I don’t really have much value to add to this Farhad Manjoo essay on the things Google does to keep its employees happy — but it’s fascinating, so you should read it.
Google sees pretty much every problem as amenable to solution-by-data. You gather information and then you crunch the numbers seven (or seventy) different ways until the data reveals its secrets. And what works for Google and at Google — because the company is so big and has so much access to information — may end up helping everyone:
Bock’s ultimate goal is to use Google’s experience to answer some big questions about the workplace: Are leaders born or made? Are teams better than individuals at getting things done? Can individuals sustain high performance over their lifetimes? POPS isn’t close to being able to answer those questions right now, but Bock argues that Google can eventually shed light on some of them. “We have the luxury of being a data-driven company with people with the analytic chops who can do the math,” he says. “We also have a large enough scale so that when we run experiments, they’re statistically valid.”
In time, Bock argues, Google’s findings — which it often shares with other HR professionals — may improve all our jobs. “You spend more time working than doing anything else,” he says. “If you work eight or 10 hours a day, it’s more time than you spend sleeping, more time than you spend with your spouse. When you add it up it gets really depressing. You like your job, but for all [that] time it should be — and it could be — something more. So why isn’t it?”
I really hope that Google shares what they learn with everyone, and I expect that they will — well, that they will share some of it, anyway. Those guys are good at thinking.
They’re not so good, though, at understanding the limits of data-driven analysis. In a notorious case, a few years ago a noted designer named Doug Bowman left Google over its data-obsessiveness:
When a company is filled with engineers, it turns to engineering to solve problems. Reduce each decision to a simple logic problem. Remove all subjectivity and just look at the data. Data in your favor? Ok, launch it. Data shows negative effects? Back to the drawing board. And that data eventually becomes a crutch for every decision, paralyzing the company and preventing it from making any daring design decisions.
Yes, it’s true that a team at Google couldn’t decide between two blues, so they’re testing 41 shades between each blue to see which one performs better. I had a recent debate over whether a border should be 3, 4 or 5 pixels wide, and was asked to prove my case. I can’t operate in an environment like that. I’ve grown tired of debating such minuscule design decisions. There are more exciting design problems in this world to tackle.
Google’s products have gotten considerably better-looking since 2009 — or so I think — so maybe they’ve learned that everything can’t be algorithmically determined. Or maybe they’ve just generated even better algorithms….
(And just after writing that I saw this story.)