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TechWeek: In conversation with ex-Googler Stephan Thoma

Posted: Friday 30 October 2020

The ex-Googler and talent development consultant talks to Nicci Martel about Silicon Valley, what it can teach us, and the grey area of tech ethics.

Few companies inspire fascination quite like Google. From its methodical interviewing process to its legendary employee perks, the tech giant continues to set the benchmark for corporate innovation.

During nearly eight years as Google’s global learning and development director, Stephan Thoma experienced the company’s unique culture first hand. More than that, he helped shape it, which is why, despite leaving in 2014, people still want to hear his take on the world-changing organisation.

If he ever tires of fielding questions about his former employer, it doesn’t show. Now a talent development consultant, Stephan uses Silicon Valley techniques – those he helped spearhead – to assist small start-ups and larger, traditional companies that want to learn from the success of major US tech players.

“Google interests people because, I think, it was the poster child for a kind of digital native. There are others – Facebook, Amazon, Apple – but Google, in particular, scaled up at remarkable speed. It went from two guys in a garage to, when I left, 45,000 people, and now it’s 100,000 people plus”, says the ex-Googler, who remains a leading voice in the fickle field of modern learning and development (L&D).

“That 18-year period saw immense growth. There has never been another company like that. Facebook would argue that they grew faster in the earlier stages, but there is something about Google, about seeing it grow so quickly and be so fleet of foot – it offers an interesting case study”.

“What can we do to emulate Google?”

Google’s market success is in part thanks to its extraordinary people management practices, resulting from its use of people analytics. Data-based decisions drive its HR functions, taking the guesswork out of employee learning.

A decade ago, companies desperate to emulate its success would seek to copy and paste its processes, with varying success. But no other company can do a Google and Stephan warns against holding it up as the standard bearer for L&D functions. There’s simply no such thing as best practice, he says.

“When I worked there, I did a lot of conferences and other tech start-ups would be asking ‘What can we do to emulate Google? What can we lift and shift?’ But what Google does shouldn’t be held up as best practice – I don’t think there are any best practices”.

“What we did at Google was the result of our own context and our own environment. I think people have got that now. Google is a case study, one you can look at and ask what pieces of it might work in another context?”

Stephan built and led Google’s global L&D team. His work spanned leadership and management development, he pioneered peer-to-peer learning strategies and ensured the company’s learning agenda supported its immense growth while retaining its culture of innovation – all of which he’ll be discussing at Jersey TechWeek’s Digital Creatives session on Thursday 22 October.

His background, however, isn’t in psychology, education or even HR. Stephan, who was raised and educated in Jersey, is an engineer by origin and that scientific mindset hasn’t left him. He talks of L&D functions in terms of mechanisms and integrated parts. Is he still an engineer at heart, I ask.

“The engineering has stayed with me through my career. Taking a systems-wide view has been key. I’m still building systems, albeit people ones now, and I’m still interested in outcome orientated results”.

The intersection between Covid and technology

Stephan got into talent and L&D by accident while working at General Electric in the late eighties. He’s since seen technology transform the field, with online learning allowing companies to scale up in a way not possible before.

“Education and learning can support individuals and managers to have courageous conversations and do the right thing”.

Learning agendas can now be rolled out simultaneously to huge numbers of employees, interval reminders now help employees retain information, and behavioural science data is used to send out nudges, simple interventions that change behaviour and, often, improve decision making.

Technology also means that learning assets have never been more accessible. Can this be used to improve diversity in the workplace?

“There is definitely a D&I (diversity and inclusion) dimension to this. Education and learning can support individuals and managers to have courageous conversations and do the right thing. If there is open access to different constructs, where there hasn’t been before, this can help create a level playing field,” he says.

Interestingly, he says, workplace diversity might even benefit as a consequence of the pandemic.

“The reality now is that for most organisations there will be some long-term shifts. A lot of companies will now end up with some sort of hybrid model, with some employees preferring to be office based, for whatever reasons, and others who will be predominantly home based. What that means is that companies can be more open to where their employees are physically located, which opens up the possibility for broader talent pools.

“It means companies can look at people not just in different geographical locations, but different life situations; people who want to work part time and other dynamics. There is a broader range of possibilities.”

But remote working does have disadvantages, he admits. Some teams work better in person, online learning removes the personal experience of a workshop environment, and the isolation can be detrimental to mental health.

“We’re at an intersection between Covid and the physical technology. There’s definitely an interesting shift going on”.

Ethics and Silicon Valley

There’s a shift taking place in Silicon Valley, too. Seemingly every week there’s a new scandal about ethics, and the growing accusation that tech companies prioritise profit over social good has caused a dilemma at the heart of the industry; can the resources and regulations required to implement ethical change be justified in market-friendly terms?

 

Were tech ethics even on the radar at Google when Stephan worked there, I ask.

“I think that’s been a more recent development. I’ve been out of Google for six years and I think it’s a bigger part of their agenda now, the issues around privacy and trust. What right do organisations have to  monitor your digital breadcrumbs, which everybody leaves behind? There’s a trade-off between privacy of data and the product that you get”, he says.

“There is no right or wrong, wherever you land on the issue. For me, the key thing will be to allow individuals to have a conscious choice. Being explicit about the style and culture of your organisation is the appropriate thing to do.”

We all share personal data with a bank in exchange for financial products like mortgages. It’s kind of a similar thing, he suggests, though the data taken by tech companies is of a more personal level.

“Was it an active point of debate when I was there? There were the beginnings of a conversation.”

The future of L&D

What Stephan did witness during his time at Google was the growth of peer-to-peer learning, and a focus on objectives and key results (OKR) – both pioneering methodologies that are still successfully being adopted by other companies today. As for tomorrow, what do L&D and talent functions look like in a rapidly changing world?

“They must have the ability to move quickly, pivot fast and seek opportunities to add value. There’s a need for new and different skills too, and that’s been particularly true of this year”, he says.

“We are living through a moment of unprecedented change and uncertainty, so organisations really need to push hard to embrace this and hone their ability to adapt and evolve.”

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