July 11, 2006

Google’s internal text-based project/knowledge management

Slashdot turned up an amazing article in Baseline on Google’s infrastructure. There’s lots of gee-whiz stuff in there about server farms, petabytes of disk packed into a standard shipping container so as to allow the setup of more server farms around the globe, and so on. But even more interesting to me was another point, about Google’s internal use of its own technology. In at least one case – a hybrid of project and knowledge management – Google really seems to be doing what other firms only dream about as futures. Here’s the relevant excerpt:

Consider how Google handles project management. Every week, every Google technologist receives an automatically generated e-mail message asking, essentially, what did you do this week and what do you plan to do next week? This homegrown project management system parses the answer it gets back and extracts information to be used for follow-up. So, next week, Merrill explains, the system will ask, “Last week, you said you would do these six things. Did you get them done?”

A more traditional project tracking application would use a form to make users plug the data into different fields and checkboxes, giving the computer more structured data to process. But instead of making things easier for the computer, Google’s approach is to make things easier for the user and make the computer work harder. Employees submit their reports as an unstructured e-mail, and the project tracking software works to “understand” the content of those e-mail notes in the same way that Google’s search engine extracts context and meaning from Web pages.

If Google employees found the project tracking system to be a hassle to work with, they probably wouldn’t use it, regardless of whether it was supposed to be mandatory, Merrill says. But because it’s as easy as reading and responding to an e-mail, “We get pretty high compliance.”

Those project tracking reports go into a repository—searchable, of course—so that managers can dip in at any time for an overview on the progress of various efforts. Other Google employees can troll around in there as well and register their interest in a project they want to track, regardless of whether they have any official connection to that project.

“What we’re looking for here is lots of accidental cross-pollination,” Merrill explains, so that employees in different offices, perhaps in different countries, can find out about other projects that might be relevant to their own work. Despite Google’s reputation for secrecy toward outsiders, internally the watchword is “living out loud,” Merrill says. “Everything we do is a 360-degree public discussion.”

The company takes a more traditional approach with recording financial transactions, however. “Hey, I want those revenues, I really do,” he says. That means running financial management software on servers with more conventional virtues like “disks that don’t fail very often,” he says.


2 Responses to “Google’s internal text-based project/knowledge management”

  1. Text Technologies»Blog Archive » Two own-dogfood text-based bug-tracking applications on October 3rd, 2006 8:10 pm

    […] Last July I wrote about Google’s text-based project management system. Dave Kellogg of Mark Logic offers links to discussion of a related Google project, and adds news of his own — Mark Logic built a text-based bug tracking system in its own MarkLogic technology. • • • […]

  2. Text Based Project Managment « Bill's Blog on December 11th, 2012 9:56 am

    […] Google’s internal text-based project/knowledge management […]

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