Thursday, November 6, 2008

Hope Below the Radar

The election is over. Cheney has not attacked Iran or declared martial law, though he thought about both. Now comes the hard work of real change that will need imagination and courage. Today’s column is a first step in holding Obama’s feet to a fire sparked by working people, by young people (of all ages), by thinking people. Obama may not know it, till now, but “yes we can” has already started in terms of cultural change. Please read on.

Once upon a time, early in the last half of the 20th century, when America had a culture of rugged individualism, competition, and self interest, the Japanese entered the world of economics with a radical attitude: cooperation and altruism. Before that time, Japan was known for producing trinkets and low quality items. In the West, quality was good but productivity was not improving. Labor-management negotiations always included threats of strikes or lockouts & firings. Conflict was part of Capitalism and remains so in the West today.

The second half of the 20th century saw a 180° turn in Japan. Nikon lenses and cameras became as good as the best German optical equipment. Other products followed. In cars today, Lexus and and Infinity give Mercedes and BMW a run for quality. Today, Japan produces electronic devices of highest quality. In the Land of the Rising Sun and first hybrid cars, auto workers and labor in general: have a hand in corporate decision-making, have a pride in the products they manufacture, and have the security of a lifetime job. They are productive in both quality and quantity.

Look what happened to Toyota. It became eminently successful despite its silly name. The Toyota Prius leads all hybrids in sales and satisfaction. The Japanese eschew the American cultural model in many disciplines from law to business sharkity. If a CEO commits a strategic error he makes public apologies to employees, stockholders, and the public at large. He often resigns with bowed head. The next quarter’s bottom line can wait an Asiatic few years. Quality will out. Patience pays.

A few American firms have found they can do well by doing good, but very few have made it a habit or considered it more than image and good PR. The eight years of the B-C administration with “So?” Cheney calling the shots have reinforced the great white shark model. Very quietly in a multibillion dollar whisper, Google is creating a new cultural model. While everyone is talking about Google’s 400 billion searches a year and huge databases, we hear little about the company’s dual mission statements: a) “to organize the world’s information [all of it] and make it universally accessible and useful” and b) “don’t be evil.” The primary purpose of the former is not to make as much money as possible. The latter is not some sort of a joke, They don’t claim ownership of the world’s information and don’t charge for providing it. And, they’re serious about not being mean spirited. The mission statements are backed by many quotes of the
founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and the like-minded CEO, Eric Schmidt. Here are a few. Brin: “We have no desire to screw any category of people or trick them. We want all our partners to be successful.” Schmidt: “We would never cross the boundary of violating user trust.” Brin: “How many people do you think had embarrassing information disclosed yesterday because of some Google cookie? Zero. It never happens.” Compared to Microsoft, which the courts have ruled suppressed competition, Google has not even been charged with violating any laws. Like Microsoft, Google offers a variety of software: word processing, spreadsheets, e-mail, instant messaging, map locating, and others beyond Gadfly — all under the umbrella they call “cloud computing.” But their first of all is their web search engine. It occupies 70% of their energies.

Concerning labor-management, Google gives above-and-beyond employee benefits. In addition to the usual, employees in the home office (not just mucky-mucks) get annual physicals, weekly car washes and other unlikelies. More impressive, Google allows its workers to devote up to 20% of their paid time to developing projects on their own.

Perhaps most telling, Terry Winograd, a professor of computer sciences at Stanford, was given Google stock for work he did early in the company’s history. Standard operating procedure in most American corporations is amnesia for early work, or just plain stealing. At Google, founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page have maintained good relations with Winograd and are genuinely generous. The principals at Google leave the lofty speeches to politicians, to promisors of one kind of change or another, they just do the deeds. Google offers free information on any topic with its search engine, free e-mail services with Gmail, free maps & directions, and free other things that are beyond Gadfly’s elementary electronic skills. Google explores every possibility — they are now looking into everything from mobile phones to renewable energy technologies.

One thing they do not offer free is advertising. Advertisers want to be noticed by the people in Google’s huge database, and revenues from advertising have given Google a net worth of over 200 billion dollars. Maybe, in a few years, if we don’t add to the $10 trillion national debt, Google will buy the US of A and change American culture to one of “Do no harm.” We certainly can’t expect that from Exxon-Mobil.

Google is growing far faster than the Chinese economy. It has been in business only since 1998. and grows with each year. Their technology is superior to all others, and they are attracting both creative talent and engineers without peer. They think they can do anything. Maybe they can. Hey Google, how about starting with changing American culture to one of cooperation and caring. You have the numbers, both in search requests and in earnings — just what Americans will respond to initially. Philosophy will not be far behind.