DAILY INSIGHT: Creating an atmosphere of innovation? Just Google it!

By Carl Hooker, CIO Advisor

One of the benefits of this job are the people that I meet and the places that I go. I've met Sir Ken Robinson, Levar Burton, Karen Cator, and—most recently—a contestant on the Amazing Race. I've visited many cities to attend various conferences and meet-ups, but when it comes to technology, there are only a few meccas. Last week I got to visit one of those meccas when I visited the Google campus in Mt. View, California.

The "Googleplex" is Willy Wonka's Chocolate factory for techies. It's the ultimate geek playground and a fountain of both innovative ideas (Google Hangouts!) and some epic failures (Google Wave?). Despite the amazing array of technology tools, I was most interested in what kind of environment Google puts in place to create an atmosphere that truly fosters innovation. What I discovered was surprising in both complexity and simplicity.

Google prides itself in collaboration (obviously) and realized that while digital communication is important, one of the best ways to have spontaneous collaboration was by proximity. To prove their point, cubicles at Google are almost uncomfortably close to each other and very wide open. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are available to employees (and visitors in my case) for free. When I asked Google's "People Operations" department about this (what we would call Human Resources), they discovered that prior to this change, employees would take lunch breaks with the same group or team and travel one-and-a-half hours round trip to go into town for lunch.

The cafeteria at Google has an almost biergarten style, with lots of long tables set up throughout. This set-up insists people from various groups sit together and hopefully strike up a conversation about a project that could revolutionize the industry, or just make life simple. They have several "micro-kitchens" set up throughout the complex to extend the old-school water-cooler conversation to something a little more modern. The micro-kitchens have all the amenities of home with an almost college dorm-like feel to them. Inside these you'll find a large cappuccino machine, a cooler full of exotic waters and energy drinks, and even a ping pong and/or foosball table for a quick break. The basis of all of these Googly locations throughout the building is to force collaboration in a gentle way. I have to say, education could stand to learn a thing or two from their rationale too.

When asked about Google's value-based hiring practices, they stated these key points:

1. Hire innovative people (intrinsically motivated, more knowledgeable than you)
2. Create and maintain a culture and workplace for innovation
3. Design an effective organizational structure

4. Reward employees

In short, their philosophy is: "Hire them, grow them, keep them." Google goes to great lengths to keep their employees happy and returning to work looking to inspire on a daily basis. One of their most powerful tools to open up lines of communication with their staff is their GoogleGeist survey, which gathers ideas and suggestions on areas they can improve. Through these surveys, they realized that daily chores like getting your hair cut or having your oil changed took away from your day at work. As a result, Google now has these services available for employees. And it doesn't stop there. Some other employee-centric ideas are:

• You can bring your dog to work
• Onsite child care
• Laundry and dry-cleaning services
• Free food and drink (already mentioned)
• Nap pods (exactly what you think—little pods you can rest in)
• Massages & massage chairs
• Heated toilet seats
• Amazing workout facilities
• An actual living garden you can tend
• Google bikes to take you from one end of the expansive complex to the other

These are only a few conveniences they gave to their employees after hearing their concerns. They are also having weekly TGIF meetings in the cafeteria commons to celebrate new ideas and share top-secret projects with all staff. The founders of Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, often mingle at these events that may or may not involve alcoholic beverages. (That would never fly in K-12.)

One final innovative practice that I've heard about for years but wanted to see in action was Google's "80/20" Rule. The idea is that as long as you are taking care of your main job 80% of the time, you get 20% of your work week to spend on a passion project or idea for Google labs. In fact, I was surprised to discover that Gmail was born out of this "20% time." I know in education we are bound by time in the classroom, but how great would it be to spend at least one planning time a week working on something completely different than your field?

Needless to say, after hearing all of these ideas bombarded at me for several hours, I was ready to find a nap pod myself and download all that was discovered. We may have talked a little bit about technology, Google Apps for Education, and some other ways K-12 can get involved, but it was the idea that an atmosphere like this exists in the world that intrigued me the most. So much so, I returned ready to start implementing as many of these as I could in my district. While we all may be confined to the limitations of a public institution, the spirit of these concepts could easily transfer to some areas of our field. TGIF days, "forced" lunch areas to foster conversation, free food and coffee, and maybe even a comfortable couch in a dark room to catch a power nap could be easily added to our buildings.

And if all else fails, you could always just make a cappuccino and find someone to play ping pong with your dog. Who wouldn't want to Google that?

Carl Hooker is director of instructional technology at Eanes ISD in Texas and blogs at Hooked on Innovation, where this is cross posted.