Google’s 20% time at accounting firms?

It’s well known that Google encourages their employees to spend roughly equal to one day per week pursuing personal projects, or about 20% of their time at work. The results of this unique policy are numerous and successful: Gmail, Google Suggest, Google News, AdSense and Orkut.

Google logoWhat would happen if an accounting firm allowed their knowledge workers to devote time to personal projects? Would great new ideas surface for snagging new clients, serving existing clients in better ways, or improving processes within the office? I think they would, but it would definitely require some discipline to set aside that much work time away from client work.

I think the benefits from this type of system could be achieved at an accounting firm without needing 20% of available working hours. All that is needed is a method for sharing the ideas with everyone in the organization and a loose structure for obtaining approval to put the idea or plan into action. A wiki on the intranet would be simple to set up and, since they are editable by anyone with access, enable everyone to participate right away.

Google describes “the engineer’s life at Google” with reference to the following pledges:

We listen to every idea, on the theory that any Googler can come up with the next great one.
We provide the resources to turn great ideas into reality.
We offer our engineers “20-percent time” so that they’re free to work on what they’re really passionate about.

I think it would be a bigger challenge to create the type of environment that Google has meticulously cultivated since its inception at an established accounting firm. It’s all too easy to keep doing things the way they’ve always been done, not unlike following last year’s audit plan, in firms. But I believe great things can be accomlished by a firm willing to break out of the mould and take the cue from Google.

4 thoughts on “Google’s 20% time at accounting firms?

  1. Hi Neil,

    Great post, couldn’t agree more that the Google 20% program is an excellent way to inspire knowledge workers to innovate.

    Unfortunately, most law and accounting firms will never adopt such a policy as long as they believe that time = money.

    The traditional efficiency metrics used in firms, such as billable hours, realization and utilization rates ensure no time is invested in R&D and the future. They are simply useless as a guide to judge the effectiveness of knowledge workers.

    I’ve written extensively on this topic in my books and our blog, with perhaps this post being most appropriate, “CPAs Aren’t Knowledge Workers”:

    Keep up the good work.
    Ron Baker, Founder
    VeraSage Institute

  2. Ironically if a big 4 firm tells you that they expect 70-90%& utilization, then you do in fact have that 10-30% time to do other things. Of course, they’ll require that you spend some of that time in training or business development, but the idea of using that time for special projects is not as farfetched as some would have you believe.

    And even at Google, you have to push to take advantage of your 20% time – it just doesn’t magically happen – you need to come up with something to do, otherwise you’ll drift to doing your ‘normal’ day job 100% of the time…

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