Alumna uses academic research to inform HR decisions at Google
People Analytics Manager, Google
Mountain View, Calif.
As manager of Google’s People Innovation Lab (PiLab), an applied R&D arm within human resources, Jennifer Kurkoski’s work straddles business and academia. And her ability to operate in both makes her something of a hybrid creature.
“I’m neither fish nor fowl,” she says. “I can speak both the language of business practice and the language of research—which helps me to bridge those worlds.”
Kurkoski arrived at Google in 2008 while finishing her doctorate at Haas. She’d been working in Silicon Valley since the late 1990s, first for a tiny online community developer called Throw Inc., and then, after it sold to Excite.com, for Excite@Home. While pondering dissertation ideas, the chance to work at PiLab appeared.
“I’ve always had a strong interest in how scientific method can influence business practice, and during my time at Throw and Excite I observed so much that I wanted to understand better,” she says. While at Haas, she had intended to be a teacher and researcher. “But then this Google opportunity came along. Seven years later, I’m still here.”
Google is relatively unusual in that it applies science not only to tech but also to people, says Kurkoski. At PiLab, she and her team of psychologists, sociologists, and decision scientists look to academic rather than business types to determine what’s state of the art in organizational theory, using research tools to tackle HR questions like Do managers really matter? and How can Google leaders make balanced and unbiased hiring decisions?
Recently, PiLab has been educating Googlers about unconscious work bias.
“People tend to gravitate toward those who are similar to them,” she says. “Academics call it homophily, and it’s a way of thinking that’s just not helpful in business. You’re going to overlook valuable people—or miss the mark on a new product design. At Google we’ve worked hard to educate managers about this unconscious bias so that they learn to hire and promote people who might be different from them but just right for the task.”
PiLab’s work is definitely practical, especially in Google’s particular industry, where acquiring and retaining talented workers can be a challenge. “Finding great people requires a different approach than it did a decade ago,” Kurkoski says. “There aren’t nearly enough software engineers to go around, which means it’s crucial to think creatively when it comes to recruiting.”
Kurkoski would love to see more business people use science and analytics to better develop their company’s employees. “More data are available now,” she says. “I’d love it if my fellow grads would ask themselves, ‘Why aren’t we doing HR research at my company, too?’” —Kate Madden Yee