Google it

Economist cover - Google

This week is Google week at the Economist. The very funny front cover (above), the main leader (pay walled) and a three-page feature. The point they’re making is that markets don’t know what to make of a company that says it’s not there to make money – especially if it’s the most powerful force in the most revolutionary medium since the printing press.

They also point out that high-minded morals may sound great now but how will they sound if Google ever has to deal with the down times which have recently affected – for example – Yahoo!. And they tell some interesting stories about what it is actually like to work at the GooglePlex; the vision for Google’s cloud-style computing architecture, that the very famous 20% rule never really happens and that by hiring a company full of hyper-geniuses, Google has some difficult HR issues:

…everybody there is a rocket scientist, so everybody everybody is also insecure…. and the back-stabbing and politics are reminiscent of an average university’s English department.

Fascinating stuff of course, as it was when the rest of us were talking about it several months ago (:-)).

Obviously managing the finest minds in the world (there’s now almost 14,000 Google staff) is going to be tricky. Eric Schmidt is pretty clear on that: “tech companies that are dominant have trouble from within, not from competitors.”

But nevertheless Google has the crown jewels. Many of the  finest minds in the world, an amazing scalable computer architecture, the brand and the audience. Demise seems a long way off yet. 

"No, but I think my secretary does"

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This quote comes from a business bigwig, asked whether he uses Facebook.

“No, but I think my secretary does”

I think she probably does too.

The context is this somewhat reactionary piece in the FT asking how businesses should cope with staff wasting hours on social networking sites when they’re supposed to be working. There’s been a lot in the press about this recently with claims that companies need to take action.

We hear that organizations including Transport for London and British Gas have now banned access to the site.

Dresdner Kleinwort are particularly snotty about it, saying: ‘We only provide access to the internet for the purpose of conducting company business.’

What else have they banned? SMS during work hours? personal email? daydreaming? Conversations at the water cooler?

It’s not as if we’re talking about McDonalds here. On their own site, Dresdner Kleinwort proudly boasts: “We’ve proven that we can deliver outstanding solutions for our clients by creating a culture where the best people have the freedom to think differently and to question convention.” … just so long as they don’t have the freedom to use computers to talk to people.

Is it really beyond the realms of imagination that their employees will benefit from communicating with other human beings (inside and outside the organization) during their working days? And since when did we get to such a position of mistrust between companies and the staff that work in them?

Back to the the article. At one point the journalist compares using social networks during work hours to throwing impromptu parties in the office, before returning to the real world with a quote from Gartner consultant, Anthony Bradley ‘if you have to know what employees are doing every hour of the day, you are a bad manager’ .

The article comes in the same week that the TUC, of all people, has put out much saner guidelines for employers about how to deal with the phenomenon. The report is called, “Facing up to Facebook’ (PDF). TUC counsel that allowing reasonable levels of use is perfectly valid, as well as discussing how companies should view and monitor the content which is being posted online.

Employees have a right to a personal life, and provided they do not breach reasonable conduct guidelines, employers should respect this. They wouldn’t follow an employee down the pub to check on what they said to their friends about their day at work. Just because they can now do something akin to this online, certainly doesn’t mean they should.

Thank heavens for a voice of reason.

Aside from this bizarre Dickensian belief that you increase productivity by reducing access to distractions, much of this talk blithely ignores that humans are social animals, who accomplish a great deal more in groups than individually. Faced with the realization that people love Facebook, companies should think laterally about how they can benefit from this, rather than simply trying to turn the clocks back to the good old days of chaining staff to their desks mentally and physically.

This was best phrased by Julian in a joint presentation we did about social networks when he quoted this blog post that 20% of Goldman Sachs employees are now on Facebook.

It’s been a long nine months since I left investment banking, and much may have changed since then, it is a volatile industry. But when I left it, people like Goldmans were not known to employ large numbers of unintelligent time-wasters.