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The Google paradox

The Google paradox
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First Published: Thu, Apr 14 2011. 09 25 AM IST
Updated: Sat, Jul 02 2011. 02 52 PM IST
If you are a shareholder in the most popular search-engine company in the world, i.e. Google, then today is a reasonably important day for you. At the time of writing this column, Google is preparing to publish first quarter (Q1) results.
Now on most days this is not something to be wary of. Google has a metronomic, BCCI-like ability to keep making money. According to Thomson Reuters, analysts estimate that Google will show an increase in net revenue of 25% year-on-year to $6.32 billion in Q1.
Six point three two billion dollars. I know that these days most people don’t even use old-fashioned terms like “million” or “lakhs” or “1983 World Cup”. But that is enough money, according to my calculations, to buy an iPad 2 for every single individual who lives in Delhi. Plus a few extra for VIPs, journalists and other members of the evil Delhi cabal.
But in fact this is a turbulent time for Google. After a decade at the helm of the company, Eric Schmidt was recently replaced as CEO by co-founder Larry Page. And this change, which happened in March, has set in motion what seems to be a massive management restructuring.
I won’t bog you down with details, but Google continues to be dependent on one revenue stream: the search-advertising business. And while it runs a conveyor belt of innovation and ideas, very few of them have found any success recently.
So what is new CEO Larry Page going to do differently?
It appears that his first item of action is to remove all the managers.
Which brings us nicely to the topic of this week’s column: Do you think we have too many managers?
Now at this juncture I must confess that this writer holds an MBA. And I have spent a little time managing insignificant things and astonishingly irritating people before moving to journalism.
(Yes, the money in a newspaper is comparatively Parthiv Patel-ish. But the dress code here is relaxed and the co-workers are much more attractive. For a brief period, my editor, also very attractive, used a vuvuzela to summon meetings. You just don’t get that kind of invigorating environment at consulting firms or banks. Lucky you.)
So, when I appear mildly critical of managers, remember that this has nothing to do with a grudge or a chip on the shoulder. I am one of you. I just don’t get the point of most of you.
So: Do we have too many “managers”? Do they add value to an organization? Are they the problem or the solution?
On 5 April, tech columnist John Paczkowski of The Wall Street Journal published a piece titled: “Google’s Page Begins Major Reorg: Engineers, Not Managers, In Charge”.
Paczkowski, informed by sources close to the company, says that Page is now dismantling the company’s debilitating bureaucracy:
“Reimagined like this, Google would become an ambidextrous organization with more powerful unit line execs, mostly engineers, doing what needs to be done to succeed, less burdened by the need to vet every little effort through various managers of Google’s powerful operating committee.”
While reading his piece, it is hard to not feel that managers in Google were impairing the company’s ability to innovate. By pulling them out and giving the “geeks” more freedom, Page is hoping to restore Google’s start-up characteristics.
Personally I am of the opinion that most managers are best at maintaining status quo. Wait, that sounds unfair. What I mean is, to me the idea of most “management” seems to be maintenance of status quo, i.e. making sure business carries on as usual, allowing changes in the system rarely and only after rigorous review.
While this might work in many industries and markets, perhaps it simply doesn’t work for outfits like Google where innovation and turbulence is key.
Most of last week I’ve been thinking about this. Google isn’t the only such company to hire MBAs. In Fortune Magazine’s latest 100 Top MBA Employers List for the US, Google comes first. Apple is at number five. In between you have two consulting firms and a bank.
Eventually I stumbled upon a 23 March blogpost titled “Birth and Death of Microsoft Bing”. In it one of the engineers initially involved with Microsoft’s Google-killer narrated how managers might have ruined his team as well:
“There was interference to bring in “professional managers”, a part of whom were non technical. There were push from the top to add more project managers and testers and it was hard to any longer isolate the blame to a failure. Meetings became longer and more parties got involved. Evenings looked emptier than before. Oops.”
Did a shiver run up your spine at the phrase “meetings became longer”?
Both the examples, I have cited, are from the field of technology. But I have a niggling feeling that this could be true in other innovation-heavy businesses as well. In any case I’d like to know what you think. How important are managers to your business? What role do they play?
Meanwhile, if you are in the market for a hard-working MBA with good excel skills—I can do conditional formatting—and responds instantly to vuvuzelas, you know whom to call.
Cubiclenama takes a fortnightly look at the pleasures and perils of corporate life. Your comments are welcome at cubiclenama@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Apr 14 2011. 09 25 AM IST