipline and farsightedness.
Morality is not altruism. It’s collaboration for mutual gain. But once you’ve made your gains, it pays dividends to give away even more and to try new things. Like Ryan said, this has been the basis for common decency and personal growth since people began writing about such things. Now that companies must be as accountable as individuals, it makes sense that these “rules” would obtain in the business world.
But, okay, aren’t we doing exactly the same thing as WWGD right now? There are probably a bunch of small struggling companies who treat their employees as well as Google does. But Google works, and it works on a huge scale. I don’t think their success can be emulated by something as simple as sticking to your moral or psychological guns.
I think part of the answer to Ryan’s question lies in Google’s ability to find products that already exist, and improve them. Search engine? We’ll build a better one. Webmail? We’ll give you more storage space than anyone, and throw out Outlook Express because our web interface is better. I don’t know enough about the company to pinpoint more specific examples, but this seems to be more relevant.