Putting Users in Charge at Google

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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.