Google. The next Control Data?

Control Data 1604 (Serial #1) with supercomputer genius Seymour Cray at the controls (click for larger view)

Growing up in Minnesota, I couldn’t help but be fully aware of this emerging dominant player in the computer business: Control Data Corporation (CDC). Led by visionary CEO William Norris, it was arguably one of the first technology corporations to be socially conscious with an eye (and investment) toward empowerment and the curing of many social ills.

Examining the demise of CDC as a force in the computer industry seemed to point to one thing: Norris took his eye off the ball since it was looking everywhere but the business. The link to the Wikipedia article about Norris above says it best, “They (the Board who were pushing for Norris’ removal as CEO in the 1980’s) were particularly harsh in blaming his social programs for their problems, although any connection is difficult, if not impossible, to find.

That said, articles about him upon his death this past August focused on his accomplishments and atypical and material positive impact he made in the world (good biography here). However, I know dozens and dozens of people that had illustrious careers at CDC and talk about the lack of focus again-n-again as the key reason the company perished. Yes this is anecdotal (though I’ve heard too many stories to ignore), but for people that worked for CDC for many years this was key in their minds. CDC spawned numerous social programs, spun out many companies (including one I worked for, Authorware, which became part of Macromedia and now Adobe) and did much good. They could’ve done much more had CDC survived.

Is Google leadership taking their eye off the ball like CDC’s Bill Norris did?

You may know that Google earmarked US$1B for the for-profit (yes, for profit) Google.org whose mission statement says in part, “…focus on several areas including global poverty, energy and the environment.”  This article in The New York Times (registration required) shows how extended this mission already is which does make a guy wonder how far Google intends to go:

One of its maiden projects reflects the philanthropy’s nontraditional approach. According to people briefed on the program, the organization, called Google.org, plans to develop an ultra-fuel-efficient plug-in hybrid car engine that runs on ethanol, electricity and gasoline.

I struggle with this direction since I completely understand that we all MUST extend our value propositions to give back, empower and enable others, and bring our talents to bear on moving the world forward. But if we don’t focus on our core value proposition and keep our businesses and missions viable, we’ll take our eye of our own balls (that sounds nasty, but you catch my drift). While I laud the plug-in hybrid approach that they’re taking, I’d be more excited if Google.org was driving forward solely toward their extending Google’s core mission: “Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.

Spending some time this weekend on Idealist, a directory of 56,000 non-profit and community organizations worldwide, made me think more about an idea I’ve posited about connecting people on a global scale that removes inefficiencies and barriers to those connections. Does creating some sort of super-taxonomy, meta-directory or value proposition matching — on a massive, global scale — fit Google’s mission? Yep. Would it empower people to coordinate, orchestrate and align themselves to work together on solving specific problems? Yep. Is there any company better positioned than Google to address something like it? None better.

At the end of the NYTimes article it says, “Dr. Brilliant said he had no desire to “reinvent the wheel” by working on projects others are already involved in. And although Google is a high-tech company, that does not mean that Google.org will be throwing around high-tech solutions.

Don’t reinvent the wheel Dr. Brilliant. It’s been reinvented — and is being reinvented — over-n-over again on a global scale. Apply your considerable resources and capabilities to be a catalyst for all the people in the world already focused on problems so they can collaborate on solutions vs. you trying to do it all yourself. Orchestrate and coordinate. Work with MIT and others on their open courseware initiative and driving access to knowledge and education. Yes…if people are hungry they can’t learn, but you can’t do it all.

I don’t think Google will face the same fate as CDC nor be vilified like Mr. Norris. Their’s is a new approach, a new model and one that exists in a network connected world where feedback on direction is nearly instantaneous. It’s just that even a company the size of Google can’t boil the ocean.

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2 Comments

  1. Rich Wolf on September 20, 2006 at 8:56 am

    Steve,

    I really do not think that Bill Norris’s focus on other areas is what did CDC in. Listening to interviews with his coworkers, they all agreed it was speed of technological change (i.e. Moore’s Law) that did DCD in.

    If it was only the “loss of focus” that did CDC in, where are Sperry, UNIVAC, Burroughs, IBM, NCR, Cray Computer Company, and ETA Systems?

    Rich



  2. Steve Borsch on September 20, 2006 at 10:20 am

    Hi Rich,

    My opinion concurs with yours…one man wouldn’t make all the difference, though in these same anecdotal stories from former CDC’ers it’s pretty clear that Mr. Norris shot-the-messenger often and was not focused on jettisoning businesses that weren’t working.

    The companies you mentioned were all disrupted. I’ve mentioned before that I’m a bit of a Clayton Christenson devotee (the Harvard B school professor) and he gave a talk at the open source convention last year on disruptive innovation.

    He gave lots of great stories as illustrations of disruption, but none so clear as DEC and Ken Olson being disrupted by the PC. They did all the right stuff for DEC and the paradigm within which their company had been built — including pricing minicomputers affordably in comparison to what they used to deliver — but the buyers were consuming alternative computing devices instead. DEC simply didn’t move (and fast enough) to capture the market.

    Steve



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