Google’s interesting approach to HR research

Google’s interesting approach to HR research

In March 2011, I read a New York Times article about management research at Google. Last week, I got to thinking that the extensive study they did there might have considerable relevance to our discussion of why people are miserable at work and what managers might do about it.

With this last statement, I do not mean to imply that Google’s workers are miserable. Rather, looking again at the article provided some interesting lines of reflection for me. And, Google’s findings may lend some general insight about what constitutes effective management in today’s organizations.

Before going back and reading the New York Times article again, I had planned to start this post with a simple idea: we can begin our quest to engage employees more fully by listening to them. Well, as we will see, Google listened to what their own people were saying; they listened in typically Google ways, and they were somewhat surprised by what they heard.

Prior to performing this study, which they code-named Project Oxygen, Google had taken a mostly hands-off approach to management. Their reasoning was straightforward: As one of the world’s most desirable places to work, they should hire the smartest young people they could find, and then simply stay out of their way.

Google’s founders and leaders made the assumption that such highly intelligent, self-motivated individuals—particularly engineers—prefer to be left alone. After all, they are talented, well-educated problem solvers, and employers should simply let them do their stuff. If they ever do become stuck, they will ask their bosses for help. As such, the primary function of a Google manager should be to supply the deep technical expertise required to get the roadblocks resolved, so that their subordinates and their teams could move on rapidly.

In my work with start-ups in recent years, I have seen that Google’s attitude is far from unique. Many early stage high-tech companies make suppositions similar to those of Google about hiring and managing young people. Also these days, it seems that the popular press, both on-line are off, is full of stories about why the modern-day knowledge worker must be managed differently than the employee of years past. We are told that they are from a new generation—be it Generation X, Generation Y, Generation Flux, or the Millennial Generation—and they simply do not see the need for management structure. Often, they even resent it and rebel against it.

The new conventional wisdom is telling us that these young workers are rapid problem-solvers with short attention spans. They move readily from task to task, and they are quickly bored. They do not see the need for anyone to control what they do. They are not loyal to their organizations; they dislike hierarchy, and their greatest desire is that bosses stay out of the way and just let them get on with things.

Despite this forward-thinking, minimalist approach to management, however, Google began to see evidence that managers do indeed matter. By 2008, and with more than a decade of history, the “people operations” group (Google’s term for HR) was noticing huge swings in the ratings that employees gave to their bosses.

So, Project Oxygen grew out of a simple observation and a straightforward premise. According to Lazlo Bock, vice president for people operations, his unit had observed that the best managers had teams that consistently performed better than others. They also retained people better, and their work groups were generally happier. In fact, and this may come as no surprise, these well-managed teams seemed to do everything better.

Out of these observations about teams came the premise that the most important controllable factor that the “people operations” group should focus on was the quality of the manager. As such, the Project Oxygen task force set out to find the characteristics that make a manager good. It was the beginning of a multi-phase, multi-year project to engineer better bosses at Google.

Up to this point, I see nothing particularly extraordinary or surprising in this anecdote. In fact, it all sounds remarkably simple and pedestrian. Google’s questions about performance are logical ones that any organization might ask, and their conclusions about teams are almost intuitive ones that they might have reached on their own, without the aid of any in-depth research. I am even tempted to say that a company such as Google should have known all along that better managers might lead their teams to superior results.

But here is where the story begins to get interesting. Rather than rely on academic or third party studies about managers and organizations, they set about doing it all themselves. As a world-class data-mining organization, Google has the resources to compile and correlate large masses of internal information. Thus, in early 2009, the statisticians from Project Oxygen began analyzing performance reviews, feedback surveys and nominations for top-manager awards.

They studied more than 10,000 observations about managers, across more than 100 variables, correlating words, phrases, elements of praise, and complaints.

As I mentioned above, this type of data analysis is the initial reason why I found their research so interesting, in two aspects. First, studies such as this one were simply not possible until recently, and only a company such as Google has the capability to amass and analyze data in this way. And second, since Google’s study is based on vast quantities of its own information, it is difficult for anyone inside the company to reject it as standard or generic wisdom that may not be relevant in their specific environment.

In terms of the survey itself, some of the results were familiar and predictable, for example that managers should “have a clear vision and strategy for the team”, or “help your employees with career development”. At the same time, other elements of the study led to dramatic changes in Google’s approach to management and human resource development. In the next post, we will discuss these results in detail.


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