Google Labs’ Foreseeable(?) Demise: Rationalization and the Tech Industry

Source: www.archive.org
Source: http://www.archive.org

Do you remember Google Labs?  Even if you may not, chances are that the products developed there have impacted you in some way.  The project was self-described as follows:

Source: www.archive.org
Source: http://www.archive.org

It sounds like a great idea, and it was.  A number of Google’s current, well-regarded features were hatched in Google Labs, including (but certainly not limited to): Google Alerts, Google Scholar, Google Suggest, Google Video, Google Trends, Google Docs, and Google Maps.  Google famously allows its employees 20% of their work time to do projects that are not specified within their job description, which allows for creative endeavors that still work towards the benefit of the company.  To this same end, Google built their Labs page in the middle of the last decade as a way to promote, develop, and obtain feedback on new features that were being workshopped.  Users were able to sign up for beta-level features and take them for a test run (and provide input on the functionality of said items).  This process broke down some of the barriers that can ordinarily exist between a company’s product development team and the end user.

Then in July of 2011, something unexpected happened.  Google announced the end of their Google Labs page, and while they would be retaining some features, others would no longer be supported.  CEO Larry Page spoke at the time about the importance of putting “more wood behind fewer arrows” and emphasized a more concentrated focus of the company.  He also emphasized to shareholders that the company would serve as diligent stewards of their money and promised that return on investment was a priority.  Part of that renewed focus, many believed, centered around Google throwing its weight behind the development of Google+.

In the days after Google Labs, the company’s leadership insisted that many features in development would merely be folded into other Google products (such as test features in Gmail).  However, the shift away from Labs represented something larger than just the closing of a single page; it marked the movement toward an increasingly rationalized Google.

Rationalism, as identified within the field of sociology, is the notion that systems (in some arguments, inevitably) become rationally defined over time.  In other words, just as water poured into a glass eventually settles at the bottom, calculated actions defined by reason eventually dominate organizational decision-making.  Within this understanding of an organization, a company like Google is rational when it identifies unnecessary processes and areas of functionality that do not meet the end goal of efficient profitability.  Put simply, Google Labs was likely seen as a fun but nonessential function of Google, so it was cut.

What does this mean for other social media and tech companies?  Perhaps more importantly, what does it mean for the consumer?  I would speculate that rationalization is the norm for large corporations, and we, as consumers, would be wise to set our expectations as such.  It never was a reasonable expectation for users to expect Facebook and Twitter to remain ad-free, for instance.  In the end, after these companies settle into a comfortable user base, it naturally follows that they must then begin to find ways to become and remain profitable.  After all, it is an investor base that allows most of these companies to get off the ground, and shareholders have an expectation that companies will pay close attention to the bottom line after going public.  It’s at these junctures that social media and other tech companies, as is the case with other peer organizations, must begin to cut some of the quirky aspects of their respective business operations in order to keep showing financial improvements to stakeholders.

Although I use Google to illustrate my larger point in this post, I do think that I should add that Google does seem to go out of its way to incorporate some creative, fun aspects to its public profile.  I would actually argue that it does so better than most other large corporations out there, if not all.  Their continued development of things like Google Doodles shows that even if the company is moving towards greater rationalization, it is hardly fully converted.  That said, I wanted to pass along one of my favorite Doodles of all time, a tribute to Robert Moog and his synthesizer: http://www.google.com/doodles/robert-moogs-78th-birthday

There are countless aspects to this discussion, but I’m curious what the rest of the #mi621-ers think about all of this.  Are there similar trends you’ve seen within other companies?  By cutting out some of these programs that celebrate innovation and creativity, are companies taking a short-sighted approach and harming themselves in the long run?  Please let me know your thoughts in the comments – I’d love to hear them.

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