Why Google May Not Be a Good Model for Innovation

Nick Carr has an excellent article in Strategy+Business about Google. The article examines whether or not Google should really be a model that others should follow. Carr makes a couple of key points that explain why you should be concerned about copying Google's tactics.

Whenever a company becomes wildly successful in a brief span of time, it naturally becomes an object of fascination for corporate executives and even the general public. More than that, it comes to be presented as a new model for business success. Reporters and scholars scour its history and its practices, looking to distill general lessons for other firms to copy. Google is no exception. Over the last two years, the workings of the company's "idea factory," as Business Week describes it, have been dissected in cover stories in all the major business magazines, and business school professors have published studies documenting how the company organizes and manages its product development efforts. In his new book, The Future of Management, London Business School professor Gary Hamel calls Google "a modern management pioneer" that "has much to teach us about how to build companies that are truly fit for the 21st century."

That's heady stuff, and it's hard not to get caught up in the hype. But business executives have at least two reasons to think twice before leaping aboard the Google bandwagon. First, for all its success, Google is still a young company, and it has yet to be tested by adversity. We don't even know whether its approach to management, and in particular its approach to innovation, is a cause of its success or a product of its success – a crucial distinction. Second, we don't know how well Google's example applies to other businesses. Google is certainly a different sort of company, but is it so different as to be anomalous? Is the company an exemplar or a freak?

The ravings about Google echo what people have said about other companies in different eras. All those companies have stalled at some point. I think the same thing will happen to Google because their success is less a result of innovation and more a result of favorable economics and taking a market leadership position at the right time in history.

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Carr makes a key point, after discussing the major innovations that have led to Google as it is today.

These innovations represent a remarkable accomplishment. But it's important to remember that they largely predate the formal innovation process that Google developed as it expanded and that is now the source of much of the praise lavished on the company.

In other words, Google's unique culture of innovation that is so highly praised was not yet in place when their primary innovations were made. And since it has been in place, the results have been mediocre.

Is Google's innovation model overhyped? Go read the whole thing and make your own decision.