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Google’s Project Oxygen and Its Issues Report


Executive Summary

Project Oxygen was labeled a success after recording significant improvements in the scores and performance of low-scoring managers. However, concerns were raised regarding the impact and real value of the Oxygen 8 initiative. Doubters expressed concern as to the realistic impact of the project. Many wondered if the results were short term improvements in the overall performance of the managers involved in the testing and training process. Nevertheless, after considering Google’s culture and the result of a People Ops study regarding the type of workers that performed well under Google’s work environment, it was discovered that Google employees thrive in an open and collaborative atmosphere (Cross, Rebele, & Grant, 2016). Thus, the managers fared well not because of the imposition of a “rewards and punishment” mechanism (Ganta, 2014).

However, it is important to verify the outcome of the project by applying statistical measures to the correlation between high-scoring managers and parameters like retention, job satisfaction, and team performance. It is also imperative to test the sustainability of the project through a two-year data collection and testing process in order to determine if the members of the target group aspire to become better managers. This rigorous data collection process must examine the motivation behind certain behavior patterns and figure out if the actions were influenced by a perceived threat of punishment. Nevertheless, there was enough evidence supporting the creation of an effective training program for the development of exceptional and “truly amazing managers.”

At the turn of the 21st century, Google executives had the foresight to collect job related data in the hopes of improving the business operations of the relatively new company. Surveys were made and feedback loops were created in order to generate relevant data. Prasad Setty, the vice-president for people analytics and compensation, recalled a critical point in the company’s history. Looking back at the process, he revealed that one of the top recurring questions was framed to find out the importance of managers. For an organization as unique and as influential as Google, it was hard to ignore the ramifications of the answer to the said query (Garvin, Wagonfeld, & Kind, 2013).

Project Oxygen was born as an initiative seeking to find answers to the said question. Setty and his team did not expect to see the evolution of the project from a fact-finding exercise into a management enhancement initiative that included comprehensive evaluations of a manager’s performance as well as training programs created for the purpose of developing skilled and effective managers. Project Oxygen was declared a success after years of validating data suggesting a way to improve the performance of Google managers. Nevertheless, serious questions were raised regarding the real-world effectiveness of the said management enhancement program. Therefore, it is important to find out if there is a way to leverage the insights gleaned from Project Oxygen in order to produce excellent managers. One can make the argument that Setty and his team had the tools and data needed to build on Project Oxygen’s success if they can develop an evaluation framework based on job satisfaction, retention, and team performance.

Important Aspects of the Case

Google’s Culture and the Characteristics of People Working at Google

Google’s official website provided a clear overview of the company’s corporate culture. Those not familiar with Google’s history may find it hard to believe that serious work occurs in rooms designed to look like playgrounds. In a Google office in Japan, employees were working on laptops while sitting down on tatami mats. Inside the huge office, a Foosball Table stands just outside the work area, making it hard to ignore the fact that the company valued the creation of a fun-filled environment (Google 2016).

Google insiders testify about the company’s success in nurturing an atmosphere that fostered excellent communication (Agrawal, 2016). In fact, Google’s official website made it clear that there are no walls of entitlement or seniority that separates the employees. Thus, offices, restaurants, and cafes were designed to encourage interaction between different members of teams and departments (Google, 2016).

The workers’ intellectual attributes make it difficult to create an appropriate and effective framework for the development of a management training program. However, the high intuitive capability of all the employees served only a minor hindrance as compared to the challenges created by Google’s “relatively high fluid organizational structure in which groups were crated and modified in response to product innovation and market needs” (Garvin et al., 2013, p.3). Nevertheless, Google’s “people analytics” department managed to develop a management enhancement assessment and training program based on the outcome of a study labeled as Project Oxygen.

The Creation of Project Oxygen

Project Oxygen was launched as an initiative to figure out the relevance of a manager’s position in a company characterized by a fluid organizational structure and an insatiable hunger for new knowledge and cutting-edge technology. The secondary objective of Project Oxygen was to supply information and insights that would help realize Larry Page and Serge Brin’s vision of creating an HR department with functions that extend beyond the management of compensation packages (Garvin et al., 2013). Before Setty came into the picture, the primary group responsible for collating HR-related data was the “People Operations” or People Ops team.

After Setty was hired in 2007, the head of People Ops gave him a clear mandate regarding the collection of relevant data describing the human resource aspect of the business. Setty responded with a plan to create a team tasked to develop a framework so that future decision-making processes are governed by data and analytics. After building a team comprised of analytics experts with PhDs, Setty formed a smaller group called People and Innovation Lab or PiLab. In 2009, the PiLab team was confronted with the question regarding the relevance of managers in the context of Google’s business environment.

Using data from annual surveys called “Googlegiests” and performance review scores, PiLab discovered that high-scoring managers lead high-performing teams with lower turnover rates, and higher job satisfaction ratings (Garvin et al., 2013). After sifting through mounds of data, the PiLab team was able to pinpoint eight behaviors that are common among managers with high-scores (Garvin et al., 2013). These attributes are listed as follows:

  1. A good coach;
  2. Empowers the team and does not micromanage;
  3. Productive and Results Oriented;
  4. A Good Communicator;
  5. Expresses interest or concern regarding team member’s success and personal well-being;
  6. Possesses Key Technical Skills Needed to Advise the Team;
  7. Helps with Career Development; and
  8. Has a Clear Strategy or Vision for the Team (Garvin et al., 2013). Company insiders began calling the attributes as the Oxygen 8.

The PiLab team utilized these insights by creating a modified upward feedback survey or UFS. The modified UFS focused the data-gathering protocol on the eight attributes mentioned earlier (Garvin et al., 2013). The UFS was geared towards the business and sales operations of Google while another survey called the Tech Managers Survey or TMS that catered to the engineering group of the enterprise. A year after launching the project, Setty and the PiLab team collaborated to develop a management training course based on the findings of Project Oxygen.

Major Issues and Problems

Positive changes were observed two years after the implementation of a management training program based on the Oxygen 8. Members of the PiLab team compared the scores generated through the UFS and TMS, and they were surprised to find out that there was a five percent increase from 83% favorable to 88% favorable (Garvin et al., 2013). In fact, 10% of the directors promoted to a vice-president level position were recipients of the Great Manager Award.

The Challenge of Creating “Truly Amazing Managers”

Google has the highest concentration of smart people in the planet. Thus, it does not come as a surprise for some workers to question the real impact of the Oxygen 8 initiative. Examining the results through a critical appreciation of the methodologies that were used leads to an old argument regarding the efficacy of the “carrot and stick” approach when it comes to motivating or changing people’s behavior. It is not enough to show the upgraded scores and the number of Great Manager Awards given to the graduates of the Oxygen 8 training program. The more important metrics are those based on finding out improvements in the areas of retention, team performance, and job satisfaction ratings. It is not enough to highlight the high scores, especially in a working environment that produces game-changing applications like Google (Savic & Shi, 2010).

Going back to the idea of developing “truly amazing managers” brings into perspective the ultimate goal of the people operations group. They must not expect a commendation for a job well done if the group simply relied on the outcome of surveys designed to figure out the opinion of an employee regarding how he or she feels about the management capability of the manager leading the team (Selvarasu & Sastry, 2014). The need to develop skilled and highly effective managers must inspire the “people analytics team” to go beyond the need to measure perceptions.

Interpreting the Outcome of PiLab’s Implementation of Oxygen 8 Attributes

There are several things to consider in the process of interpreting the outcome of PiLab’s implementation of the Oxygen 8 attributes. First, the assumptions were made based on measurement frameworks designed to figure out the performance of some of the most intelligent people on the planet. Second, managers were aware of the judgment criteria and there was concern regarding the use of Oxygen 8 in the context of the “carrot and stick” behavioral modification approach. Finally, it is imperative to find out the impact of the rigid identification process that focused the resources of the HR department in the selective training of low-scoring managers.

With regards to the first concern, it is important to find out if the managers involved in the Oxygen 8 initiative were not consciously trying to improve their scores based on the eight attributes of a high-scoring manager. If managers were consciously trying to “beat the system”, then, everything was for naught. It has to be made clear that the ultimate goal was not acing the test but to improve the skill level of managers in order for them to become effective managers and improving the performance of their respective teams. With regards to the second concern, it is of critical importance to figure out if the Oxygen 8 initiative was not perceived as a form of “rewards and punishment” methodology designed to create drastic improvements in the system (Markos & Sridevi, 2010). With regards to the third concern, it is interesting to find out if the rigid selection process was not tantamount to a “weeding out” process effectively terminating the management career of a low-scoring manager.

Determining the Real-World Impact of Project Oxygen

It is of crucial importance to discover if the participants were trying to figure out the system in order to achieve high scores (Jabeen, 2011). It is also critical to find out if the Project 8 initiative had the inadvertent effect commonly associated with the “carrot and stick method” of behavioral modification. An affirmative answer to both of these concerns automatically renders the project a failure with regards to the ultimate goal of developing exceptional managers. It is not possible to develop exceptional managers under these methods, because no one can guarantee the sustainability of the project. In other words, managers are going to behave in a certain manner until the threat of punishment recedes (Ilegbusi, 2013). As long as the threat of punishment is real, managers are going to follow the prescribed mode of behavior, and this is detrimental to the long-term growth of the company.

The third and last concern does not have a negative impact on the long-term sustainability of the project if proven true. However, Google executives may be compelled to acknowledge the existence of a “weeding out” process in order to determine if the person has the inclination and the capability to become a good manager. In other words, leaders handling the People Ops department must acknowledge the existence of a program designed to help low-scoring managers transition into non-managerial roles.

Analysis

Managers Were Not Trying to Beat the System

It is interesting to note that the answer to the questions raised earlier are found in Google-based studies designed to figure out the kind of applicants that are going to get accepted into Google. These studies also provide insights into the type of employee that is going to succeed and enjoy working at Google. Todd Carlisle, an industrial psychologist and one of the key personnel working under the People Operations group was tasked to find out the answers to these questions. During interviews, Carlisle revealed surprising answers.

Carlisle pointed out that it is difficult to get accepted into Google if the applicant does not believe in the value of an open and collaborative environment (Google, 2016). Actually, Carlisle made the disclosure that the stereotype of engineers as driven loners does not hold true at Google (Google, 2016). In fact, Carlisle also revealed that it was his job to spot extroverted software engineers. He designed questions to figure out if the applicants love to collaborate with other engineers and if they can thrive in a fishbowl environment (Google, 2016).

Carlisle’s disclosure is consistent with the Google culture described earlier. This assertion is supported by a statement made by Michelle Donovan, one of the co-founders of Project Oxygen when she remarked that the company thrives in a consensus-oriented culture (Garvin et al., 2013). Thus, one can make the argument that there is little incentive for managers to “beat the system” so to speak. In other words, managers are not going to find great pleasure in becoming the top managers, because this type of behavior does not provide a deeper sense of satisfaction compared to the creation of novel solutions and technologies through the process of collaborative work.

Determine the Sustainability of Project Oxygen

Using the insight that Google workers were hired based on their passion for collaborative work renders null and void the argument that the Oxygen 8 initiative was created as a deliberate way of imposing a “carrot and stick” approach to developing exceptional managers. It is easy to assume that brilliant people at Google’s People Ops department were aware of the drawbacks in using the “reward and punishment” method for the purpose of behavioral modification (Wong, 2010).

According to social psychologists, the “carrot and stick” approach has a limited effect and good only for motivating employees to accomplish short term goals (Ilegbusi, 2013). In fact, social psychologists are in agreement that the use of the said framework for behavioral modification may be ineffective and counterproductive in a work environment that requires innovation (Ilegbusi, 2013). Nevertheless, it is prudent to test the sustainability of the project by closely monitoring the performance of all managers that went through the training program.

Recommendations

Focus on Retention, Job Satisfaction, and Team Performance

Setty and his “people analytics” team had access to data and the tools required to figure out the sustainability of Project Oxygen. They have the power to leverage the same tools to build on the Oxygen 8 initiative in order to take a step closer in the development of an effective system for developing exceptional managers. Setty recalled the process of determining the performance of managers on the basis of retention, job satisfaction, and team performance. In order to test the validity of the outcome of the Oxygen 8 initiative it is imperative to subject the performance of high-scoring managers into a statistical analysis using the parameters of retention, job satisfaction and team performance. For example, it is interesting to find out if there is a statistical correlation between a high score in the ability to develop strategies and team performance (Jabeen, 2011).

It is also important to have consistency in the results. For example, high scoring managers should have a positive impact on the retention of employees as well as in the job satisfaction ratings of the workers under his or her supervision. The “people analytics” team must see the obvious linkage between high-scoring managers and low-turnover rate. A high turn-over rate acts like a red flag, it is like a distress signal communicating the symptom of a problem.

It is important to point out that Setty and his team may find it a challenge to acquire the correct samples due to the fact that Google has a historically low turn-over rate. Nevertheless, seven years of intense data collection activities should have enabled the team to acquire relevant information regarding the connection between a manager’s score and the retention rate of the team he or she was handling. Finally, in a non-conventional company like Google, it is crucial to develop appropriate metrics in order to determine the link between team performance and the managers’ scores (Selvarasu & Sastry, 2014).

After performing a statistical analysis on the correlation between high-scoring managers and positive job outcomes, it is prudent to test the sustainability of the project initiative. It is best to remove any perception that the project was created as a form of “reward and punishment” approach to behavioral modification. In this regard, it is best to remove the Oxygen 8 attributes from the Great Manager Award’s judgment criteria. Furthermore, the team must continue collecting relevant data regarding the success of the training program after reducing the pervasiveness level of the Oxygen 8 attributes from surveys and other measuring mechanisms. As a result, the attributes are no longer perceived as part of a rewards and punishment scheme. It is best to continue the data collection for two years, and if the performance rating improves even further, it is a good sign regarding the effectiveness of Project Oxygen.

Conclusion

It is possible to build on the outcome of Project Oxygen. Setty and his team must develop the tools in determining the effectiveness of the Oxygen 8 initiative in terms of enhancing the capabilities and modifying the behavior of the low-scoring managers. It has been made clear that Google’s culture and the characteristics of the workers employed at the company strengthened the results of the study. However, it is prudent to implement an extended testing period to determine the sustainability of the project. After two years of continuous testing and data collection, the maintenance of high scores serves as the validation for the success of the project. At the same time, the said results strengthen the argument that Google has access to data and tools to develop “truly amazing managers.”

References

Agrawal, J. (2016).Forbes. Web.

Cross, R., Rebele, R., & Grant, A. (2016). Web.

Ganta, V. (2014). Motivation in the workplace to improve employee performance. International Journal of Engineering Technology, Management and Applied Sciences, 2(6), 221-230.

Garvin, D., Wagonfeld, A., Kind, L. (2016). Google’s project oxygen: Do manager’s matter? Boston, MA: President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Google. (2016). Our culture. Web.

Ilegbusi, M. (2013). An analysis of the role of rewards and punishment in motivating school learning. Computing, Information Systems, & Development Informatics, 4(1), 35-38.

Jabeen, M. (2011). Impact of performance appraisal on employees’ motivation. European Journal of Business and Management, 3(4), 197-204.

Markos, S., & Sridevi, S. (2010). Employee engagement: The key to improving performance. International Journal of Business Management, 5(12), 89-96.

Savic, S., & Shi, H. (2010). Team tracker – an innovative team collaboration system. International of Computer Networks & Communications, 2(5), 106-118.

Selvarasu, A., & Sastry, N. (2014). A study of impact on performance appraisal on employee’s engagement in an organization. International Journal of Managerial Studies and Research, 2(11), 10-22.

Wong, R. (2010). Carrot or stick? An investigation into motivation orientations in learning English among Hong Kong Chinese students. Hong Kong Institute of Education, 10(1), 71-87.

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IvyPanda. (2020, August 2). Google's Project Oxygen and Its Issues. Retrieved from https://ivypanda.com/essays/googles-project-oxygen-and-its-issues/

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