Oct. 19, 2014 4:40 p.m. ET
Many chief information officers find themselves in the role of technology evangelist, raising awareness of the value of information technology among skeptical leaders at the executive and board level. But what if you work at Google Inc. and your CEO is Google co-founder Larry Page ? Its no surprise that Google CIO Ben Frieds experience is probably a lot different than that of most of his peers.
Mr. Fried, who joined Google six years ago after 13 years at Morgan Stanley, leads IT at a company where no one needs to be convinced about the value of the cloud, and where choice in the use of technology has been enshrined for years. Most businesses are headed in that directionGoogle just got there sooner. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Fried spoke about the link between technology and company culture. Here are edited excerpts:Wasted Opportunity
WSJ: What is the connection between corporate technology and culture?
MR. FRIED: This is one of the places where traditional CIOs have been letting an opportunity go to waste. I tell my people and other CIOs all the time that we have this enormous and unique opportunity to set the culture of the companies we are within, with technology.
I remember years ago, when I joined Google, I looked at the personal technology that Google gave to its people. Google allowed people to use whatever they thought was relevant to them, when everyone else gave people a black laptop and a BlackBerry and said, You are going to do it our way.
I think that CIOs need to understand the cultural thingthey define the culture of their company by the technology they give to their employees.
So much of the culture stems from how we work. Back in the day, people came to work to learn how to use technology. Now everyone knows how to use technology. So when CIOs narrow technology choices they actually are setting a culture that is patriarchal and rigid.
The right thing to do is to help people be as productive as possible, and the way to do that isto understand the toolset that people who come to work every day know how to useand want to use. To the best of your ability, you need to give them that toolset. When you do that, it creates a completely different organizational culture.
When people feel like they arent part of the decision-making process, they feel treated like children, they feel resentful and you find examples of belligerent compliance. When people feel like they have had a say, like they have been empowered, you get collaboration and cooperation.
WSJ: Is there a price to pay for unlimited choice, measured in efficiency?
MR. FRIED: The conventional wisdom of our industry is that we cant have efficiency and choice, we cant have security and choice. I have discovered during my time at Google that is a complete falsehood.
Now, you do have to think differently about the way you address IT problems. Many CIOs think that supporting personal technology is about sending that support as far away in the world as they can and delivering the worst thing you can without raising any significant objections. People end up getting someone on the phone who knows less about their problem than they do. They have to wait for someone who actually knows how to solve their problem.
If that is your approach to technology support, you had better offer as few choices as possible, because you are going to have the least qualified people you can accept.
Now, what we do here at Google is really different.
We cant afford to have technology support where there are cookbooks and rules and every possible change is documented in advance. The people we hire to do support are more like systems administrators in another company. The first responder closes the ticket over 90% of the time in my organization.
All kinds of things happen as a result. People are happier. Your organization can change technologies more easily, and your change management becomes so much easier. You can be the instrument of change, and change management is one of the most important things companies do.
In the end, we discovered that it is far less expensive to have people who are experts than it is to dumb it down.
Also, you can go to all kinds of unconventional sources to find people who can do this. We have an IT residency programfor people who might have had nontypical majors but want to learn deeply. People who are excited about change are the kinds of people who can give great customer support.
And those people create a more secure environment.Slow or Fast?
WSJ: How do you enable that sort of environment?
MR. FRIED: Technology moves very fast, and enterprises often feel the rational need to have a slower pace of change, so they can get a better return on investment, or so they dont need to make people learn new things all the time. But if you slow things down too much, you have no change at all.
One thing that really helps is to get people used to the idea that at least some enterprise technology can move at the speed of consumer technology. You have to change assumptions about the rate of change in the enterprise. You need people who deeply understand the technology and the business. When you bring those two things together, great IT happens.
WSJ: How will business technology and culture change during the next few years?
MR. FRIED: Sandy Pentland [director of the Media Lab Entrepreneurship Program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology] and his team at MIT put simple sensors on people in the workplace to measure social interaction among people and teams. They wanted to understand what made people and teams successful. They didnt record what people were saying, just their patterns of interaction.
I think his research is amazing. I think the sensors in the mobile phone are close to what we need so any enterprise could do that. That is the kind of thing my team and I are very excited about. Again, we arent interested in recording what people say or in intrusive measurements. But we are just beginning to think about how we might do that for teams within Google. The question is can we help teams become more efficient and help people.