Google – Walking the Talk

Google’s latest advertising slogan/mantra is deceptively simple: “Work the way you live.”

Toward that concept, the most unintentionally funny presentation at Gartner’s 2012 ITxpo was a lunch session hosted by Google. To be fair, I should disclose that Google is one of Litéra’s collaborative authoring “compredators” – a term describing the combination of competitor and predator common in the IT industry. And, toward further fairness, I should give Google credit for putting itself at risk by deciding to prove its point with live demonstrations of enterprise-class applications even as the overburdened wireless network thwarted most others. Bravery notwithstanding, Google proved that enterprise-class apps will depend on enterprise-class connectivity as much as they do features/functions. It also proved I tend to enjoy too much irony in my humor.

The huge crowd heard the Google argument about how its integration of mobility/social media/collaboration/information crosses platforms as much as it does processes and even IT boundaries. Ultimately, though, it might depend on lower expectations regarding security, policy management, access control and rights management, etc. that make even ‘good enough’ traditional IT models of end-user provisioning seem remarkably good. So much so, that all the spadework already done to lower consumer expectations about quality, connectivity, responsibility (can you hear me now?) may not have been enough. Imagine the day when just about everything you want to accomplish at work is opposed rather than enabled somehow by technology (as it was for the Google team yesterday):

  • Couldn’t work on the same document at the same time
  • Couldn’t snap a photo of a business card, OCR it, and have it appear in Google Drive
  • Couldn’t connect to data analytics tool BigQuery (fail message actually appeared)
  • Couldn’t video conference multiple participants on different devices
  • Couldn’t get audio working – and when it finally was corrected, every third word from the person speaking was corrupted

I do not want to work in the 3rd Word World. And, 99.9 percent uptime is a meaningless SLA when the one hiccup corrupts your carefully rehearsed closing argument or a critical sale. That’s what happened to Google at Gartner – despite very interesting technology and a sizable fan base, it should have been a great show but ended up exposing some real issues with how it thinks we want to work. It was weird watching a rock star with the hiccups.

Weird, too was how its promo for Google Docs makes clear that rock stars in one arena may not suit the needs of audiences in another. In the short video, we see a blank sheet in an editing environment – and as the soundtrack begins, lyrics begin to appear: … “Oh here she comes, she’s a _________”, and we’re suddenly seeing the famous pop music duo Hall & Oates collaborating as they might have back in 1982 on the hit song “Maneater.” Well, at least we see their cursors flying as they try several alternatives before settling on the term that became the song’s name. It takes a mere 30 seconds to instruct us how Google Docs works even as we are charmed by the mediocrity of the outcome. But those same 30 seconds can set certain types of enterprises back 30 years.

Here’s how: any business that depends on lifeblood collaborative document processes (think contracts, proposals, statements of work, service agreements, policies and procedures, technical documentation, press releases, business plans, annual reports, regulatory submissions, or even songs) understands that the process of collaboration is onerous and often broken. Now, I admit that if Google has taught me one thing, it’s that I can forget everything I ever learned about everything. If I need an answer, I find it (and 240,875,333 more useless options) anywhere I happen to be. So, despite its claims of responsible digital curation for your essential  information,  I wonder if it understands how much value is in the ideas presented by those who may not have them included in the final version. Preserving institutional memory ensures lower risks and higher productivity.

For example, the third collaborator in the song “Maneater” was Sara Allen. She’s credited (and paid) as a songwriter, but her real contribution was suggesting to Hall that he delete parts from the song’s early draft version. I wouldn’t have remembered this without Google’s help. But it underscores the most alarming part of Google Docs (apart from the fact that any public Cloud host will get subpoenaed on any given day and routinely cough up data)… the history of the final version is incomplete without storing all the adds/edits/deletes/approvals. These contributions are part of any negotiated document. They need to be available for the forseeable future. They are records.

If I have a contract with you (in this case, you’ll be a lawyer), and we both work in Google Docs to hammer out the details of a settlement, and I work somewhere else in the document at the same time you are changing the terms and conditions completely in your own favor, then shame on me if I fail to go back and check your work. To a limited extent, I can review changes by any editor, assuming I’ve caught them before they were changed (again). But the potential for overwrite anarchy depends on users understanding the implications of co-authoring – especially in larger teams that operate across firewalls.

The worst could be when you work with dozens of other auditors in a risk management spreadsheet (not just because that’s what you do for a living) and Google detects you are nearing its storage limit: it will ‘prune’ some of the edit history: according to Google’s site “it will automatically collapse some of the revisions from throughout your spreadsheet’s history to save space. There is currently no way to retrieve the individual revisions that were pruned. To permanently save a particular version of a spreadsheet, go to the File menu and select Make a copy.”

Yikes. So, to “work the way I live”, I’ll have to accept lots more risk even beyond lost changes. Plus, I can’t work offline on documents – I can view them but not replicate my changes when reconnected. Plus, I have to live with overwrites in my company’s contracts, presentations, proposals, SOPs, 10-Ks — records, all — that aren’t exposed to me intuitively or might get lost forever. No wonder the theme song Google chose is from 1982. That’s the last time I remember having no enterprise-class technology to rely upon.

About Toby Bell

Toby has over 25 years of leadership experience in technology strategy, analysis, development, and delivery. He's managed people, products, projects, and profits equally well. His work history ranges from marketing and communications to software design and development to global consulting to technology research and analysis to business leadership. He has provided strategic advice to many companies; has written a strong body of research; is widely quoted across technology and business media; and has been a keynote speaker for Ernst & Young, Arthur Andersen, Gartner, and their clients. Toby Bell has spent over 30 years as a global technology executive with experience ranging across enterprise technology strategy, analysis, development, and delivery. His perspectives about idealizing the interplay between people and emerging content, analytics, and process technologies stem from a balanced career as an enterprise end-user, industry analyst, and vendor in this evolving marketplace. Toby has provided strategic advice to many companies; has written a strong body of research; is widely quoted across technology and business media; and has been a keynote speaker on behalf of Ernst & Young, Arthur Andersen, Gartner, IBM, AIIM, and their respective clients.
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