I watched the documentary Google: Behind the Screens on SBS tonight. The privacy issues and the discussion on the monopolisation of information by one organisation were interesting, but I really got the impression from the Google interviewees that they were genuinely just engineers trying to solve interesting problems and provide "cool" services.
The issue is that Google is a private entity that must make a profit. Organisations, both public and private, usually end up under the control of "the suits". These people are not engineers or scientists (or artists) who live their lives for the creative challenge of their work. Instead they exist firmly in what I call the "Human Universe" (as opposed to the "Physical Universe" which obeys physical/mathematical laws). They live for the interactions with other people, of playing subtle and unsubtle dominance games (the acquisition of wealth, prestige and promotions are a form of this). Financial greed is a manifistation of these dominance game and it is a source of external interference in the operations of organisations. In the private sector (think stockmarkets here) you have investors who don't care what a company does, so long as they make a profit on selling the shares. In the public sector the governments are under constant pressure to "slash spending" and be seen to channel taxpayer dollars into whatever is popular with their consituents (or lobby groups) at a given time.
So good projects get cut or misused. Information (maybe private information) and technology gets sold to the highest, or most prestigious, bidder, without regard to whether it is a reasonable or effective use of those resources. Layers of useless management are setup to maximise the human games, because those in charge often don't understand or care about actual research and development.
Unfortunately, I can see the above processes going on around me at the moment. I work for an organisation which should be all about innovation. Instead is about reorganisation, about setting up hierarchies. I hope that Google does not become like that, that perhaps it can show that successful business can be about new ideas and inventions and not just about restated management strategies.
Just in case you think that the above ideas about innovation are obvious there is this quote (pdf) from Hugh Morgan from the Business Council of Australia:
So what do I mean by innovation – certainly not just research and invention. They can be important contributors to innovation but at its core innovation is putting new ideas into practice and achieving commercial success with them.
It can include breakthrough ideas that lead to brand new products and services or incremental ideas which improve the way things happen at the margin. Innovation can revolutionise all aspects of the ways enterprises work – service delivery, financials management and manufacturing processes to name but a few.
But Hugh, research, invention and development are how you get all these better processes, develop improved financial management software and create new services. For example, it's mathematicians who develop better logistics and risk analysis algorithms. It's not the job of the accountants and the management consultants to innovate – they apply what others have discovered. Unfortunately, that message seems to have got lost along the way.
Morgan's talk is actually about IP management (I have heard other more recent comments from the BCA very similar to the above and in a different context). Apparently Australia isn't too good at converting IP to dollars. Of course not, as most Australian business people seem to think that new ideas mean new risk and therefor should be avoided.
My organisation has now got so sensitive about flogging off it's IP as quickly as possible (but only to prestigious or foreign organisations) and project micromanaging that it's forgotten (ie gives researchers no time) to actually develop anything. It's short term thinking, but brings in the big short-term bucks. But it's also wrong to focus only on the researchers. Rather than concentrating on the research organisations selling their ideas, what about training Australian business people to use new developments, not to be afraid of new ideas, and to understand that their financial returns can take years to appear. New ideas are a challenge, but a good scientist or engineer will tell you that solving a challenge is where the fun lies.