I'm becoming increasingly worried about what Google is becoming. It seems like every company goes through phases, but those that get extreme power have a tendency to mix up the word "right." A company has things it has the authority to do, or the "right" to do. But it also has the responsibility to do what is "right" for customers, stockholders, employees and the world.
We've recently seen a parade of people in power, from the previous U.S. president to many in the finance industry, misuse power, and the nation is hardly better for it. While Google isn't a power in the enterprise, its behavior suggests the kind of arrogance that seems to plague most large companies when they get too much power. This usually ends badly. The activities in Europe surrounding Street View are only the start, as concerns mount that Google appears to be gaining unprecedented power.
I think this has to do with companies losing track of what is important when they grow, focusing increasingly on revenue and amassing power, and forgetting that the way they play the game really is as important as winning or losing. If you forget that, governments have a tendency to ensure you lose anyway -- they tend not to mess with businesses that treat their employees, customers and stockholders well. Microsoft forgot this for a time, as did IBM, AT&T, Standard Oil and Enron. I think Google's turn is coming, and it is because it seems to be losing its moral compass, or more simply, its heart.
IBM-Microsoft-Google: The Repeating Pattern
I was talking to a friend who has worked around Microsoft as long as I have, and he said, "You know, Google reminds me a lot of Microsoft in the mid '90s." The funny thing was that in the mid-'90s, I recall saying after a tour of Microsoft that the company reminded me a lot of IBM in the mid-'80s. This seems to be a recurring problem. Companies gain a lot of power, then increasingly feel that the rules that used to define them, both internal and external, no longer apply. Quality may be the first thing to go.
They then go on to do really stupid things that pretty much assure that whatever power they have eventually will be taken away with government or customer response. IBM nearly went out of business in the early '90s. AT&T was broken up, and Microsoft had its DOJ moment for which it continues to pay in both Europe and the United States. All of this resulted from the combination of too much power and too little internal and external oversight.
Look For the Heart in the Company
I have a theory that I've developed in watching this pattern repeat over the years. In every company, there should be someone in power who ensures that it remains true to its core ethics. Or, were this a person, you might call it conscience, but I like the word "heart" better because it conveys more of the true sense of the role.
These are people who keep the company focused on what is truly important. For IBM, the heart of the company was actually Thomas Watson Jr., who, upon retiring, didn't realize that was part of his role and didn't replace it. Initially, Paul Allen might have been the heart of Microsoft, then it moved over to Bill Gates, who kind of lost his way in the late '90s. Now it appears to be split between Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie and Sam Ramji, senior director of platform strategy. For HP, it's Shane Robison, formerly with Apple and now VP and chief strategy and technology officer, who is known for how well he treats his people and focuses on customers.
For Google, the role appears to fall to CEO Eric Schmidt, who seems to have a "let them eat cake" response (advice that would have worked equally well for him when he was running Novell and even better at Sun) at the moment, which I don't think bodes well for the company or its customers.
Wrapping Up: Looking for the Heart
Having worked for a number of companies, looking back, I wonder whether I should have focused more often on where the heart of the company lies. It is easy to find the CEO, but who owns the company's moral center? Who makes sure the company thinks strategically about the implications of what it does? I can picture Google trying to swing an election because it believes strongly in the outcome and the eventual knowledge that doing so could critically damage the authority of its leaders. That's just one of a series of problems that might eventually result.
The frightening thing is that the event may have already happened and we simply aren't aware of it yet.