What Google’s $2.7 billion fine reminds me about customer-centricity

This week Google was fined over 2 billion dollars for doctoring its search results to suit its own agenda. It’s a complex case but for me it’s a sobering reminder that this beloved household name, mysterious, alluring, fabled; is just another company. Its mission, at its core is, ‘how to make as much money as possible in as short a period of time as possible’.

I believe that as a startup, Google was perhaps a benevolent entity. Its founders genuinely wanted to bring information to the world, and it honestly kept its employees true to the maxim, ‘do no evil’.

This change is Google’s essence is no fault of its founders or indeed its employees. Every Google individual may, deep down, have altruistic ambitions. The reason Google is now struggling to stay true to its founding spirit is a simple. Size.

Once an organisation grows to the point where it needs a ‘central function’, which includes HR, the rot has begun. It starts to develop an obsession with consistency and control. Meetings start to happen behind closed doors, and trust becomes the exception not the rule.

I know this to be true because I work with many great companies, where the founders have purposely stayed small. The owner and founder can speak to, and know every employee on a personal level. Whether that’s a good or bad thing, of course depends on that individual. But it’s manageable and human.

HR processes by their nature are robotic and impersonal. They are in place to protect the organisation. This drives a culture where the ‘company’ operates for the legal entity not for the employees.

There are plenty organisations, Apple for another example, who have built their business on being ‘consumer-centric. And that may have been true when Steve Jobs was around. But now I find myself clicking on a shared link in Facebook and being directed to an Apple News site asking me whether I’d like to subscribe to their service before viewing the content. Apple is a particular culprit for this, and anyone who has ever tried to use iTunes will see they are being constantly backed into an Apple-owned corner.

This is an important lesson for L&D professionals everywhere. Whenever you hear yourself muttering phrases like, ‘how can we get people to’, or ‘it would help us if’, you’re no longer customer-centric. That’s not always a bad thing, but it negates your claim to ‘user-centred design’ and other buzz words you’ve picked up from reading a few design books and Steve Job’s autobiography.

There’s a sliding scale on which your organisation will sit – between command & control, trust & autonomy. My view is that the latter demands a mindset shift from thinking companies ‘own‘ its customers and employees, to thinking companies are its employees and operate for its customers. The same is true of L&D and I hope you are taking steps to realise this.

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