Google’s way of doing business been under real scrutiny of late. The Journal recently ran a piece on the company’s organizational revamp, intended to try to stop losing good people and smart ideas. Anil Dash, founder of blogging company Six Apart, wrote a thoughtful piece on “Google’s Microsoft Moment”, assessing how the company is evolving into a firm with a “distinctly different culture than they used to have.” And, technology columnist Dan Lyons, aka Fake Steve Jobs, wrote a tongue-in-cheek but nonetheless devastating critique of the company’s “Montessori preschool” culture, going so far as to ask the question: “What the *ahem* is going on inside Google? How much more out of control and undisciplined can this place get?”
So I was intrigued to get a look behind the curtain at the company’s internal innovation process by means of its two latest announcements. Firstly, a product that was initially introduced and tested in Gmail Labs, the experimental playground dedicated to improving the company’s email service, is graduating to prime time. Today, a new “Tasks” tab will appear on regular Gmail accounts. Initially merely a toy for users choosing to play around in Gmail Labs, the feature, basically an in-mail to-do list, is the first experiment that has been deemed ready for its close up.
Secondly, the Calendar product team is launching its own dedicated Labs, specifically looking for engineers from both inside and outside of the company to develop and test ideas for improvements to the product. The underlying message of both announcements? Sure, Google engineers might be playing around, but they're focused in their tinkering and serious about innovation. Honest.
Truthfully, much of the innovation coming from both of these Labs will be only incremental. But opening up the pipeline to external developers (which isn't strictly the case in Gmail Labs, though product manager Keith Coleman told me that there is a workaround that allows those from outside to add a gadget by means of a URL) could prove to be a key development as Google looks to hone its enterprise chops. And Calendar product manager Ken Norton acknowledged the benefit of harnessing ideas from outside of the company's engineering-centric culture. "One customer asked if we could add a check box to say whether a conference room has a microscope in it," he said in a telephone interview. "I can't imagine we're going to add that feature to Calendar but at the same time, we didn't want to say 'no.' We wanted to say, 'we won't, but you can.'" Other examples included a way for firms to sync up sales calls, or a means to book company cars. "At Google, we don't have company cars, so I don’t need that," Norton said, somewhat wryly. "But it’s an important feature for some of our customers, so they can take it and extend it."
This nod towards a more open innovation strategy is smart. Corporate customers win, by being able to tailor a product to their own specific needs. And Google engineers get to mine ideas from other corporate cultures that are probably more traditional and less tech savvy, but nonetheless a reality for millions of potential users. "Our engineers have really cool ideas," said Norton. "But those inside corporations do too -- and they have a different user base. That helps us unblock what might turn out to be a key feature for them –- and we might be able to use it more broadly, too."