Here’s A Google Perk Any Company Can Imitate: Employee-To-Employee Learning

Google taps its own ranks to teach valuable career-building classes as well as "extracurriculars" like kickboxing and social skills for engineers. Fast Company takes a peek at the curriculum.

Adam Green sprinkles his lecture on data visualization with class participation. “Does anyone read sheet music?” he asks before showing a video that re-imagines music notation in a more visual way. “Anyone ever in the military?” he asks before explaining that branch of government’s preference for white type on black backgrounds. And then, finally, after covering the basics, he gets to the point: "What would you do to make this graph more clear?"

His 19 students take notes, having pushed the electronic devices they arrived with toward the center of the table. Most are relatively young, and, except for the woman wearing Google Glass, this could easily be a college classroom.

But it’s not. This is a New York City Google conference room. Everyone in it is a Google employee, including Green himself. Most days, he works in Toronto managing Google’s relationships with ad agencies.

On days like today, however, he participates in a program called “Googler to Googler,” which places employees from across departments into teaching roles that would otherwise be filled by the HR department (or rather, as Google calls it, “People Operations”). Green’s class is part of the Google core curriculum, which includes courses on management, orientation, and skills such as public speaking. Other classes taught Googler to Googler--everything from kickboxing to parenting--were initiated and designed by an employee.

An early Google engineer named Chade-Meng Tan, for instance, started a popular class on mindfulness that became a new job (title: Jolly Good Fellow) and a book (title: Search Inside Yourself). A class called “Creative Skills for Innovation” became a process for design thinking across the company. In 2013, about 2,000 Googlers have so far volunteered to teach classes through the program, and together they will teach about 55% of the company’s official classes.

It's not about money. Google feeds 37,000 employees three gourmet meals a day. It can certainly afford to hire teachers. The company thinks it’s a good business idea to have employees teach employees. Here's why:

Promoting A Culture Of Learning

Telling your employees that you want them to learn is different than asking them to promote that culture themselves. Giving employees teaching roles, says Google's head of people operations, Karen May, makes learning part of the way employees work together rather than something HR is making them do.

Though management courses might be more directly related to work performance than kickboxing, any learning opportunities contribute to the goal of preserving culture. “By offering a wider curriculum," May says, “we’re able to meet the wider range of their needs and interests. I think that makes people feel like they can be their whole self at work, whether we’re looking at photography or mountain climbing or mindfulness.”

Putting Employees In Teaching Mode

Sergey Brin’s habit of asking potential job candidates to teach him something he doesn’t know has by now become part of Google’s mythology. “Since I’ve heard that story,” says May, "I’ve adopted that question myself several times…they sort of look at you funny and think for a minute, and then their eyes just light up. And they tell you about something they’re passionate about. And something they feel confident about enough to teach someone else.”

Employee-to-employee education gives them the same opportunity. “It’s a remarkable thing to put someone in teaching mode,” May says. “In a way, you get to see the best of them.”

In-House Teachers Get An "A"

It’s not just Green--a seasoned salesperson--who can hold his own in front of a class despite a lack of teaching credentials. Google’s assessment of its courses (yes, of course it has data, though it declined to share the specifics) shows that performance of teachers outside of the HR department is consistent with teachers who facilitate employee education as their primary job.

Employees whose managers took a course about having better career conversations, for instance, reported that those conversations improved--whether their instructor was a full-time course facilitator or a volunteer from another department of the company. In some ways, it might be better. “If we can take somebody who is doing a great job and have them not only share the content we have, but also share their own personal twists, it makes much more powerful,” May says.

Any Company Can Do It

Companies are spending more money than ever reskilling their employees. According to a report by Deloitte, overall training spending rose 12 percent last year, following a 10 percent gain in 2011. Even those companies that can’t afford to up their budgets can still beef up their training benefits by tapping into employees' passions and interests.

Setting up a program doesn't require any special technology or scale, or even much time. May's advice? “Put the support structures in place to make it happen and then get out of the way.”

Related:

Not A Happy Accident: How Google Deliberately Designs Workplace Satisfaction

[Pencils Image: Flickr user Bernard Walker | Class Photos by Jane Hu, Google]

Add New Comment

15 Comments

  • Tester

    Do They have a don't ask don't tell policy at Google towards Sexual Orientation? 

  • Breean E. Miller

    This is fantastic. We started doing lunch and learns at our company last year where employees could teach/lead lessons on a variety of things. Unfortunately, programs like this lose traction when client work ramps up. But it's also important for continued learning and company culture. This article has inspired me to reignite the learning at work - thanks!

  • Angel Green

    HR and Training Departments around the world need to read this article! Instead of taking boring slide decks and manuals to build learning events, they should reach out to the workforce for real input from the real people doing the work. The passion and "own personal twists" from those enthusiasts in the workforce is so much more effective for the development of new training! Even if your organization is nowhere near being able to implement something on this magnitude, companies overlook a huge untapped resource - employees! Instead they have someone develop a content heavy course and think this will help employees. How is punishing employees with boring content going to drive them to perform better? What if training showed you what the job was really like? What if it shared those tips and tricks? Organizations might see, like Google did, real improvement in performance!

  • Brian Fanzo

    Wanted to say that I love the insight on this article and I commend Google for doing this... One can only hope that other companies will follow the lead of Google and encourage, motivate and reward those who take it upon themselves to train and educate fellow employee's

  • Johann Lex

    Brian, we have implemented a similar model called expert as trainer "EasT" since years at Telefonica Germany. We certify selected experts in 4 days on methodolical skills (learning theory, facilitation and presentation). These experts spend up to 10% of their work tim to upskill their colleagues or external customers in their respective field of expertise. I see 3 main benefits, a) it is a 1st class people development for selected experts, b) the company saves budget by spending less for external trainer and c) courses are more efficient and with better feedback compared to ext. trainer. Can't imagine how companies ccan live without such a model...

  • Jocelyn Ring

    Making "people feel like they can be their whole self at work" is incredibly valuable. We encourage people to tap into outside interests and passions to solve problems at work. It really stimulates creative thinking and helps people come up with truly innovative solutions. Teaching also helps people reinforce concepts that they already know and to learn how to communicate more effectively. These initiatives would benefit many other companies.

  • Crisostomo Calitina

    The 2nd HR Technology Congress Asia will be held in Bali,
    Indonesia on 19-20 September 2013 to dig deep into the issues of hiring,
    training, 360-feedback, performance evaluation, localisation, compensation and
    benefits, HR software and strategic succession planning for fast-growing
    organisations in exciting emerging markets. Call us at +65 6818 6344 or
    email  hrtech@arcmediaglobal.com to find
    out more! Or Visit http://www.arcmediaglobal.com/...

  • Victoria Bowman-Steinour

    We're nowhere near being able to implement a program like this.. but I am seething with envy and inspiration after reading this article. This would do WONDERS for my company's culture. 

  • Ty

    In fact, other companies DO do it! I know Pixar has something similar, and at Eventbrite we've established "Brite Camps" that offer hour-long peer-taught workshops on an equally wide variety of topics. Continued learning is an essential perk!

  • Propel Businessworks

    Such a great culture to build within a company: to encourage continual growth and build the individual skills and passions of employees.

  • Microspace

    This is also timely for us. Thank you! Having a good model to follow for employee training/education is always helpful.

  • Dan Piecuch

    Great article and perfect timing for me. I just taught a data visualization course 5 days ago for a department which wanted to get some much needed education on data visualization before embarking on some big projects with reporting. All it cost them was a flight and everyone was engaged throughout the day. The best measurement for how well a course goes is how many people are snoozing which no one was at my course (phew). 

    I have no background in teaching but everyone mentioned that I did a very good job and I think that you can overcome the lack of  teaching skills as long as you are passionate about the subject.

  • Jacob Grahm

    Google is highly successful at bucking the usual tired American business philosophy of "Cut costs and work your employees to death" and what's the result? They're one of the most innovative companies on the planet. I think another thing companies can do is decrease the work week to four days. Here's an interesting piece from CNN.com. Oh, and don't get me started on multitasking.