Google’s Behavioral Duality

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.

So began the timeless Charles Dickens classic A Tale Of Two Cities. His “times,” of course, referred to an era of revolutionary upheaval in the city of Paris. But what was he trying to say? And why did he place a pair of ostensibly contradictory phrases side-by-side in a single opening sentence?

Dickens was referring to the duality of behavior that existed in Paris during the period of time between its historic era of monarchy and its current era of democracy. The city itself was enjoying its best of times in many respects, and yet was also suffering through its worst of times.

Dickens was indeed correct in noting that entire cities can behave in ways that are simultaneously good (or “best”) and bad (or “worst”). But does this also hold true for corporations?

The Best Of Firms?

Take Google, for instance. In many ways, it is very difficult to feel anything but admiration for many of its corporate priorities and activities. After all, it’s a company that believes that “democracy on the web works,” and that “you can make money without doing evil.” How can any one argue with such declarations?

Its Executive Chairman, Eric Schmidt, is traveling to places like North Korea and Myanmar to participate in attempts to open their closed societies to global culture and commerce. And Google engineers have developed a prototype of an automobile that drives itself, focusing initially on blind individuals who are trapped in their homes, unable to independently access transportation options to travel to supermarkets, medical offices, and other venues of daily living.

When Cornell University wanted to open a technology program in New York City before its new campus could be constructed on Roosevelt Island, Google offered free use of its own facilities in the Big Apple, an offer that Cornell eagerly accepted. And when the firm decided that the Chinese government was interfering with its ability to support its own democratic principles, it simply withdrew from the world’s largest consumer market.

The Worst Of Firms?

At the very same time that Google has been engaging in such exemplary activities, it has also been facing (and it continues to face) a wide array of criticism over privacy considerations. Until recently, its most egregious activity involved what appeared to be a deliberate decision to circumvent the privacy settings on Apple’s Safari browser in order to collect personal usage information from mobile web surfers.

And just last week, the firm agreed to pay a fine and institute a wide array of corrective policies and procedures in response to a Google Maps data gathering fiasco. Apparently, when Google sent camera vans down thousands of miles of public streets to collect visual images for its mapping service, it programmed the vehicles to collect private email information and other personal data that were being transmitted over wi-fi systems.

Furthermore, even small decisions by the global firm can generate bitter denouncements in the technology community. Recently, for instance, it announced that it will soon be discontinuing its Google Reader service, a web based function that helps users keep track of new postings by blogs and other types of web pages. Although the service never enjoyed tremendous popularity with the public, it did manage to earn the support of  a small but enthusiastic user group that was angered by the firm’s discontinuation decision.

Both, And Neither

So some aspects of Google’s organizational behavior may lead us to conclude that it is indeed “the best of firms.” But when we focus on different aspects of its behavior, we may instead conclude that it is “the worst of firms.” Can both be true at the same time?

In a way, yes … and in a way, no. Certainly, Charles Dickens might opine that such duality of behavior is indeed possible in great corporations, as well as in great cities. But others may argue that all corporations, large and small, enjoy moments of greatness and suffer through moments of awfulness. They may assert that global firms simply display more noticeable extremes of “best” and “worst” behavior because they are, in fact, extremely large and noticeable organizations.

So the next time you feel compelled to excoriate Google over some condemnable activity or decision, you may wish to remind yourself of all of the commendable activities and decisions that they have performed and made over the years. Conversely, when you feel compelled to idolize the firm for some benevolent and magnanimous activity, you may wish to remind yourself of their questionable decisions as well.

Indeed, like all corporations, and like all human beings, Google can simultaneously behave as if it is both “the best of firms” and “the worst of firms.” Does this make the firm unique? Not at all; instead, it is simply behaving as we all do.