Of Vision and Victory

John Battelle’s account of Google’s various predecessors in The Search conjures up distant memories of Boston’s Route 128, once known as America’s Technology Highway. That was home to the now defunct Digital Equipment Corporation, known as DEC, and other towering high-techs. At DEC, Louis Monier took AltaVista from “concept to executable code.” His search engine, with multiple simultaneous crawlers, produced for its time an unprecedentedly wide-ranging index. But when Monier sought approval from DEC to go public, its executives “scratched their heads,” Battelle notes. After all, DEC was a hardware outfit, and this new phenomenon did not fit the company plan to sell minicomputers. Those corner-office creative thinkers stumbled over success and kicked it out of their way as they headed to obsolescence.

What the DEC execs lacked was vision. Ditto for Compaq. I wonder how the chain of events would have played out if those folks had possessed some foresight and imagination. Would Google now be the powerhouse it is?  Kudos to Google for having that vision. The question is whether Google can maintain it. There’s a thin line between success and failure.

Blogger journalist Jeff Jarvis, who wrote the book What Would Google Do?, gushed about Google’s sensational success on “Press: Here,” a Silicon Valley Show on the San Hose NBC station http://www.buzzmachine.com/.

“It’s genius what they’ve done,” he declared. “It’s just amazing to see a company that defaults to smart.”  Jarvis added that Google has a “different relationship” with their employees and their world.  If that is the magic of Google’s stardom, companies should take a hard look at their MOs . Gary Hamel’s Management 2.0 blog in The Wall Street Journal, offers a checklist to prod companies toward a similarly successful vision in this new economic era.  http://blogs.wsj.com/management/. It can no longer be management as usual, Hamel tells us. Among Hamel’s most pressing items:

Adaptability:  Companies must be as adaptable and resilient as they are focused and efficient. The problem: Typical management processes “reflexively favor more of the same and discourage pre-emptive change.”

Innovation:  It’s the only protection from destruction. The problem: Most management processes were built to promote “conformance and alignment rather than contrarian thinking and bold experimentation.”

Engagement: Institutional success depends on the willingness of employees to bring the “gifts of initiative, imagination and passion to work each day.” The problem: Traditional management systems, while good at “compelling obedience and harnessing expertise, typically fail to engage the emotional and spiritual energies of employees.”

 So with Google seemingly taking a page from this playbook, it sits on top of the world.  It’s lucky even in the legal world, where a federal judge this past week dismissed the lawsuit a Pittsburgh couple brought against the company claiming that it Google Maps’ Street View violated their privacy http://blogs.wsj.com/digits/2009/02/18/google-wins-boring-lawsuit/.

But will that good fortune continue? Will it take more than futuristic management for a company whose riches rest on mining personal data to continue doing so? Will Google be able to take the next step that DEC and other companies could not? It’s mind-boggling that Google’s “Database of Intentions,” as Battelle calls it – our collective electronic footprint – is probably the world’s best monitor of our global culture.  And right now, we just shrug our shoulders in resignation as something known as privacy has been swept up in the dustpan of history.  But already, there are rumblings of starting over with a “new” Internet; Stanford techies already designing it. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/15/weekinreview/15markoff.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&ref=technology . There is speculation that “the current Internet might end up as the bad neighborhood of cyberspace. You would enter at your own risk and keep an eye over your shoulder while you were there.”

 If so, the question is, what would Google do then?

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