What makes Google tick? A management consultant takes an adoring look

Most business books are very much of a particular moment, and when that moment passes -- management changes, stock prices plummet, or the buzz that made the business book-worthy slips away -- the book seems dated. This, then is the moment to grab Bernard Girard's The Google Way. which documents the workings of the search giant.

Girard, a management consultant, has been tracking Google since 2000, and his book analyzes the structure and philosophy of the company even as it's grappled with the current recession. (This means we're more current than the French, who got an earlier version of this text in 2006 as Une Révolution du Management: le Modèle Google.) Girard sees the Sergey-Brin-Schmidt triumvirate as no less innovative than a Henry Ford or a Taiichi Ohno (the man who made Toyota a global powerhouse) or Ikea's Ingvar Kamprad. Google's strength, he posits, doesn't merely come from superior algorithms but from rethinking how a company functions.

The secret sauce is academia. Girard notes that Google places a very high value on advanced degrees as not only a sign that potential employees might be good at their chosen field but that they have the patience and mindset to thrive in the corporate culture Google wishes to foster. The open-beta / early-release system, in which new products simply pop up and Gmail stays in beta for half a decade, bears a much closer resemblance to the collaborative process in college than to most corporate R&D programs. Even the data-processing philosophy that keeps the servers fast and online came from an academic (neurosurgeon and computer scientist Dr. Jim Reese), not from the tech industry.

At Google, the role of smart automation extends far past keeping its servers online. As Girard points out repeatedly, Google's primary revenue generator is ad sales -- and ad sales are automated at Google. That's a lot of faith to place in the machinery, and many readers will find the chapters on making that process user-centric to be the most absorbing in the book.

It's an interesting read, though there are a number of indicators that Girard drank deeply of the Kool-aid at various points in his research. (It only takes a few "Google is paradise nonetheless for many employees," and, "The search engine was considered infinitely better than its competitors," for a reviewer to start drawing angry faces in the margins.) Girard didn't have access to the top of the org chart, but he spoke to a number of current and former employees who did point out some of the problems in Google's system, both current (a system designed to cut down on politicking and management overhead can lead to some vicious behavior by peers -- yeah, sounds like college) and future (corp-culture scalability, eventual changes in leadership, the rise of smaller, swifter competitors who function well following Google's rules).

A bit less hagiography might have left room for examples of other businesses using part or all of Google's philosophies. Which "famous restaurant in southwestern France" picked up two Michelin stars for implementing a version of the 80/20 rule so sous chefs could invent new dishes on company time? We hear it happened, but we don't get the details. As fascinated as the reader will be by how Page and Brin rethought the process of becoming a business, then a market leader, then a verb, the most powerful evidence that Google's success is owed to visionary management would be seeing bits and pieces of that management philosophy changing other companies.

Girard, Bernard,The Google Way: How one company is revolutionizing management as we know it. No Starch Press: 256 pages, $24.95.

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