Lessons from the Googleplex

What faculty can learn from Google’s approach to employee motivation and innovation.
Lessons from the Googleflex

Most research about the 21st-century classroom encourages professors to rely less on lecture-based content delivery and more on timely, relevant, tech-enabled experiential learning. Yet, many business professors are attempting to innovate their teaching methods with little guidance from the business entities where their students will eventually work.

That made us wonder, what could business faculty learn about pedagogical innovation from the most innovative companies in Silicon Valley? Specifically, what could they learn from Google, one of the most successful and internationally recognized companies in history? Google offers us extraordinary lessons about what it takes to innovate and motivate people to design novel services and products. In particular, faculty can learn a great deal about designing more dynamic, innovative, and welcoming classrooms by studying Google’s attention to three factors: relationships, resources, and respect.

Relationships

Western cultures tend to attribute an individual’s success to his or her capabilities. Take Albert Einstein, Warren Buffett, or Steve Jobs, for instance. Society idolizes the merits of these individuals without giving much thought to the environmental or social advantages that supported their remarkable successes. Yet, as John Donne cautioned, none of us is an island. We must draw on our relationships with others to fuel our success.

Google’s leadership takes this idea to heart—in fact, Google co-founder Larry Page once told Fortune magazine that a person’s co-workers should feel like family. In short, Google recognizes that emotional and social connections help people become more creatively disruptive.

That’s why Google takes every opportunity to promote interaction as a way to increase employee engagement, enjoyment, and general well-being. Google also is noted for its degree of internal transparency, so that data is not merely collected, but shared freely and acted upon publicly to drive dialogue and innovation. The company uses technology to create a continual feedback loop among its employees, customers, and partner companies, promoting collaboration in ways that meaningfully change the lives of its customers while also adding to its bottom line.

Much like a family, a classroom can be a crucible where students can develop the interpersonal skills necessary to navigate the social world of business. But to what extent it achieves that goal depends on several factors. What messages does the professor convey to students? Is the classroom a space in which all voices are heard, all ideas vetted? In essence, do students perceive that they have a positive relationship with their professor and with each other?

One way that faculty can build their relationships with their students is through structured communication. For example, Jason Kaufman, a co-author of this article, regularly taps a simple, straightforward tool—email—to reach out to his students just before classes begin. He introduces himself and addresses any syllabus-based anxieties that students might have to ensure that the class understands his expectations and perceives that his classroom will be a social space that tolerates diverse voices and ideas.

With today’s learning management systems and social media networks, it’s easy for faculty to post assignment scores, lead course discussions, share supplementary material with students, and communicate expectations openly within a class. Education ultimately rests upon establishing such relationships through communication that is structured, clear, and, above all, human.

Resources

In 1978, Rita and Kenneth Dunn identified five different student learning styles: environmental, emotional, sociological, physiological, and psychological. Although Google is not an educational classroom, it still provides avenues for all of these learning styles, via a range of resources and perquisites that span myriad aspects of the work environment. These resources include, for example, Googlers to Googlers (or g2g), an internal peer-to-peer training network in which employees train each other in different skills. In fact, according to the company, about 80 percent of all of its training is delivered via the g2g network. This is just one example of how the company works to increase employees’ engagement and interaction, while adding to their enjoyment and general well-being.

And while project goals are important, Google also wants its employees to disconnect from work by engaging in personal reflection, meeting with colleagues for recreation, and pursuing other non-work-related activities. For example, the company gives employees access to cooking classes, workout classes, and even personal massages. It also has run its monthly Talks at Google guest speaker series since 2006—each year, 12 different Googlers invite guests from fields such as technology, entertainment, design, education, government, and science to speak on topics of interest. (Afterward, video of these presentations is made available to the public at www.youtube.com/user/AtGoogleTalks). By doing so, the company helps its employees sharpen the proverbial saw and eventually build even better working relationships.

In his book Work Rules, Laszlo Bock, Google’s “head of people operations,” writes that the company offers its employees free food to give them time to relax. It also provides spaces where employees can meet and provides opportunities for people from different work groups to come together.

Perhaps the most valuable resource Google offers its employees? The permission to fail. The company encourages its employees to take risks and publicly acknowledges that failure provides an opportunity for disruptive growth. The company has embraced the idea that Stuart Firestein, a neuroscientist at Columbia University, has asserted in his research: Uncertainty is inherent to the process of learning.

Just as Google sets the tone for its workforce, faculty set the tone of their classrooms through the resources they provide to students. They can design their teaching approaches to accommodate all five learning styles to promote higher levels of learning. They can make their classrooms safe spaces where students feel free to fail.

Kaufman creates this safe space in his classes by openly acknowledging when he does not know the answer posed by a student query. By intentionally modeling to business students that “I don’t know” is the genesis of all academic endeavor, and by demonstrating a willingness to be wrong, professors can give them room to take more risks and think outside the proverbial box. They can teach students to view failure as a necessary step toward innovation—and bolster their motivation to learn.

Respect

Of course, no degree of relationship-based communication or provision of resources will optimally benefit business students if they do not feel respected in the classroom. As Google has discovered, how it treats its people matters; therefore, it empowers employees to speak up, recognizing that each individual has his or her own unique contribution to make.

In addition, Google is noted for fostering a relatively flat hierarchy among its people. It’s not that the technology behemoth lacks bureaucracy, but that it shows respect for those who ask questions and voice observations. Google fuels this process by hiring people who fit the company’s organization culture well and sending a clear message that all of its employees have something special to contribute.

When Promeet Singh, this article’s other co-author, visited the rapidly growing Google campus in India, he saw firsthand how the company embraces diverse points of view. For example, every single people manager at the company must attend diversity training, in order to better recognize that every employee has a different set of competencies to contribute to the company.

Business faculty can similarly foster cultures of respect for students’ diverse skills, perspectives, and inclinations. How much could students learn if business classrooms were designed to encourage all students to speak up and recognize all students for their individual strengths and weaknesses?

Business faculty can demonstrate respect for the abilities of their students in a number of ways—by inviting students to collaborate on a smartphone or laptop use policy or debate their ideas regarding course readings, or by engaging in other activities that give them opportunities to voice their ideas. In the process, professors can make students feel they have an intellectual stake in both the content and the culture of their studies—and convey a clear message that they respect their students as nascent scholars.

Classrooms as Cultures of Innovation

In his seminal 1995 paper in the Harvard Business Review, Clayton Christensen wrote that companies can succeed through the recognition and adoption of disruptive technologies and strategies—so, too, can higher education.

By infusing Google’s culture into the business classroom, we can create atmospheres of intellectual experimentation that promote our students’ short-term learning and long-term professional success. That’s a powerful value proposition for any program or institution.

Promee Singh   Jason Kaufman

Promeet J. Singh (left) is an assistant professor and Jason A. Kaufman (right) is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at Minnesota State University, Mankato.