Google’s Vision Slip

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A couple of weeks ago I wrote an article about Google and how I believed it set a terrible example to companies, young people and the world as a whole when it comes to the practice of living by (and sticking to) values.

Since I wrote that article, two further things have come to the fore that increased the strength of my concerns – one evidence of the company breaking away from the ethical moorings for which it was so respected and the second evidence of just how dangerous and harmful that could be (and why the founders might have wanted to distance themselves from the company they started)

Digital Trends – Former Google Exec Says The Tech Giant Doesn’t Prioritize Human Rights

The article above suggests not only a softening of commitment to human rights in respect of the company’s approach to China and other external issues, but also internally to the human rights of Google employees and outsourced workers

Final thought – Google achieved what is known as Quantum Supremacy – a level and speed of computer computation by a quantum compute that is many times faster than anything that can currently be achieved by the most advanced conventional supercomputers.

New Scientist – Google Has Reached Quantum Supremacy

As the article highlights, this is an early and tentative step on the journey to effective quantum computing. When it’s fully successful it carries great promise in areas like testing molecules for medicines etc. However, there is also a dark side with, for example, the power to render almost all current security encryption methods redundant and broken overnight. This would even impact the blockchain, and therefore bitcoin. let’s not forget that bitcoin exists to enable people to free themselves from the strictures of government controlled fiat currencies (especially when all electronic and therefore providing government with full details about one’s spending, lifestyle etc.). There are many companies racing to be ready for this with new encryption methodologies.

This much power in the hands of a commercial corporation that’s already showing signs of being more than happy to set aside its own codes of conduct and previous strong ethical stance is a cause for concern.

Values must still count and must continue to be at the core of how organisations move forward in to the future – we cannot buy in to an acceptance that corporations are now above morals, ethics and values. That would be to concede to an animalistic might over right future that would be bleak for humanity.

Why Do Values Seem To Be Such Hard Work?

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Leading by values, driven by values, the speed of trust, values education, living our values, smart trust, trust matters – these are all phrases (and book titles) that have been heard as much over the last 10-15 years at the tables of curriculum planners and education leaders as corporate honchos, HR Heads and even occasionally political strategists.

The principle has always, to me, appeared eminently logical and valuable – have children focus on acquiring strong values in their formative years and there’s an increased likelihood that they will grow up to be not just ‘educated’ but also good citizens – people who place a priority on practicing and living by positive and virtuous values, thereby making a more harmonious, positive and effective society.
(Note – this is very different to ideas of inculcating subservience, obedience and docility that have been barely veiled motivations of some of the arch-engineers of mass education over the last Century)

However, it’s also said that children learn from what we do more than what we say. Further, when there is inconsistency between the two, they will cease to believe our words and will even think less of us for our duplicity.  Generationally, there’s overwhelming evidence that this is where we are today – children and young people looking at adults, shaking their heads in horror and disinclined to hear too much more of our nonsense about trust, integrity and values.

Here, i’m not specifically talking of our destruction of the environment or crass economic policies – both of which ride a short term gravy train, all to be paid for on the never never by future generations. Nor am I talking of venal politicians who can barely get words between their lips before they let the side down with blatant and stupid lies (in this day it takes about 30 seconds to prove they’re lying). Here, I want to talk about the impact when a beacon of light held up to show the way to a promised land proves to have been a false light, deceptive with smoke and mirrors to conceal its ugliness.

I’m talking about Google (the picture at the top of the article was probably a clue. Not only does the story of Google appear to be showing all the signs of a massive let down to younger generations. it’s even leaving an old codger like me with the bitterest of tastes in my mouth.

Google has been a story of phenomenal  exponential growth. There probably isn’t another company that’s had more written about it, in popular media and in books. And, for years, almost universally, what was written was about a company that was tearing up the old rule books about company culture, about how companies behave in their relationship with their own employees. Here was a company who very publicly declared a key part of their mission was “don’t be evil.”

Books about Google have proliferated, but somehow I only got around to reading one of the best known, “Work Rules,”  by Laszlo Buck a few months ago. That reading feels almost redundant now and saddening for all the energy that went in to extolling to the rest of the corporate world that if companies would just be true to their vision and values they too would attract and have the pick of the very best of talent (and therefore grow to be phenomenally successful). In barely 21 years this company that started out as a Stanford University project by two allegedly reclusive and shy students; Larry Page and Sergey Brin has grown to be a worldwide colossus employing over 110,000 people. many things that Google did culturally have been adopted by other companies and even the 20% projects idea (allowing employees to devote 20% of their time to a project that intrigues them away from their main work) has been adopted in many schools worldwide to facilitate creativity and project based learning.

So, what’s gone wrong at Google? Nothing at all, if the share price is the arbiter of good and bad. However, share prices and the maximisation of shareholder value are the currency of old-school companies, not the new youngbloods, like Google. However, here’s just some of the evidence for the prosecution;

  1. A ‘Censored search engine’ being developed on behalf of the Chinese Government:
    In late 2018 there were reports that after condemnation and bad feeling from employees within the company, and others outside, Google had stopped work on the project Dragonfly. To many it was shocking that they would even consider being part of such a project when their previous message to the world had always been about the power of the internet to give people free access to information.
    However, even in 2019, there have been strong suspicions that work on this project is still ongoing in secret:
    The Intercept – Ongoing Project Dragonfly
  2. Google Found to be Providing Funding to Climate Denier Organisations
    Evidence emerged in 2019 of money from Google going to organisations that included those who lobbied most effectively to encourage President Donald Trump to leave the Paris Climate Agreement. Again, to many Google employees with strong science backgrounds this is shocking and alarming, but especially disturbing in the clandestine way it’s been done:
    Salon – Report Reveals How Internet Giant Funds Climate Villains
  3. Google’s Willingness to Work Closely With the Trump Government on Border Agency Cloud and Other Projects
    Tech employees and their Californian neighbours tend to lean towards Democrat politics and for many of them this has driven their decisions to take their technical knowledge and skills to Silicon Valley rather than pursuing the big mega bonuses in the New York financial markets.
    Also, a high proportion of the employees are first or second generation immigrants themselves, so are disturbed and troubled by the Trump government’s treatment of immigrants:
    The Verge – Google Employees Refuse to Be Complicit in Border Agency Cloud Contract
    (Article also references another controversy related to a government contract for drone footage related software)
  4. Google Using Its Size and Power to Stifle Competition, Control Search and Drive Revenues – Being Evil
    The Federalist – Why Big Tech Companies Can’t Stop Being Evil

  5. Google’s Increasingly Confrontational Position With Dissenting Voices:
    Fast Company – Fired Google Employees Cite ‘Don’t Be Evil’
    The sort of dispute referred to in this article might seem humdrum and commonplace in so many other company environments. However, it’s the massive changes in a culture that was held up as a model for future business that has shocked many.
    This case has also highlighted what are perceived to be unfair and unreasonable ways to exploit casual and contract labour outside the company.
  6. Google Siding With the Big Bankers in Financial Markets
    The blockchain, bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies have partly come into existence as a backlash against the abuses of power and manipulations of the big banks. So, it doesn’t please many people to see Google siding with the big bankers to develop products and services that may undermine the development of unregulated crypto markets that have the potential to give citizens privacy and power over their own money, spending etc.
    Forbes – Perhaps Google Will Kill Bitcoin After All
  7. Google Changing the Rules Unilaterally
    One aspect of Google’s ‘community’ oriented culture was the infamous town hall meetings where every employee could attend in person or electronically and put any questions to the founders and senior officials.
    In Work Rules Buck talks openly about how this wasn’t always comfortable, but that it was a critical and vital part of the company’s culture. He even went as far as to title the second chapter – ‘Culture Eats Strategy For Breakfast.’ The subtitle  – If you give people freedom, they will amaze you.). The subtitle of the sixth chapter was – ‘Take power from your managers and trust your people to run things.’

 

In the book he cites examples of where Sergey and Larry took very personal interest in preserving and building up these cultural aspects of the organisation and how it created a strong message that Google was the place to work for the most free-thinking, creative and talented programmers and computer scientists. It’s surely not a coincidence that Larry and Sergey announced they would be standing down from their executive roles in the companies (including the parent company Alphabet). They announced this in an open letter to all employees:
Blog – Google – A Letter From Larry and Sergey

The final word on Google today sums up the current situation, from a University Professor of Innovation:
Medium – Suddenly, at Google, it’s Get on the Programme or Get Out

Where does all this leave us as far as values are concerned. Should we continue to give such a high priority to values in education – both as guide rails for how we run our schools and what we expect our pupils to imbibe, practice and make their own. Yes, in fact, I believe that failures like this just reinforce that we need to give even more importance to values.

We need to be able to have open, transparent dialogue about what happens when values meet challenging and ambiguous situations. As the children in school become older and more mature, so it’s vital that we expose them to debate and discussion around the fact that values are nothing except when they are tested, challenged and that when truly and fervently held they actually do not fall and crumble under the weight of pragmatic flimflam, but are instead strengthened like steel cast in the fire.

Values are not just marketing tools, or nice words to adorn the walls. They have to burn at the very core of individuals and organisations. At times they must be defended and protected. So, for example, if institutional investors are going to be one-dimensional stakeholders ready to push for values to be jettisoned in the pursuit of more profit, then company founders should have the courage to grow slower and refuse to take the institutional money.

And the same for individuals. The person who can be tempted to cast aside flimsily held values will be hollow at the core, susceptible to vulnerabilities and destined to fail to be all that he/ she can be.

 

Technology and Privacy

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Continuing somewhat on the theme of my earlier post about FaceApp, here’s a story that i happened to see this week which gave me quite a jolt. i’m really surprised that it hasn’t been more widely reported.

Ars Technica – Office 365 Declared Illegal in German Schools Due to Privacy Risks

There is considerable irony in the timing of this news, coming around the same time as everyone (especially in the US) gets themselves in a big flap about data privacy with a Russian based face morphing software. The article also makes clear that whilst Office 365 is being singled out, there are also grave concerns about Google and Apple as well.

Over the last 10-15 years these three companies have invested enormously to get their feet under the table in schools right across the world.  making their software (and sometimes hardware) commonplace in schools is seen as a great Trojan horse to ensure that the learners will remain wedded to that technology in the future as adults, both in their homes and their places of work. And, by and large, its been successful.  I had personal experiences in India of attempting to limit school costs for Microsoft licences for operating systems and office suites by launching Ubuntu Open Source labs. However, the projects met massive resistance from teachers and worries from parents and students that this would be out of alignment with what the children needed to learn for the exams (what other companies in the world have been able to make school exams dependent on their products??)

Schools, both public and private, need to have very clear goals and ideas about how they’re using IT and how they’re ensuring data privacy and protection. The shift to cloud computing has been enormously tempting, simply from a cost saving point of view. I well recall the amount of money we needed to set aside to pay for school servers when our Group was expanding in Delhi. However, without this option, data protection and backup was haphazard, separated on every separate individual laptop and desktop across the schools. Many logistical headaches were created by the fact that localised hacking could still be a risk, but also those inevitable cases where students claimed weeks of work had been maliciously or inadvertently deleted from a computer lab computer. No data trails and no cloud meant very little evidence.

Issues of cloud computing, especially when the data moves easily and invisibly across national borders will, inevitably, cause disquiet and concern. What’s happened in Germany may seem extreme. However, if the net result is more introspection, transparency and clarity about what’s needed to ensure data privacy and protection for our children, then it may have a positive outcome.

 

Google – On Teams

There’s an openness and transparency about modern organisations that can be really refreshing. I’m not naive and i certainly don’t believe everything’s perfect about today’s super-companies, but there’s no question in my mind – they get some things right.

A great example of this is with Google. A long time ago the founders recognised that their people were everything that determined whether they succeed or fail, live or die. So, they decided it was worthwhile to dig deep in to all sorts of issues that enable them to understand their people better. Then, having done all that work, spent all that time and money – they share their findings freely with the world.

One of the vehicles for this is their website – rework
(click on the highlighted link to open the website)

One of the areas they’ve considered important is, understandably teams. Here’s a great sort article from Inc that sums up the core of their discoveries about what marked out the best teams from the rest.

Inc – Google spent 2 Years Studying 180 Teams

The findings are thought-provoking for anyone who leads one or more teams. As leaders we can make a difference in creating the climates and environments in which these 5 attributes of the best teams are more likely to flourish.

Doing Great Work

I don’t think I know anyone who doesn’t, at least at some time, wrestle with issues of conflict between dealing with the pressing and urgent in their work and the need/ desire to give quality time to work that’s important but less pressing, immediate and urgent.

We have never worked in more connected ways. Even when we’re not meeting or interacting face to face, today’s work day is punctuated by a continual flow of emails. One of the problems, in my experience in most organisations is people don’t openly talk about expectations with regard to these issues. If, for example, somebody sends an email, by when should they anticipate or expect that it will have been seen and a reply received? On the subject of emails, are companies training their people in effective email etiquette and best practices? My suspicion is that very few do. And yet, within most companies there are vast hidden costs being incurred through inefficiency and lost productivity and effectiveness. All this also causes a great deal of stress and anxiety, especially for employees who want to be productive, to achieve and individually and collectively take their organisations forward.

One of many examples is where people (and I’m not going to claim innocence on this type of thing!) send multi-point emails. If I send someone a mail asking four different questions, and they can only answer two immediately, what are they to do? Answer on those two and make a commitment by when they will answer on the others? Hold off answering any of the points and keep the whole mail pending? There’s no easy answer.

Worse, the answer will vary within an organisation depending on who were the sender and the recipient. There are all sorts of issues about rank and status, but different people tend to operate with different practices and expectations (while all their colleagues have to figure out what’s expected).

Another very common issue with email is where people find it ambiguous about expectations when mail is sent outside work hours. Personally, I’ve often sent mails out of hours, but partly so that the mail would be available to the recipient as soon as they get in to work on the next day (or after a weekend). However, i do recognise it’s important to tell people that I’m not expecting them to be working out of hours. This particular issue has been perceived so negatively that France and other European countries have passed legislation prohibiting the sending of work related mail outside working hours. I personally feel it’s rather sad that it had to come to such a prescriptive ‘blunt instrument’ approach in those countries. people should have flexibility and an ability to work in the ways that suit them best, but we need to find better ways to make that fit with others’ working needs.

Emails are one of the bad interruptions that disturb our ability to carve out real quality blocks of time in the working day to do meaningful, high quality work. One of the others is face to face interruptions. it’s a very rare organisation where people stick to the rigours of using calendar scheduling to fix mutually agreeable times to meet, even for 10 minutes. Instead, you have the infamous, “I just need two minutes,” that invariably turns in to 15, which is then followed by 15 minutes of confused and muddled working as the individual tries to regain their focus on what they were immersed in the moment the interruption came. In the worst cases, your interruptions can get interrupted leaving you completely confused. I confess, one day last week i got home after a long day in the office, only to realise that an important email I’d started writing at 11.00am was still open on my laptop, nearly finished along with two others from during the afternoon that were barely started!

In open plan and glass offices it’s become fashionable to suggest that all leaders are duty bound to keep an ‘open door’ policy. However, i believe that if this is at the expense of failure to carve out decent blocks of time to do meaningful and important work, then it’s counter-productive. The urgent cannot always have precedence over the important. We have to be willing to have the conversations with our colleagues and team members about how to give each other the space and time to do meaningful blocks of work. Otherwise, we finish up filling each others’ days with urgency, leaving us no choice but to sacrifice personal time away from the office to do the truly important work in less disturbed circumstances. haven’t we all found that in two hours at home, we can complete more than we would in 8 office hours and to a better standard. However, it shouldn’t have to be that way and at the expense of personal space and time.

Another area where we struggle is with meetings. Meetings have been universally disliked for as long as i’ve worked in my life. yet, they can serve valuable purpose and cannot/ shouldn’t be avoided. Again, there need to be process discussions that ensure people understand what’s expected of them so that meetings can be truly effective;
a) people owe it to each other to come prepared. Too many turn up to meetings poorly prepared and meeting time is then spent getting people up to speed with where they should have been on arrival,
b) Focus needs to be on the meeting – not on laptops, mobile phones and other external things. We have an interesting challenge coming up with video conference technology installed for remote meetings. In the past, skype calls with groups have been messy and disjointed because people had the habit of leaving the room(!). Even those who stayed in the room sometimes took the opportunity to complete other, non-related work. If those meetings are to be effective, we’ll need more self-discipline than that!
c) Agenda creation for meetings can be a minefield if team members seek to ‘stack it’ with their personal agendas. People can be fond of requesting fixed finishing times for meetings, but go off at tangents, ride hobby-horses and use time wasting as a tactic to avoid decisions they disagree with. On the other hand, overly rigid meeting protocols stifle meaningful discussion rendering meetings sterile and mundane. It takes real effort on the part of all to find a happy medium.

I’d like to finish here, sharing a fun piece from Fast Company in which some senior employees from Tech companies share their thoughts on the habits they want to break so as to be more productive and efficient in their work;

Fast Company – Kicking Seven Work Habits

Right, I’m finishing there, because i acknowledge that habit 6 is most certainly one for me to tackle!

Beyond Performance Reviews

If you had to create a system from scratch that would contribute to having higher levels of work engagement among employees, would you create a conventional, traditional performance management/ review system as exists currently in most organisations? My guess is that few of us would choose to do that, at least without skepticism and a certain degree of sadness that we wished we had something better. Why - because we know of enough reasons why conventional performance review systems don't contribute to improved or increased engagement and more often, we know that they can be highly demotivational for a significant proportion of our team members.

Who would willingly choose to engage in a process that is ostensibly intended to improve performance, to drive up standards across an organisation and keep 'all the fishes' swimming in a common direction, where the evidence actually suggests that the process demotivates many and leaves others ambivalent about the process, their longer term career and life aspirations and the contribution they make to the organisation?

In knowledge-based organisations and professional fields the process of finding, recruiting and integrating new people is an enormously expensive one. It doesn't necessarily appear as a defined line in budgets, so many of these costs are concealed and hidden in other working costs. In addition, turnover of people, the inevitable times when there are gaps when a position is left vacant because a suitable person can't be identified all act as further hidden costs. It's even worse than that, though. Finding people who are a perfect fit is almost impossible. So, people are taken in to the organisation and considerable time and effort goes in to helping them to fit the roles for which the organisation needs them. In those circumstances to either lose the person or (maybe worse), to have the person stay but never really fulfil their potential is a massive cost. When it happens too often, you have an underperforming organisation that can never really be all that was dreamed or envisaged.

So, we have to be open to all ideas and possibilities about how to lead knowledge workers effectively, in ways that are respectful and respected. To lead people in ways that enhance people's potential contribution, make them feel certain that they're in a place where their personal and organisational goals can be aligned and to see that their future dreams can often be achieved in some form in the organisation (instead of believing that they must go elsewhere).

Ironically, i suspect the lack of meaningful discussion with employees about the future - their futures - is one of the reasons that so many reduce their organisational existence down to just a discussion about money. If i believe the organisation isn't interested in me and the future i dream of for me, then i might as well at least get as much money from the organisation as i can for the limited period that I'm going to stay.

As Russ Laraway highlights in the video above, and in this Fast Company article the biggest shortcoming of performance management reviews (when they happen and even when they're done well) is that they are inherently backward looking. Worse, to my mind, is that they don't look at the past from the perspective of what was important to the individual, but according to a checklist of tasks or deliverables that the organisation wanted from the individual. Laraway acknowledges that the past is an important part of career discussions, but from the context of the person's whole past and especially those aspects of the past that hold clues to who the individual is and their priorities today.

I wrote yesterday about the millennials and how they are different - requiring different approaches from us in the workplace. This is a classic example. As highlighted in the video shared yesterday, they want more attention to be made to them as people. Attention to their aspirations and dreams is something they want, so this approach makes sense and will strike a chord.

We live with a new reality. Workplaces have changed in the last 20 years or so. Leaders cannot be making assumptions that because they issue an order or instruction or declare that something is to be done in a particular way (or even the statement of a vision or mission) that it will be blindly followed, obeyed or done as stated. This isn't to say that millennial employees are willfully disobedient. It's more that they see the workplace and a job as something more transactional. In those circumstances, respecting the individual has dreams, taking time to understand them, their past and those dreams for the future fits right in with the sort of attention they seek in return for their professional contribution.