By Eduardo Andere M .
Do you know what the word Google means?
About the same time I visited Google’s facilities in Mountain View, California a couple of months ago, I began to read “Schoolmaster’s Scrapbook: Half a century at Groton,” written more than 50 years ago by Henry Howe Richards, and compiled 50 years later by many of the school’s alumni. That makes it a century-old gem.
The book is full of anecdotes and stories about an iconic boarding school in Groton, Massachusetts. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was one of its many distinguished alumni.
Around 1890 schoolboys would gather together to celebrate the end of the week. They would enjoy a drink made from raspberry syrup and water, and the drink was called “Google.” Over time the word Google became the generic term for the weekly party regardless of the beverage. And today, if you walk around the Google campus, you can sense a festive feeling everywhere.
So, what’s Google? It’s a success story resulting from creativity. It’s the sum of ideas, knowledge and value. It’s an idea that escalated to the largest human network ever developed.
In short, Google has done more to connect and bring humanity together than all the work accomplished by all the governments and international organizations throughout history. This is the power of ideas and knowledge joined together.
It’s like a high school party where everything is free: concerts, drinks, snacks, breakfast, lunch, dinner and in-betweens.
You might say that Google is an organization bursting with creative chaos. Despite the limited open access to external visitors, I was able to see the laissez-faire ambience in a short two-hour tour.
First of all, there’s no dress code. That means casual clothes, jeans, tee-shirts and sneakers. Employees roam around the campus, stopping at countless venues for free meals: from formal sit-down restaurants, to relaxed fast food courts and coffee corners, with all kinds of food options, and all totally free.
At Google, Milton Freeman’s dictum “There is no such thing as a free lunch” is apparently no longer true. Even more impressive, employees also enjoy amusement distractions like the ultra-modern bowling alley where they can play while waiting for their in-house laundry. Of course, there are billiard tables, ping-pong tables, pinball machines, swimming pools, football and basketball courts. And all offices are surrounded by lovely, cozy gardens for strolling, meeting or relaxing.
Without knowing the intricacies of Google’s organizational philosophy, you might think it resembles a gigantic Montessori campus.
The selection criteria for future employees are based on leadership, role-knowledge, fluid intelligence skills and compatibility with the company’s culture or Googleyness (http://www.google.com/about/careers/lifeatgoogle/hiringprocess/). Evaluation criteria for employees are based on results, and performability is based on freedom, relaxation and creativity.
Google defies the most basic principles of economic theory and game theory. Free consumption and free use of leisure time are classified by economists as public goods. Public goods are only possible up to a point where supply exceeds demands, and no one is excluded from consumption. Whoever provides the public good is either an altruist or a hegemon (remember the US after World War II). However, since consumers don’t actually internalize the cost of consumption, there is a tendency to over-consume. And this is okay as long as the provider is able to maintain an unlimited supply of public goods.
From the game theory point of view, the public good is an opportunity to nurture free riders. An economist would say that so far Google’s stunning success allows the company a tiny expenditure of about 200 million dollars per year compared to billions of net income in order to strategically provide the externality. However, a game theorist would argue that a severe crisis will eventually displace the developers of creative brains and invite the accountants to establish order. A third branch of knowledge from the realms of psychology would question this extrinsic Pavlovian motivator at the expense of the truly intrinsic motivator.
Nevertheless, has Google actually defied the collective action hypothesis against cooperation among large groups? 50,000 employees (Wikipedia 2013) is a fairly large group to overcome the Prisoner’s dilemma trap. The larger the group, the greater the incentive for cheating, i.e., non-cooperation, or consuming or depleting the public good. But wait a minute. Wikipedia is the epitome of cooperation among hundreds of thousands of people who do not know each other. Has cooperation finally defeated competition?
Google has the capacity to overcome this dilemma. Extraordinary organizational work is necessary to balance cooperation and competition. Creating small circles or networks, both formal and informal, with intrinsic motivation for cooperation, can make this happen. The development of intrinsic incentives for cooperation will easily replace the use of never-ending extrinsic stimuli.
While young people now marvel at a consumer culture without borders or limits, their brains learn quickly to ask for higher and better prizes in order to function well. Extrinsic motivation, at the brain level, kills intrinsic motivation. It is wise to correct mistakes, but it is wiser to prevent them.
Google is undoubtedly an exemplary company, and in a very few years it has led humanity in a different direction: a true «swerve.” Time will tell if its organizational culture is so powerful as to defy sacred theories of economics, psychology and game theory. The brain is an extremely complex network that will demand more rewards to operate at a higher level.