Yahoo CIO Lars Rabbe works in a competitive and rapidly changing market, where new ideas can affect millions of users. His current challenge: innovating around Web 2.0 and social networking.
Rabbe sits down with ZDNet editor in chief Dan Farber in a CIO Vision Series interview. He talks about some of the tools and technologies that are driving development at Yahoo and how to promote a culture of innovation. Here is an excerpt of the interview.
Yahoo is definitely one of the companies that's been pioneering the Web as a platform innovating in many areas along with the rest of the industry. So, in your mind, what do you think of innovation? How do you define it?
Rabbe: Innovation is really, for me, the ability to make people do great things. You want to be able to create an environment that allows people to innovate and allows people to break out and to do things that are not necessarily part of the day to day work. Make it possible for them to go away, think great thoughts, do great things and actually bring these things to market without putting too many constraints around it and without actually confining them in terms of having to use certain things or having to work with certain other products and so on.
As a CIO, what's a good example of a idea that didn't seem like much but actually blossomed into something that was really a big game changer?
Rabbe: The company we bought recently is a good example of this. They started with a relatively simple little concept and it's changed the way people actually access photos and tag content on the Internet and I think the whole concept of tagging is going to be much, much broader and really change a lot of the things we do on the Internet in the future.
In terms of overall innovation at Yahoo or any other company, do you have a set of recommendations you could offer?
Rabbe: I think as a CIO, one of the things I've experienced in several companies is you absolutely have to have the interaction between IT and the engineering, the R&D, the researchers and so on. And usually that interaction only happens if you can establish a reputation for the IT department that creates the credibility, that creates the basis for that interaction. That really comes out of IT creating great products that then demonstrate that they can do the innovation just as well as the R&D people. And I've managed to make IT groups do that in other companies, and I think that we're doing that at Yahoo as well. And once that is established there will be back and forth between the external product and the internal use of it and so on.
One thing we're working on right now is taking our calendar, the e-mail Go product on PDAs, wireless PDAs and deploying that for internal use and in the process influence the development process for the consumer product. So that is absolutely the first step, you get that interaction and we actually help develop the product and we help influence the direction of the product that way.
One of the areas of innovation is organisational management, and you're in so many countries do you find that innovation across the globe is different depending on what location?
Rabbe: I actually believe that being in many locations is a great way of creating additional innovation. We've seen a lot of ideas come out of other markets where we may have thought about things back here but never thought that they would apply to our market and then we see them blossom in other markets. I'll give you one example -- Yahoo Answers that was launched recently was originally developed in the Far East and became wildly successful there. And the team in Taiwan developed this originally and worked on a number of angles of the product and really shook down the product from a usability point of view and then we took it back here and applied it to the US market and subsequently rolled it out significantly internationally and it probably wouldn't have happened without the condition of the Taiwan market originally -- that they could launch this and make it successful in that particular market. There are many other examples of this where a product is born in one market and because of market conditions they become very successful and we can then take that experience and apply it elsewhere.
What do you see as some of the risks in terms of innovation? If you're out there on the edges all the time putting new products out there, testing new products, is there a risk at some point of just having too much stuff out there, getting too disorganised and having a culture of innovation but out of control?
Rabbe: There's definitely that risk and we're absolutely trying to balance it. I said earlier that one of the inhibitors of innovation is too many standards, too many constraints and so on but it has to be done in moderation. You absolutely need to have standards and as I just mentioned, AJAX is rapidly becoming the internal standard for the applications we're deploying so what it means is that, yes, we are trying to help. And we were actually trying to leverage by making these things into standards. There's absolutely a risk that if you allow people to do whatever they want that these things are just not going to integrate.
They're just not going to play together and one of our biggest assets is our ability to offer these things to all of our registered Yahoo users and all of the people coming to Yahoo every month. If we can't do that, then the innovation would have been for naught. So absolutely we need to catch all of these great ideas, we need to bring them together, we need to make sure that we can leverage across our existing products and we need to make sure that as we infuse these new technologies into the environment that we actually leverage them and apply them to the existing products.
Now what kind of communications infrastructure do you really have in place to drive innovation because so much of it is about communication, people coming up with new ideas and sharing them, getting teams together, probably smaller teams to execute on those ideas. Blogs and wikis ...
Rabbe: Yes, all of the above, absolutely and really, the interaction. I personally believe that very seldom do great ideas come from just the original idea. It's really the ability to leverage the idea and for other people to understand the original idea and the original breakthrough and really work on that, improve it and leverage. So, the interaction subsequent to the original idea becomes incredibly important.
One of the big challenges we've had for many, many years and one of the last great frontiers of CIO-dom is the ability to organise and retrieve unstructured information. We've been great at structuring information into databases and retrieve things from databases -- we can have petabytes and petabytes of information in databases and you can get at it but we still haven't really broken the issue of unstructured information. There are lots of content management systems around and lots of document management systems around but it still doesn't give you that assessment of quality and direct search into what it is that you need. And I think that the tools that we're developing here for social networking, for Web 2.0, are really going to be very applicable within the enterprise to solve this problem. So, it's a great example of the crossover and how you take these problems and leverage them inside the enterprise.
Now another aspect of Yahoo is the fact that you're very much focused on the social aspect, not just of search but of just people interacting online which I think is how Tim Berners-Lee, who founded the World Wide Web really defines the Web. What are some of the challenges especially around innovation in building a so-called social network, social media type of Web site?
Rabbe: I think, probably, the biggest challenge is what companies usually call 'abuse', which is how do you make sure that the quality of the interaction is the best possible? The whole concept of social networking is putting together a number of different things. So, for instance, social search, social interaction, the ability to rate and share information with others. So, the concepts of ratings, the concept of reputation, the concepts of communities, the concept of search, all come together supporting this. And it really is a way to, not to use too much of the industry jargon here, but Web 2.0 is really the ability for a lot of people to produce content.
And the social network really has all the elements that will allow you to discern the quality of the content and actually find the right content meaning the content that's relevant for you and that you can be sure that it actually has the quality you expect. So I think one of the big challenges and one of the big differences between accessing information is, for instance, CNET and Yahoo produce content where you know the producer and you know the quality of the content to, and take that and make sure that you have an equal amount of assurance for the quality of what you see in this Web of millions, tens of millions of producers. That, really, is the big challenge.
And we're working on a number of different products and some of these are beginning to come together and integrate into this whole concept of the social network so that you can find the information, you have an overlay of reputation and ratings and community that allows you to know exactly what it is that you're looking at.
What are some of the tools and technologies that are enabling you to innovate, especially given the pace of innovation that's required today? I think the users, you talked about how the users are basically your alpha and beta testers, but even so the competition is very fierce and it seems like products have to change not on a yearly basis but almost on a daily basis.
Rabbe: So, back to the whole concept of what is innovation. I think that as another, there are a couple of elements that we didn't talk about. One element is that there's always the influence from the outside. We talk a lot with VCs, we talk with people that are thinking of starting companies, we talk with people that are starting young companies and you know we have acquired a lot of companies. Some of the great companies in this particular area are companies like Flickr and del.icio.us and we're using those assets and integrating with what it is that we already have. So taking some of those basic concepts and then making them available to the hundreds of millions of users that use Yahoo ongoing really broaden the concept and bring all these new elements in. So, if you look at it from the point of innovation, what we do is combine assets that we bring in from the outside with the development that we're doing and, leveraging the assets we already have.
So, I'll give you another example which is that we made this new version of our mail system which uses AJAX and dhtml. So a lot of interaction on the client, that was really technology we brought in from the company we bought. But we have applied that very, very broadly inside the company and AJAX is very rapidly becoming a standard for a lot of things we do. So the breakthrough that came in through the acquisition is being reused extensively inside the company and having the ability to seed these things into the environment really fosters a lot of innovation inside the company.
Where do you see the next big innovations coming from in terms of what areas of technology or business process or organisational management?
Rabbe: Well what we talked about with Web 2.0, social networking, I think a lot of innovation will come out of that. I think that we've only seen the beginning of it so far. I think that the ability to really make this content useful -- because there's a lot of non-useful content being created out there -- and the ability to discern between that and when you search to know what the quality is, is really going to be significant.
I'm very hopeful that storage technology will develop so that we will not have to back up to tapes in some not too distant future. And these are things where there's an absolute need, the technology is definitely getting there and we just need for some company to come up with that product that really gets the traction and really becomes valuable to us.