We all knew Google was a data-driven company, but a recent Forbes article revealed that the search giant doesn’t just use data analysis to drive its business plans. It also uses it in house.
Google has a reputation for taking care of its employees. The Forbes article pointed out the company has even quietly instituted an employee death benefit that pays the surviving spouse 50 percent of the employee's salary for a decade after the death, along with $1,000 per month per child until age 19. Oh, and any stock vests immediately if you die while employed.
That's generous by any measure, but what struck me most is that Google uses the same data gathering and analysis techniques it applies to other aspects of its business for its own internal requirements.
One of the methods Google uses to determine employee needs is a survey it calls Googlegeist. According to the site Human Resource Executive Online, Googlegeist was the brainchild of Prasad Setty, a Google employee who, according to the article, never expected to find himself applying his numbers-driven approach inside a human resources department.
Setty’s mission when he was hired at Google was to find a way to determine what's on the minds of Google employees. As part of this, he helped create the PiLab, where scientists and researchers have created the Googlegeist survey to figure out what employees are thinking and to build “people metrics.”
The Google Research blog reports that the PiLab team holds a summit once a year to share its approach with social scientists and HR executives and to figure out how to find answers to complex personnel issues inside organizations -- such as how to fight decision fatigue, or how to create incentives for creativity.
That Google placed this post in its Research blog shows that management sees this initiative in the same way it sees other Google research -- such as the mobile data site Google set up for users to build charts on mobile data usage, or the Google Transparency report.
Sometimes, though, Google gets overzealous in its lust to gather data. Recall when it ran afoul of the FCC over Google Street View data gathering. Yet Street View yielded what publisher and thinker Tim O'Reilly called in an interview Forbes Editor Jon Bruner "a treasure trove of data" that enabled Google to build autonomous, self-driving cars.
O'Reilly explained that it wasn't better algorithms that achieved the greater accuracy that fueled Google’s car designs, it was the detailed geographical data obtained through the Street View research. O'Reilly went so far as to say that in the future, companies will be battling over databases instead of software algorithms as they do today. Putting it bluntly, he stated, "The guy with the most data wins."
In the Street View example, Google was clearly not doing right by its users in sacrificing their privacy in the name of data gathering, but it was using that ill-gotten data in very interesting ways nonetheless.
In another instance, just this week, the Federal Trade Commission slapped Google with a $22.5 million fine for bypassing user privacy settings in Apple's Safari browser. Google tracked users this way and served them ads based on data they gathered. This was the biggest fine ever imposed for a penalty of this sort.
It's clear that Google is an organization that lives -- and sometimes dies -- by data gathering and analysis. I suppose it shouldn't be a surprise that the company applies those same techniques in-house to something like ensuring employees are happy.
— Ron Miller is a freelance technology journalist, blogger, FierceContentManagement editor, and contributing editor at EContent magazine.