Hello science—meet HR

June 6, 2012

Posted by Jennifer Kurkoski, Ph.D., Manager, People & Innovation Lab

At Google we strive for innovation in all aspects of our business, and not just in the realm of technology: we apply science to organizational issues as well. But finding the right answers means asking the right questions—a skill at which academic researchers excel. Thus, a crucial piece of making science a part of HR involves sparking debate among academics and practitioners. To that end, Google’s People & Innovation Lab, or “PiLab,” hosted its 4th annual Research Summit at our headquarters in Mountain View, CA on May 10th and 11th.

Each year, the PiLab team hosts the Summit to bring social scientists from top universities together with key HR and business leaders from Google to examine complex issues like how to combat decision fatigue, how to provide incentives for creative work and how to further innovation by tapping diversity. The exchange of ideas during the Summit lays the foundation for future research.

How does this work in practice? One place we’ve explored is how to help Googlers save more for retirement. Working with attendees at past Summits, we looked at the language in our annual retirement contribution reminders to U.S.-based employees to figure out what would be most helpful. We found that small changes could influence Googlers’ savings decisions by providing them with numerical examples in the reminder emails. Googlers who received higher example savings rates subsequently contributed more to their retirement funds over time (we know Googlers’ savings because of our 401(k) matching program).

Through both internally-generated and collaborative efforts, the PiLab has conducted research that is changing the way Google as a company operates, including developing effective managers and encouraging healthy food choices. This year participants also applied their research prowess to a particularly critical Google function: making dinner (see picture). Our chefs provided instruction in making flat bread pizzas and everyone tried their hand at the task. Nothing prompts conversation like a good meal!


But what is the PiLab, you ask? The PiLab plays the unusual role of conducting applied research and development within People Operations, Google’s version of Human Resources. Doing R&D in HR isn’t a particularly common practice, but when your employees build virtual tours of the Amazon and tools to translate between 60+ languages, you need creative ways to think about productivity, performance, and employee development. The PiLab’s collection of industrial & organizational psychologists, decision scientists, and organizational sociologists have as their mission to conduct innovative research that transforms organizational practice within Google and beyond.

Additionally, the Summit provides us an opportunity to expose Googlers to cutting-edge research in the social sciences, and share the type of work the PiLab focuses on with the whole company. This year, Columbia University professor and Summit attendee Sheena Iyengar, gave a talk on The Art of Managing All Our Choices. Prof. Iyengar drew on her years of research into choice overload to address how to optimize product offerings in an era of increasing consumer choice.

By fostering conversations on the issues confronting modern organizations, the PiLab overall and the Summit in particular aim to generate new theories and to challenge existing ones. The intent is to inspire new research at Google and elsewhere and ultimately to improve HR. The Lab looks forward to more collaborations with faculty … and, of course, to pie.