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