What would google do ?

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Thu, 08/13/2009 - 16:06 by Olivier Bonaventure

What would google do ? is the intriguing title of the new book written by Jeff Jarvis

This book is not a technical discussion of google's internal operation nor an history of google. Instead, Jeff Jarvis considers, and I tend to agree with him, that thanks to the growth of the Internet and search engines such as google that allow to easily locate information, the world is changing. Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, we have mainly lived in a world driven by scarcity. More products were initially scarce and it took a long time for industry to grow to produce a large number of them. Even if the automobile industry has grown constantly, automobiles are still a scarce product for a large fraction of the population on Earth. Information was also scarce and accessing information had a cost and many companies have grown by collecting and distributing information.

With the global Internet, information is not scarce anymore and we are quickly moving to a society of abundance. In the past, information was controlled by some companies that benefited from it. Today, information is abundant as shown by the number of web pages, blogs, twitter posts, you tube videos, ... The difficulty is not anymore to obtain some information but to find the correct information. This world of information abundance will likely change the way our society operates. In his book, Jeff Jarvis first reviews the impact that this abundance of information (and the need to organise and process it) has on our society and looks at how it will impact different types of businesses.

Based on reflections about the operation of google, Jeff Jarvis lists several principles that are applicable to different types of human activities and are worth considering :

  • Do what you do best and link to the rest : In an information abundant society, companies do not need anymore to be huge and serve a large number of customers to be profitable. It is possible to build highly focussed companies in niche business where the company is very strong and use subcontracting for non key operations
  • Benefit from and contribute to a network : companies (but also research groups or other organisations) should not operate in standalone. Instead, they should form self-organised networks with different types of competences and interactions between them. Some of the products that benefit the most from the network are those that have been built as platforms that other can enhance and extend. Linux is a popular example, but when google chose to release the API of maps.google.com it also built a new ecosystem that will benefit to google in the long term.
  • New publicness Jarvis encourages people and organisations to be much more open by sharing information on the web. He sees lots of benefits in being as open as possible by using blogs and other medias.

Later, he discusses a set of rules that could be applied as a new ethic in tomorrow's economy :

  • Make mistakes well : when a company or organisation makes a mistake, in a world of abundant information, it is important to explain the mistake and learn lessons from it. Trying to hide mistakes will lead to more severe problems later. Of course, one should not do too many mistakes, but customers are likely to forgive mistakes that are explained than mistakes that are hidden.
  • Life is a beta : based on the operation of many of google's services, Jarvis argues that it is important to perform early trials with customers. However, starting too early could lead to severe problems and beta services should not be released too early
  • Be honest : in a society where information is abundant trying to lie or giving fake information will quickly lead to disasters
  • Be transparent : by being transparent to their customers, organisations can build trust relationships with them.
  • Collaborate : collaboration is only possible if you are transparent. Customers know a lot (sometimes more) about the products they use than the company that builds them and companies would benefit a lot from interactions with other companies, but also with their customers
  • Don't be evil : this is one of google's motto. When people talk openly, an organisation that screws its customers will not be able to retain them as customers in the long term.

The second part of the books discusses how these principles could modify the operation of different types of businesses, including the media industry that is already suffering a lot from the abundance of information and the new ways of distributing information quickly via the Internet, retail, manufacturing, banks and even universities. Since their creation several ago, universities have lived (and some prospered) in a world where information was scarce. Universities' main job was to collect "knowledge" and teach local students. Today, thanks to the Internet, students can find information on almost any topic easily. The job of the universities will not be anymore to collect information but to select the best information and teach students how they should process this abundant information and extract important and valid information from the background noise and the fake information that lives on the Internet. University professors will need to change the way they teach during the next few years...