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Why MBAs Hate Google--And You Shouldn't

Does Google really owe enterprises a five-year plan? Google's "big startup" attitude is a win for enterprises seeking agility.

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The final InformationWeek 500 keynote interview, with Michael Lock, VP, Google Enterprise, and Clay Bavor, head of product management for Google Enterprise, had some closing fireworks. As usual, my colleague Fritz Nelson asked a lot of pointed questions, but I thought that the real theme of the conference--"Throwing out the old IT rule book"--was highlighted by a conflict between traditional MBA-think and Google's lean, agile, or whatever-you-want-to-call-it attitude about building great products.

It started with Michael Lock talking about the enterprise product direction. He quipped, "A lot of MBAs at Google are frustrated because they want the five-year roadmap, and we're just not that way." To be fair, I think he was more or less joking that the way MBAs are trained is pretty inflexible.

But things heated up when an audience member with an MBA said, "When I'm going to commit hundreds of millions of dollars, I really do want the five-year roadmap." Fair enough, right?


Cue damage control, stage right. Bavor indicated that there's always a vision and guiding principles in place that ensure that Google continues to build great products. Not good enough. Some of the IT leaders in the audience that I spoke to afterwards rolled their eyes and said that this statement was essentially, "Trust us, we're Google. What could go wrong?"

[ Who are this year's InformationWeek 500 award winners? See a ranked list of our 2012 winners, profiles of top IT innovators, and much more. ]

But cue applause: Lock made a great point with me and some other folks that I spoke to afterwards when he said, "We're trying to be careful not to become the product that we're replacing." He meant that a lot of Google's success has been because the company has been nimble and hasn't spent all its efforts devoted to a five-year road map that is essentially one big guessing game anyway.

After all, who really knows what's going to happen five years down the road? Did you ever believe that RIM could have fallen so low in a period of less than 12 months? Nope. So do you really want to devote a huge amount of resources to trying to guess what IT is going to look like in 5 years? I sure don't.

As I mentioned, the theme of the conference was "Throw out the old IT rulebook," and if we IT leaders are really committed to throwing out that old rulebook, we had better be able to at least consider killing some of our sacred cows, like the holy of holies five-year product roadmap. At least one attendee (a self-proclaimed Apple fan, theoretically a sworn enemy of the GOOG) tweeted, "Google's approach though seems wonderfully nimble. I believe."

Over and over during the conference--during our startup session, during Randy Mott's keynote interview--the notion that "you're not going to be able to get next-generation results by sticking with the old-generation vendors and playbooks" kept resonating.

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Are you still doing the same-old, same-old bridge calls where everyone's either answering email (at best) or playing Solitaire and saying "Huh?" when someone asks a question? Or are you biting the bullet and spending big bucks to fly everyone in so that you can actually look them in the eye and have a real, engaged conversation?

Bavor says that one CEO is using Google hangouts for staff meetings, claiming something like $20K in airfare savings. So my question to the MBAs in the group is: Do you really need a five-year road map for that?

Full disclosure: I am one of those MBA-types (specifically, an MS degree in management from Georgia Tech), but I have kept my eyes open since graduating, and as I've said before, startups--and those who use startup methodologies--have a great deal to teach those who were trained in traditional business methodologies.

I think Google has some work to do to be adopted in the enterprise, but it's not about the five-year roadmap or fashioning Google into a Big Enterprise Software Company. Google has work to do, for sure, but simultaneously, IT leadership has work to do, and lessons to unlearn as well. It's about playing from a new IT rulebook, but it's even bigger than that: there's a new business playbook to be learned. There are lessons about agility, stopping the overplanning (guessing) processes in our organizations, being constantly in beta, and aiming for less perfection. As IT and business leaders, we need to be on board with that if we want to continue to help our organizations succeed.

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User Rank: Strategist
9/17/2012 | 2:02:24 PM
re: Why MBAs Hate Google--And You Shouldn't
Michaelson in his interpretation of SunTzu on execution stated, "Order or disorder depends on organization and direction,...strength or weaknesses on disposition." In technology, 5 years is perhaps 2 lifetimes(generations) and not publishing what they are working on to protect R&D advantage is understandable. Whether Google would ever state they that have a detailed 3 or 5 year plan may be doubtful, that they have an unstated one may be best evidenced by maintenance of a lead role over the past decade.
Andrew Hornback
Andrew Hornback,
User Rank: Apprentice
9/15/2012 | 10:26:47 PM
re: Why MBAs Hate Google--And You Shouldn't
In the IT industry, having a 5 year plan is great... but you have to look at how much time you're spending re-writing that plan over the next 5 years in order to account for each and every one of the variables that you thought of when putting the plan together - much less the amount of time to take into consideration what's driving all of the other assumptions used to base that plan on.

Fully re-tooling an enterprise costs a lot of money. For example, look at all of the aerospace/defense sector firms that still need Fortran and ADA developers. The cutting edge now is very seriously different from what it was 5 years ago - much less 20, 30 or 40 years ago. Yet, there are some very successful companies out there that still rely on tools created (and upgraded) over the past couple of decades or more.

I doubt that you'll really find perfection in the new IT rule book. Think about how an artist works - you finish one (work) painting and move on to the next, always in motion, working on the next idea. If you spend too much time working on the same painting, you start losing the original concepts and goals that you began the project with - essentially hiding the forest in order to make the trees stand out.

Honestly, in business, you simultaneously have to deliver secure, usable and functional solutions - without any one of those three, you have no solution and have introduced more problems.

Andrew Hornback
InformationWeek Contributor
User Rank: Strategist
9/15/2012 | 12:45:23 AM
re: Why MBAs Hate Google--And You Shouldn't
It seems to me that value can be found both in organization and in chaos. From an organization standpoint, at least from my perspective, you ought to establish short and long term goals about what kinds of lines of business you want to be in, what services and solutions you want to provide, what percentage of your gross income you are willing to invest, what kind of profit margins you want to sustain; things like that.

From a research and development standpoint, once you decide your investment and profit strategies, the implementation phases ought to be much more fluid. I can see taking a rigorous approach to testing and maintaining what you have, but frankly, good, solid test driven development practices ought to minimize the amount of maintenance; why not develop using agile methodologies and test driven development? Then, when an idea works to your satisfaction, it is DONE until you decide to implement the next idea, which your "brain surgeons" should always be thinking about anyway.
User Rank: Apprentice
9/14/2012 | 6:21:01 PM
re: Why MBAs Hate Google--And You Shouldn't
Locke makes a valid point. In my 30+ years in industry, I always noted that MBAs are uneasy with uncertainty and prefer the order of 2,5 year plans. I wish someone was a good at predicting the future. On the other hand, the rest and in the trenches prefer the "chaos" and chafe at the discipline required. Both are needed. I have followed the advise of my first boss. Think of the business,... as a vaction with kids. We agree on the destination, but who knows what interesting things we will find along the way. Heck, even the most regimented organization, the military, is full of chaos on the battle field, something our MBA and non MBA friends can learn from
User Rank: Apprentice
9/14/2012 | 6:06:11 PM
re: Why MBAs Hate Google--And You Shouldn't
I'd like to know what markets can afford to throw away their applications after only 18 months. If you're making stuff -- washers, automobiles, pharmaceuticals, lawnmowers -- your company needs to save their design data for multiple years. Both to build new products, and to comply with gov't regulations. If you're in the banking, insurance, or healthcare industries, your key assets are the customer's data -- and its integrity -- that are maintained over multiple years. Even a mom-n-pop pizza place can't afford to throw away all the IT it uses, like point-of-sale or payroll software, every 2 years or so. Time to examine who the customers really are ...
User Rank: Apprentice
9/14/2012 | 5:41:09 PM
re: Why MBAs Hate Google--And You Shouldn't
Aren't we talking about planning methods that were researched back in the 1970's by McCasky, that is: Directional Planning vs Planning from Thrust?
User Rank: Apprentice
9/14/2012 | 12:57:15 PM
re: Why MBAs Hate Google--And You Shouldn't
I wouldn't base a Fortune 5000 company soley on a Google "platform", if you can even call it that. It is composed of shifting sands. Yes, it is often cutting edge and nimble. But, at the end of the day, businesses are about making money not spending it in a constant battle to keep up with the changing IT underpinning. This is why shops run Microsoft products forever and rarely upgrade. Once the process is in place and working, why tinker with it if you are getting what you need out of it? That may be old school thinking but it works no matter what technology you are employing. Technology tends to have pretty long life cycles overall.

With Google, you cannot depend on them keeping products that you depend on around for very long. They either get significantly changed or "retired". Oh, and try calling Google when you need support. How's that working for you?
User Rank: Ninja
9/14/2012 | 11:25:52 AM
re: Why MBAs Hate Google--And You Shouldn't
Google operates in fast moving markets and therefore most of its apps get thrown away within 18 months or less. There are only a few things from Google that as a product had a long live span: search, Android, and Chrome. And in some cases Google became the solution they tried to replace, namely with map services. Google got so greedy and raised prices so much that they eventually became uninteresting for many businesses, because Microsoft and others were less expensive. Yes, Bing maps tend to be horribly outdated, Microsoft support sucks, and the licensing with Microsoft is a nightmare compared to Google (and Microsoft has given out exclusive licenses, such as for using Bird's Eye View for government entities, so you might not be able to use that or have to pay up), but in the long run Microsoft is less expensive and offers services that are just good enough to be taken seriously.
Similarly, the Chrome books are too expensive. For the same price you can get laptops that have way more power and flexibility and that can still be used for accessing Google cloud services, but you can also run your desktop apps. The Chromebooks might be more interesting when priced right (200-250 range) and are coming with services bundled in from Amazon, Netflix, etc. People buy netbooks and tablets for consuming content, not so much for the hardwware or the OS.
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