Visit with Yahoo on May 12, 2009

We visited Guilherme Ribenboin (

), CEO of Yahoo Brazil and Fabio Boucinhas


) who works on new products.

Many management challenges are common to both public and private business and one of the most persistent is the difficulty of passing reliable knowledge and experience within an organization. As any organization grow beyond the size where frequent face-to-face contacts are easy, information sharing becomes a challenge, but it is especially true in the fast changing and multifaceted created by the new media. Information is held by individuals. Many of them have very deep knowledge in a particular specialty, but may not know how it fits into the bigger picture and may be unaware of the significance of what they know. In an information rich environment, the problem is how to arrange it to make it useful and how to tap into tacit knowledge that people may have but be unable to properly express. A learning organization is one where the total knowledge and expertise available to the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This is easier aspired than achieved.

One way to address the challenge is through a wiki where everyone can contribute as well as see and enhance what others have contributed. In theory, a wiki can tap into the wisdom of the group. It can be available only to particular groups, to the entire organization or even to a more general public. The amount of openness is a management decision. But management cannot really decide if individuals in the organization will enthusiastically contribute. Enthusiasm cannot be mandated, but it can be incentivized and those incentives must come from a true commitment at the top. Good contributions must be recognized and the inevitable good-faith errors must be corrected but not punished.

The new media allows and requires many choices. The mix of tools will change depending on the situation and they will change over time. Yesterday’s solution is often today’s problem, but that does not necessarily mean that any mistakes were made. Employees have to be confident that their good solutions that solve today’s problems will not be held against them when the situation changes tomorrow. It may take a long time to build the kind of trust that lets people stick their necks out and months or years of work can be dissipated by one serious breach.

Another important aspect of information sharing is to have the information available to share. State

Department and Yahoo share the characteristic of a diverse and dispersed world-wide organization. In

Yahoo’s case, everything is available online in “the cloud.” Groups working on particular tasks may not be near each other geographically, but can be virtually side by side. Technology has only recently made this possible, since real collaboration requires good connections and a lot of bandwidth. State

Department also allows worldwide collaboration. Our own PD 2.0 meeting on May 14, run from Sao

Paulo and Washington, with presentations from Stockholm, Brussels, Mexico City and London as well as participants from posts around the world, is an example. But we still do not do these things routinely.

Yahoo is a worldwide organization which is becoming more centralized. In the beginning, local offices had significant autonomy, and they still retain much of it. However, Yahoo cannot win a strictly local

competition with a well funded and skillful local competitor. So Yahoo will seek to take greater advantage of its worldwide network and the economies of scale that creates. In typical new media fashion, Yahoo knows that this model may not be universally applicable. In particularly big and/or unique markets such as Russia, China or India, more local autonomy might be necessary. The key is flexibility.

Yahoo executives said that some of Yahoo’s products could be particularly useful to State PD. For example, Yahoo Answers could provide a forum that would allow us to pass information to interested audiences worldwide, while building an online community of interest and trust. We could also set ourselves as “knowledge partners” about issues where we have special expertise. Visa issues and studying in the U.S. are great examples where we could easily achieve special status. They also suggested that we take advantage of high-level visits to build communities. For example, a visitor could engage with potential audience members before the visit. This would build interest and personalize the visit. Recall that every person has many contacts and especially in this connected world a little contact can go a long way.

Finally, we all agreed that there is a lot of low hanging fruit and that we should take advantage of new technologies and interested participants. There is a lot of opportunities out there and some are just easy to reach.