While the Lockheed Skunk Works and Apple are known for their secrecy, many organizations now open up their research and development processes so that outsiders can participate. This is more than “open innovation,” wherein organizations are willing to look for innovation to buy or license from other organizations. This is public, interactive innovation with an open community of users and other interested participants.
I list Google Labs and six other sites in that section, including Ideo Labs and the PARC Living Laboratory. These organizations have created settings where they can get user feedback from quick and dirty products. These labs are conduits for testing MVPs -- Minimum Viable Products. Shutting down this conduit (original blog post announcing shutdown) limits the organization's ability to get this quick feedback and I can't figure out why Google is going in this direction. Many tech pundits are similarly wondering about the logic behind this move.
- Stacey Higginbotham: “..there are some real productivity enhancing items out there such as the ones I mentioned above or Correlate, which helps connect search trends to real-world data and events. Google didn’t give a lot of detail in its blog post, and I’ve reached out to the company for comment and will update the post when I learn more.”
- John C. Dvorak: "I suspect that within the labs there is something so important that the company has to bring down the whole operation to avoid drawing attention to that one program. It's the only rationale that I can imagine for shutting down the labs website. I'm sorry, I just cannot think of any other reason."
- Ben Parr: “Google may be encouraging its employees to put their extra energy into projects like Google+, rather than creating tangential products. The search giant may also have simply decided that it didn’t need a central place for its experiments."
I'd love to hear Eric Ries' assessment. Eric is the father of the lean startup movement and spoke last week at the PARC Forum (watch the talk here, or see Lawrence Lee's summary here). Key to Eric's presentation was the importance of quickly testing your ideas with real customers. He suggests going public with an MVP and then iterating as you learn from the process. Google Labs provided an easy forum for such tests. Yes, Google can run split A/B tests -- but that only works within tools that exist and people are using. If the lab website goes away (at this writing it is still available), Google will have to track down guinea pigs rather than have them volunteer. (Google spokesman Jason Freidenfelds explained to Wired.com “that the Labs in products such as Gmail and Maps aren’t scheduled to be eliminated in the new push to narrow the search and advertising giant’s focus.”) Google is certainly not stopping innovation. A Google spokesperson told Mashable that there is no change to their famous "20% time" where engineers have the flexibility to work on projects of their own choice for 20% of their time. They simply seem to be cutting their users out of open interaction with the process, and yes, my feelings are hurt. Closing down Google Labs seems like a step backwards in the evolution of innovation management. Given that Google is often an organization to learn from, I'll stand by and hope they explain what the rest of us are missing.