Google and the new management challenge

2010

Lars Rasmussen, the Sydney based co-founder of Google maps, has just left Google to join Facebook. Nothing new in that you might say. People leave organisations all the time. However, the reasons given by Rasmussen may suggest some important messages for managers in other ground-breaking companies. They also tend to mirror recent moves by similar creative people leaving other more traditional organisations.

His reasons?

First, "Google was becoming too unwieldy." He made several comments about Facebook's smaller size and how this made it easier to make an impact and get things done. (Google has 25,000 employees, Facebook has 2,000).

"The energy there is just amazing, whereas it can be very challenging to be working in a company the size of Google."

And finally, "I've got a job description of 'come hang out with us for a while and we'll see what happens', which is a pretty exciting thing,"

The decision to move on comes less than two months after the company said it would scrap Rasmussen's pet project, Google Wave, a visionary attempt to redefine the tools for online communication and collaboration.

Rasmussen is not the first of the many creative senior execs to leave Google for greener pastures. In 2007 two of the senior project people responsible for implementing Google Maps, Bret Taylor and Jim Norris, left to join Benchmark Capital with the job titles of "Entrepreneurs in Residence".

In an email to his friends, Paul Kedrosky a third product manager who left for Facebook around the same time as Taylor and Norris, said:

"A couple of months ago, after three years as a Google product manager, I decided to leave for Facebook. I am writing this note to spread Good News to all the friends I haven't already overwhelmed with my enthusiasm: Facebook really is That company.

Which company?

That one.

That company that shows up once in a very long while — the Google of yesterday, the Microsoft of long ago. That company where large numbers of stunningly-brilliant people congregate and feed off each other's genius. That company that's doing with 60 engineers what teams of 600 can't pull off…."

Is there a trend emerging here in the reasons given for leaving Google? And is it just Google, or do other companies face similar challenges in keeping their best and most creative people?

When Douglas Merrill and Sheryl Sandberg left Google in 2008 (Merrill to EMI Music and Sandberg to Facebook), Scott Kessler an equity analyst suggested in the New York Times:

"It is very difficult to preserve the same kind of culture and energy that Google had as a startup. It's increasingly difficult for Google to be able to keep all the great people it has hired over the years. These people have a wide variety of great options at their disposal and a number of those people are seizing them."

Perhaps it's more than a "wide variety of options" outside of Google that is causing the outflow of talent from companies such as Google.

According to a new book "Leadership in a Wiki World" by Rod Collins, the younger generation of employees now entering the workforce (and for that matter, those aged under 30 already employed), have a new concept about work. It's not working "for someone" (as in managers). Rather, it's working "with others" – be they peers, colleagues, suppliers, outsiders and yes, even competitors!

Their primary drive is collaboration. And most importantly, how they can collaborate and be involved with decision-making and idea-generation right across and outside the organization.

To cater for and manage these "20-somethings", Collins proposes a new core competency needs to be developed by today's managers - "the emergence of business processes as the new focus of work and the identification of organizational learning and mass collaboration, are critical core competencies for 21st century managers."

Perhaps at last Peter Senge's "learning organizations" time has come. Those managers, HR and OD specialists who battled (mostly unsuccessfully) to transform their companies into learning organizations in the 1990s, may now take heart from the trends emerging that make organisations such as Facebook so attractive to today's crop of employees.

Today's employees want to be involved. They want to be listened to. They want to have a say in decision-making. They want to take responsibility (not just be given it). Now this doesn't sound very different to the needs and wants of generations of employees that emerged since the start of the social science revolution in the 1960s.

The difference today is that employees don't have to wait to be told what's happening – they know!

And they know because of the technology which enables almost instant transfer of information and events as they happen.

Knowledge is no longer the prerogative of the manager. Nor is it owned by the organisation. It's owned by the people. And it moves wherever the people move. Remember, Google scrapped Rasmussen's pet project Google Wave, a visionary attempt to redefine the tools for online communication and collaboration.

Whilst it would be nice for us as managers to keep the people for longer, reality suggests that people will eventually leave. The trick is to keep knowledge moving within the organisation and not have it leave when people move on.

So, the challenge for today's organisations and particularly today's managers is; how to ensure there is collaboration throughout the organization so that the best ideas can be nurtured, developed and grown? In the process, the knowledge generated by the people can be shared and maintained as a real corporate asset and not walk out the door.

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About The Author

Bob Selden
Bob Selden

Bob Selden is MD of the Australian National Learning Institute and author of What To Do When You Become The Boss. He has been a boss many times over. He's also worked for many. Some of these relationships have been fantastic and some did not work as well as they might have.