What does it take to be “Googly”?

This year’s Managing Human Capital course in the NUS MBA has had a number of excellent guest speakers, but perhaps the most anticipated was the course closing talk given by DN Prasad, Google’s Head of Human Resources for Asia-Pacific.

He spoke about his company’s HR practices and shared how the philosophy was connected to the company culture – the essence of Googly-ness.

DNP, as he is known at Google, emphasised the importance of innovation as the bedrock of Google’s corporate culture. “The innovative culture at Google flows into our projects”, he explained.

google280“We want to make an impact on the world, to make the world a better place. It is a simple statement but very challenging and it makes us push the envelope, push ourselves, and push boundaries.”

This type of thinking has been with Google from its inception, Prasad said, showing the audience a section from the Founder’s Letter that was issued during Google’s 2004 IPO.

“If you look at the DNA of the organisation, it says ‘Google is not a conventional company and we do not intend to be one’. So right from the start, we were always pushing the boundaries and challenging state-of-scope and never being happy with the state of things and looking for something better.”

It’s a philosophy that has served Google well. From its first home in a garage in Menlo Park, California, by its 13th birthday last year Google had grown to a multi-billion dollar company with 129 offices spread across 57 countries.

Always innovating

But this success also came with caution. Prasad noted, that if Google could create such disruption in technology markets over the last 13 years, there could also be a lot of companies emerging out anywhere in the world which could be a year away from creating similar disruptions for them.

With that in mind, he said, it was essential for Google to be constantly self-monitoring, watching the market and always innovating.

This innovation and creativity extends beyond Google’s engineering practices and into its Human Resources philosophy.

Among Google’s HR practices is a three part model for its staff section into this area.

Prasad began by explaining a ‘typical’ profile of someone who works in HR: good interpersonal skills, academic background in psychology and a good history of industry relations.

“To this we added two new elements,” he said. “The first was consultants, whether managerial or business, to bring a mindset of proactive solutions. The second was analysts, often PhDs, skilled in statistics with an ability to read trends in the data. This mix of traditional, consultancy orientated and analytical staff has proved a potent combination to driving creativity and excellence in HR practices.”

Meaning behind the data

Another priority area for Google is the collection of meaningful and usable data.

Prasad explained how there is a lot of discussion before any measuring takes place to ensure that the proper elements are being observed. This is followed by not merely the offering of reports of staff numbers, training data, recruitment targets etc, but actual insights and meaning behind the numbers.

Having ratios and trends is deemed to be useless without meaning, or, “your audience will go numb”.  Once meaning is attained, the data is then used by Google to drive action within the company.

Prasad described in detail the long-term challenges for Google’s Human Resources department, or what he called  “the things keeping us up at night”.

One of the challenges he said  was finding ways to utilise every Googler – the company’s terms for its engineers – at 100%. Google is currently looking into how to enhance the life capability of every Googler, by using analytics and running experiments to see what would happen if their staff enjoyed better physical health.

During a tour of the Singapore Google offices earlier that day, a large number of “micro-kitchens” were observed. Prasad explained that no Googler was more than 100m from available food at any time, meaning staff running between meetings are able to quickly grab something as they passed by, with healthier options always in their line of sight.

The hope is that as staff become used to this kind of eating, habit change will follow.

Google culture

Responding to a student question, Prasad acknowledged that Google recognised the potential for clashes between Google’s corporate culture and the individual local cultures where its offices were located.

The Singapore office, for example, has lava lamps, foosball tables and a mini basketball game – much like other Goggle offices around the world. But a range of initiatives such as the naming of meeting rooms – one is called “Little India” for example – gives acknowledgement of the wider local context within which the Google office is situated.

Prasad said it was important that each local office was set up in such a way as to recognise and appreciate both the local setting and the global Google gene pool.
At the same time Google tries to ensure its corporate culture takes root in new offices, by always selecting a site-leader, someone considered the “Googliest” they can find, so they help the culture take root.

Finally, Prasad came to the secret formula behind Google’s success.

At its heart, he said, the firm’s strength derives from an “insane focus on people”, while at the same time remaining humble that the company does not know everything.

To illustrate this point the final slide in his presentation showed a sign outside a church – presumably taken somewhere in North America – which simply read “There are some questions that can’t be answered by Google.”