Thursday, November 5, 2009

Google Gets it Wrong About Service

I see that I compared Google to "that small boy with a hammer who sees everything as a nail" back in November of 2007, which is when we saw the first signs of Google's everything-can-be-reduced-to-search philosophy sticking its nose under the health care tent. Less then a year later, Nicholas Carr pursued a similar theme and proposing more dire consequences. Titling his Atlantic Monthly article "Is Google Making Us Stupid?," Carr viewed the technology in terms of how it was "chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation." My own reaction to his argument was that "Google searches cultivate a view of knowledge as the ability to deliver straightforward answers to straightforward questions." At the risk of sounding too reductive, I might suggest that Google has facilitated our becoming a culture that seeks knowledge without thinking.

If I am to believe Tom Krazit's latest Relevant Results column for CNET News, Google is now turning its search-based myopia from health care ("My work here is done?") to providing service to software customers (particularly its own). This is not particularly new. Google products have long been notorious for providing no means to communicate with a human being, leaving the perplexed user to navigate poorly organized Web sites (often, ironically enough, with little useful support from any available search tools). As usual, CEO Eric Schmidt has reacted to the problem by trying to make light of it, at least at the enterprise level:

The first thing a CIO is going to say is, "where is that person and how do I wring their neck?"

It apparently has not occurred to Schmidt that providing everyone involved with IT support (all the way up to the CIO) with opportunities for productive conversation might preemptively defuse that urge to wring someone's neck.

Problems are not solved by information alone. Solutions emerge as information is engaged in the situation in which the problems have arisen. In the real world communication often plays the strongest role in that engagement. Schmidt would do well to spend some time watching Apollo 13 to see how much communication takes place that is not directly involved with the exchange of information, even in a crisis situation as serious as the one portrayed in the film. He should then reflect (if that capacity has not been entirely disabled by the Google culture) on how and why the communicative actions that are not exchanging information are still productive to the overall problem solving taking place. The comments to Krazit's article may not be statistically representative; but it is interesting to read in them accounts in which, even on those rare (and apparently costly) occasions when Google people actually enter the loop, their problem solving effectiveness leaves much to be desired. Reviewing the near catastrophe of an Apollo mission may seem a bit extreme, but it is about time for Google to recognize that useful lessons can be learned from all sorts of situations.

None of this involves dismissing the merits of powerful search technology. I have even recognized the value of coming up with new ways to use search tools. Nevertheless, we should not go around with a tool box containing nothing but the single hammer of search. There are a hell of a lot of other things out there in the world besides protruding nails!

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