Case study: how Google uses People analytics

Paul Burrin
Last updated on 25th June 2020
3 min read

You ask and it answers; Google is the ultimate mastermind of global information gathering.

So, it’s no surprise to learn that Google has been a leading light in People analytics, using it for more than a decade.

Long before People analytics was even a thing, the clever bods in Google’s People Operations were using actionable insights to study and understand a range of different insights about how their biggest asset operated on a daily basis.

The People analytics team have spent a decade not only conducting research on everything from leadership to productivity, but also partnering with colleagues to translate these insights into action.

What started as a one-off piece of research in 2008 – codenamed ‘Project Oxygen’ – soon developed into a strategy, helping shape the way the technology giant operated.

We deep-dive into exactly how Google have made People analytics integral to not only their People strategy, but the building blocks of their entire business practice.

What makes a great manager?

Google’s People Operations team used a mix of productivity data and employee feedback to determine employee behaviors and skills through Project Oxygen, an initiative designed to find out what successful Google managers do.

Performance ratings and employee feedback were analyzed and compared with productivity metrics to determine the impact of different leadership styles on employee engagement and productivity.

From this, Google was able to create the ‘Oxygen 10 Behaviors for Great Managers’ and used it to train and select its company leaders.

The key to creating a great team?

Following the success of Project Oxygen, Google researchers conducted a similar study to discover the secrets of effective teams at Google.

Called Project Aristotle – a tribute to Aristotle’s quote, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. The goal was to answer the question: ‘What makes a team effective at Google?’

The combination of hard data with human experience allowed for analysis that went beyond performance stats to assess team leadership, cohesion and other qualitative factors that helped certain teams outperform others.

Google used the findings to create a list of five essential factors needed to create a positive work environment:

  • Psychological safety
  • Dependability
  • Structure and clarity
  • Meaning
  • Impact

Google and People analytics today

The technology giant claims its People function has changed since its initial foray into using analytics purely to improve the efficiency of its staffing function, over a decade ago.

Speaking at the 2018 Wharton People Analytics Conference, Brian Welle, Director of People Analytics at Google shared the key lessons learned by his team over the past 10 years which he believes will help organizations avoid the same pitfalls.

His three essential People analytics lessons are:

1. Invest in data infrastructure – “every investment in data infrastructure is a good investment to make”, claims Welle.

2. Answer the questions that really matter – in the first few years of existence, the People analytics team answered any question that was thrown at them, leading to the analysts working on 30-40 projects simultaneously and not focusing on the relevant, most important questions.

3. People analytics is an ecosystem – today at Google, People analytics is not just one team doing social science research, it’s a network that feeds into one another. “From our business intelligence group and People operations, to our voice and People innovation lab teams, to our business partnership insights team, they make up the Google People analytics ecosystem,” says Welle.

Let people make People decisions

Google states on its website that it “use[s] People analytics as a foundational building block that informs everything we do to find, grow and keep Googlers”.

Yet, it has learnt along the way that it’s vital to use the data to enable people to make People decisions.

Google’s VP of People Operations, Prasad Setty, says the original mission statement when Google first set out on the People analytics journey, was for all people decisions at Google to be based on data and analytics.

“We wanted analytics to spit out People decisions,” he recalls in a presentation on making work better.

However, this ethos soon changed as Setty and his team realized that arming people with stronger, more relevant information was the key, so that they could make better decisions themselves.

This strategy not only replaces anecdotal and untested strategies with processes backed up by data, it also helps to engage employees.

Reap rewards with People analytics

People analytics means so much more than just crunching numbers and to be showing that you’re finding out what people want; it’s doing something about it that matters.

It’s no fluke that Google is repeatedly voted one of the best places to work and has high retention rates, and with an employee survey participation rate of over 90%, Google is clearly winning on the employee engagement side, too.

People are an organization’s biggest asset so why would you not want to gain valuable insights into your people’s behavior, as well as taking action to drive great employee experiences?

Armed with key People metrics, business leaders can make informed company decisions and organizations can reap the rewards of happier, more productive people, increasing retention and attracting top talent.

How else can you create great workforce experiences for your staff? Download our research report from 500+ HR leaders on the challenges facing the sector. 

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