Putting Users in Charge at Google

Ann All

Back in July, I blogged about an alleged internal memo circulating around the Internet that claimed to shed light on what it was like to work for Google, a company that routinely lands at the top of "best places to work" lists. (No wonder, considering it offers such perks as an on-site climbing wall, five weeks of paid time off after a year on the job and an $8,000 tuition reimbursement.)


Though the origin of the memo was a little murky, many of its insights were spot-on, judging from a Wall Street Journal interview with Doug Merrill, the search giant's CIO. Google is far more decentralized than most companies and gives its users the freedom to download their own software and choose from several different types of PCs and operating systems. Says Merrill:

At most organizations, technology is done by one organization, and is very locked-down and very standardized. You don't have the freedom to do anything. Google's model is choice. We let employees choose from a bunch of different machines and different operating systems, and [my support group] supports all of them.

Though this model costs more upfront than a standardized one, Merrill claims that Google enjoys productivity gains. Not everyone agrees, of course. Pundit Robert Cringely is among those who think that Google's vaunted emphasis on employee autonomyisn't exactly helping the business.


Since most Google employees "are some sort of technologist," says Merrill, they are comfortable providing a good amount of their own tech support. Users visit an internal Web site to download new applications, for example, rather than having IT do it for them.


Though most companies probably don't have as high of a percentage of employees who are "some sort of technologist" as Google, the practice of employees doing things like downloading applications on their own is probably more common than some CIOs might think. The Yankee Group last summer released a study that found that 86 percent of employees use consumer technologies in the workplace on an ongoing basis. Many of those folks say it's because consumer technology outperforms their enterprise technology, a point that Merrill also makes in his interview.


Though the decentralized approach appears to work well at Google, a place where the CIO sports "surfer-length hair" and a T-shirt (as the Wall Street Journal dutifully notes), it might be tough to make an argument for it in a more buttoned-down environment. Still, the trend of consumerization ispretty hard to ignore, considering that it's now getting coverage from traditional media outlets like Reuters.


The Reuters article speculates that consumerization is one of the driving forces behind Microsoft's unsolicited bid for Yahoo. And not surprisingly, it credits Google with leading the movement to put more power into employees' hands. Says Dave Girouard, the general manager of Google's Enterprise division:

Sergey and Larry (Brin and Page, Google's co-founders) ... don't see the hard boundary between the consumer and business that most of us would see. They just think the user is the user is the user and they want to make things better for users.

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Mar 23, 2008 7:33 AM Francis Carden Francis Carden  says:
All I hear 90+ percent of the time from users is "we've been asking IT for that for 5 or 10 years". The scary part is, the users are not lying.Enough, lets start being agile in what we give our users. For years we hear (IT) promises of "give us 3 years, leave us alone and we'll make all your dreams come true. IT have brought this on themselves. Now it's time the users fight back. Business cannot wait 2 years, let alone 5.Google have been extremely inventive and you have to admit, they have some pretty darned cool technology. It's not perfect BUT at least someone is out there listening. If Google's attitude to it's workforce is creating the kind of technology they keeping spewing out then that's all right by me too. Go Go Google. Reply
Jun 12, 2008 12:29 PM David Fisher David Fisher  says:
Also, you fail to consider people that are writing programs/applications for Facebook. I've had friends base entire (venture backed and doing well) companies on such. Hooking into the Facebook API and developing things for it, and testing it, and spreading your application is a legit business need. Get with the program. Reply
Jun 13, 2008 2:27 AM Pj Pj  says:
You just sound jealous. QQ moar nub :P Reply

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