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Google's internal culture change

Sarah Putt, Contributor. 27 August 2019, 4:07 pm

News that Google has put in place stricter guidelines for employee discussions will come as no surprise to those following the stories about posts on internal message boards getting out of control and spilling into the public arena.

Maybe the most well-known example is the internal memo in 2017 questioning Google's pro-diversity hiring practices. But there have been leaks on everything from concerns about sexual harassment and pay inequity through to business practices, notably 'Project Dragonfly' where Google was apparently looking at how it could get back into China.

The investigative report by Wired, "Three years of misery inside Google, the happiest company in Tech" is an absolute must-read. It explains how Google's internal social network, consisting of thousands of online mailing lists, got out of management's control.

The idea for these freewheeling discussion platforms came at the start, when founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin decreed that if you worked for Google you could "bring your whole self" to work. You didn't need to park your politics at the gate. Of course, what happened in Google was supposed to stay in Google, and there were strict rules around confidentiality (as with all businesses) but, according to Wired, non-disclosure "wasn't just a rule, it was a social bargain."

While traditional companies might see all this free talking as, at best, a distraction from work and, at worse, a potential public relations nightmare, at Google they saw it as a way to bring out the best from their highly intelligent employees. What could go wrong in a company that now employs over 100,000 people globally? Quite a lot apparently and some of it has been leaked to the press.

"In a larger sense, Google found itself and its culture deeply maladapted to a new set of political, social, and business imperatives. To invent products like Gmail, Earth, and Translate, you need coddled geniuses free to let their minds run wild. But to lock down lucrative government contracts or expand into coveted foreign markets, as Google increasingly needed to do, you need to be able to issue orders and give clients what they want," writes journalist Nitasha Tiku (and yes, please do read the article).

Now the carnival is over. The company is cracking down on internal discussions. That most traditional of publications, the Wall Street Journal, notes the new guidelines are designed to limit "employee discussion of politics and other topics not related to work."

It's not the first of the tech giants to do this, and it probably won't be the last, but Google's (or more precisely Alphabet's) move to impose new guidelines is arguably the most significant. That freewheeling Google culture has been imitated by tech start-ups around the world, including in New Zealand. The move to curb political debate raging on internal message boards makes total sense, but it also marks the end of an era.


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