The Google Spring: Not a Company, a Movement

Stephen Arnold's picture

 

My father resides in what is called an “assisted living facility.” Time stands still for most of the residents. The most common question is, “Do you know what day it is, sir?” The notion of an “Arab Spring” or an “Occupy Wall Street” is a tough concept to get across. 

 

I visited with him the day that Google announced the termination of Buzz (a second whack at a social network), Code Search (a niche service like the previously killed Uncle Sam US government search service), and Jaiku (a notification service). Google called the house cleaning, a “fall sweep.” http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2011/10/fall-sweep.html One of my colleagues punned, “Google is doing a ‘fail sweep.’” I thought the remark was unforgiving and too pointed. The “Google Spring” is much-needed narrowing of Google’s activities. 

 

Is there a revolution in information technology or are financial pressures forcing organizations to take a hard look at information costs? When money flows without worry about tomorrow, managers often invoke the catchphrase, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Even a Harvard or Yale MBA succumbs to the colloquial when describing what is a basic management virtue: Do what works. 

 

The problem in information technology is that not too much works particularly well in business computing, software, infrastructure, and applications. I delivered the keynote at a law enforcement and intelligence conference when the BlackBerry outage occurred. The BlackBerry users were agitated. Large-scale problems are not new. In 2001, the Robbins Gioia Survey reported a failure rate of 51 percent for enterprise resource planning systems. http://www.it-cortex.com/Stat_Failure_Rate.htm Are we getting better?

 

ZDNet’s “CRM Failure Rates: 2001 to 2009 http://www.zdnet.com/blog/projectfailures/crm-failure-rates-2001-2009/4967 referenced a Forrester Research report which pegged the number at 47 percent. Maybe this is good news? Maybe not? 

 

Even minor fixes to a complicated Microsoft SharePoint, Oracle, or SAP “solution” can take days, weeks, or months to remedy. Enterprise search systems routinely disappoint their users because the user either cannot locate the needed document or does not have time to wade through a long list of results which might contain the information needed to deal with a specific business decision. 

 

I wonder if most enterprise information technology systems are unmanageable and ungovernable. This one-two punch means that coping with the increasing flows of digital information is going to remain a problem for the foreseeable future. Vendors paint vivid pictures of employees, contractors, and temporary workers doing what is called “anytime, anywhere work.” Toss in the notion of “real-time information access,” and one has a Utopian world in which better decisions are commonplace. 

 

To move from the “ain’t broke” today to the “Big Rock Candy Mountain” of tomorrow seems trivially easy. Change in an organization is often glacial. Top management may want change. The chief financial officer recognizes that existing work processes have to change because there is not enough money to pay for them. Individual workers who do not get a bonus because of a late or wrong decision from a colleague in a different office recognize that change is needed. 

 

Caught in the midst of these different factions and pressures is the information technology department. Like the librarians who staffed special libraries in organizations before workers started doing their own searching, data fusion, and information analysis, information technologists may be the next work unit to be disintermediated. The buzzwords used to describe the downsizing, repositioning, and elimination are cloud computing and consumerizing IT. 

 

Google has jumped on the bandwagon to marginalize information technology departments. I learned about the approach from an email from a colleague in Australia. He directed me to a presentation on May 31, 2011, which is part of Google’s global road show for its enterprise software and services division. If you have 73 minutes, you can listen and watch the program. Additionally, one of my colleagues attended a Google road show in Cincinnati in early October 2011, and the general message was similar to the Australian presentation which is on YouTube.com  Point your browser to http://goo.gl/i7Rqf

 

The theme of these marketing-centric briefings is the future of work. The theme was sufficiently broad, which prompted the beta version of BYTE Magazine in “Microsoft: Could It Lose the Enterprise to Google” http://www.informationweek.com/byte/commentary/personal-tech/desktop-os/231601711 to posit:

 

The implication here for the old guard in software and, especially, for IT tech pros are profound. In many respects, Microsoft is backed into the same corner as IT, which is facing a sea change driven by a new generation of tech-savvy workers. These are workers for whom work is no longer "a place, but an activity"...

 

 

The idea is that work is everywhere and probably not in a building downtown or in an edge city is an interesting one. Overhead should lose its spare tire. Google’s pitch for low-cost cloud services seems to be bludgeon Google will be brandishing in boardrooms in 2012. The article continues:

 

Microsoft appears serious in its effort to get with the program and offer a tablet-to-desktop ready version of Windows 8. But it needs to offer serious tools to help IT grab fthe reins and protect corporate data.

 

Google, therefore, is continuing its effort to generate more enterprise revenue. Microsoft—and I suppose other enterprise software vendors—are likely to find themselves under severe, continuous attack by Googlers. Google’s “magic pixie dust” is just part of the company pitch to prospects. Google is talking about a Google Spring, a revolution in the nature of work itself. 

 

Google is articulating the “one true way”, which is one third cost control, one third efficiency, and one third security. I found the weaving of money, Frederick Winslow Taylor’s scientific methods, good old fear, uncertainty, and doubt fascinating. Information technology departments are the kissing cousins of Vlad III of Romania– also known as Vlad the Impaler. 

 

On the matter of cost, the Google executives in the Australia briefing referenced the low cost of Google enterprise solutions compared to other options. Because Google has a global infrastructure, their enterprise applications deliver on the cost assertion and also on value. Organizations tapping Google enterprise solutions are able to provide its services for $50 per user, eliminate the configuration hassles, and push certain security functions down to the individual employee. Instead of buzzing the information technology department to set up document sharing in Lotus Notes or Microsoft SharePoint, the user can handle the sharing settings himself. The Google enterprise solutions include tools to allow overall security settings to be handled by the system administrator. Obviously Google’s vision includes cost reductions, not total information technology cost elimination. 

 

However, the cost argument is an interesting one. A quick look at the pricing of the Google Search Appliance for 50 million  costs easily climb into six figure range. When more capacity is required as digital information grows like Topsy, the GSA licensee writes another big check. The total cost of the GSA is based on research conducted for my new monograph The New Landscape of Search (Pandia.com, 2011), rank among the highest in the enterprise search sector. 

 

Google’s announcement of enterprise Web site analytics was a shocker to me. Blast Advanced Media reported the cost at $150,000/year USD. (See What Is Google Analytics Premium at http://goo.gl/ik0nX .) Enterprise licensees can expect to pay for customization and support if the remainder of current information technology staff lacks the expertise to handle Google application programming interfaces and Google methods. 

 

What I find important about the cost argument is that Google seems to be getting more serious about generating more revenue from its enterprise unit. Check out the video of the Google global road show. These global campaigns are another example of the maturation of Google’s marketing methods. 

 

The host of the program I absorbed was Google’s Australian managing director, who arrived at Google after stints at Oracle and Salesforce.com. Instead of the math-oriented Google engineer type of yore, the “face” of Google was an accomplished pitch man. Other Googlers in the Australian briefing poked fun at themselves and invited those in the audience to visit the Australian Google headquarters to see that there is serious work done amidst the Foosball games and snacks. One Google presenter suggested that the attraction of visiting Google Australia was the equivalent of a “petting zoo”. 

 

I noted three themes which will probably be tweaked as the caravan moves around the world. Let me highlight the big ideas I noted. 

 

First, the nature of work is changing. Despite the references to “fun,” the shift to mobile devices for anytime, anywhere access, as well as the virtues of collaboration, the Grim Reaper’s shadow fell across the listener. In a nutshell, Google implied that organizations which make the shift to cloud computing will thrive. Those who ignore the Google approach will not. The Googley message was delivered with Vlad the Impaler and the Grim Reaper in attendance. 

 

Second, workers comprise tribes. Employees will have to compete with work in an open market. Google highlighted Freelancer.com, a company without a traditional office but has a commitment to the Google way. The example made clear that when an organization required technical expertise, an organization like Freelancer.com could meet the need. The message: Organizations no longer need technical professionals on staff in the quantity, mix, and roles traditionally assigned by the organization. The notion of mobile nomads and tribes added a metaphorical embellishment to a message that some Microsoft SharePoint and Oracle database administrators either found chilling or weirdly out of step with the reality at their place of employment. Nevertheless, the short version was that disintermediation of IT is a good, smart step to take. 

 

Third, information technology has to become “strategic.” Google’s perception is that most information technology departments set up systems, deal with lost laptops, and struggle to get desktop and enterprise applications to work as advertised. When IT departments take advantage of the consumerization of technology, the IT professionals can tackle larger, more substantive tasks. Google enables this shift from drudgery to a Bain and McKinsey type of contribution. The argument sounds good to the Board of  Directors, the CEO, and the CFO. I am not sure if the IT department staff will be as receptive. A switch does not get flipped to migrate the marketing department’s Photoshop addiction to a comfortable cloud. The product lifecycle management system has to be reworked to take advantage of the Google method. The legal department has to do some significant re-engineering and may have to get a court’s or a judge’s okay to handle certain content related to a legal matter via Gmail. 

 

Overall, I found much of the global road show content to resonate with what I have learned from my work with organizations worldwide. But there were four nuances which were lost in the road show performance. 

 

ITEM ONE: Not all work is cloudable. Among the tasks which most organizations undertake, there are some which cannot be off loaded. Chief among these is work related to a contract with specific requirements for security and confidentiality. A breezy, “Google is reliable” will not satisfy inspectors who review how a contractor complies with certain government requirements. The same is true of certain information tasks related to mergers, litigation, and human resource activities such as replacing a CEO. 

 

ITEM TWO: Some work is not social, not collaborative, and not made more efficient by having multiple people involved in commenting, changing, and critiquing documents on their own schedule. Examples range from conceptual work to company strategy. I could make a case that Google’s own abandonment of conceptual process to acquire Motorola Mobility for $12 billion is a possible example of what happens when a Googley method drives a business decision. Google, at one point, was raising its offer before getting a counter offer from Motorola Mobility. In effect, Google was bidding against itself for the Motorola Mobility entity. Broad generalizations about a new way to work apply to a subset of work, not all work. 

 

ITEM THREE: The impressive technology presented at the global road show works when users have sufficient bandwidth at their disposal. The notion of “latency” did not surface in the Google presentation and for good reason. Insufficient or highly variable throughput means that data are not available or not available at a pace or flow the worker finds acceptable. Is bandwidth sufficient to make Google’s vision a reality in Harrod’s Creek, Kentucky, Mortaritaville, or a mining site at Serra Pelada in Brazil? The cloud works in certain locations, but not everywhere, which strikes me as a “certain blindness” about anytime, anyplace computing via the cloud. 

 

ITEM FOUR: The notion of real time, dynamic documents is certainly interesting. The problem is that not all documents are created equal. Democratic inputs may not be desirable. When a document is mission critical and the document may have considerable impact, I do not want the instance of the document on which I am working and for which I bear responsibility to dance, jiggle, update, or otherwise do anything but remain static. In Douglas Edwards’ I’m Feeling Lucky: The Confessions of Google Employee 59 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), the author went to bed after making changes to a Google Web page. Upon arising, another Googler had decided to ignore Mr. Edwards change. No collaboration, no email, no nothing. My hunch is that the Google global road show is saying one thing, while another type of behavior is practiced within Google. 

 

Will Google triumph in the enterprise? I have been working in information technology and management for decades. I know that nothing is a sure thing, nor is the most unexpected event impossible. However, I noted one important point in the Google global presentation. The Google managing director for Australia, Doug Farber, said: 

 

Google is not a company. Google is a movement. 

 

The only difference is that Google is not using Facebook to drive its “Google Spring.” Perhaps the company has a better way. My view is that IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, and SAP will not sit on their hands and concede the enterprise market to Google. 

 

As Benjamin Franklin, amateur scientist and ambassador to France observed,  

 

"They that can give up essential liberty to purchase little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty or safety." 

 

My father’s friends in the assisted living facility would probably agree. Does your organization’s senior management see the changes that are needed and the choices available? Is your firm ready for the Google Spring?

 

Stephen E Arnold, October 15, 2011

*Mr. Arnold is a consultant. More information about his practice is available at www.arnoldit.com and in his Web log at www.arnoldit.com/wordpress.