3 Higher Ed Lessons from Yahoo

Strengths, weaknesses and relevancy.

January 11, 2016

The news from Yahoo is nothing but bad.  Layoffs, restructuring, and reorganizing are will be the story of 2016. The concern for Yahoo now is a death spiral, as the exit of the most talented employees will make any turnaround strategy impossible.

Do you remember when Microsoft offered $45 billion for Yahoo back in 2008? Turning down that offer, (Yahoo is basically worth zero today if you remove its stake in Alibaba), has got to rank as one of the most boneheaded moves in a rich set of tech related boneheaded moved of the last decade.

The depressing part of the Yahoo story is not the demise of one of the Internet’s original brands. The diminishment of Yahoo will not be a cultural loss.

Rather, anyone who works in technology will feel a strong connection and a sense of empathy for the people that make up Yahoo. Not Marissa Mayer or her lieutenants, but the developers and engineers and designers and project managers and business development specialists and writers and all the people who make Yahoo run. 

If you work in technology for any length of time you learn that the industry feast or famine. At one moment things can be great and resources are abundant, and the next there is no money to replace the ink in the printer. You also learn that the people working in boom companies are no smarter than those working in the bust companies. We (technology people, or media people - maybe in the future higher education people) could be going through what Yahoo people are dealing with today.

We can speculate all we want on where Yahoo went wrong.  Hindsight and all that. Would we have done a better job than Marissa Mayer in turning around Yahoo? Maybe, maybe not.

What we can (and should) do is figure out if Yahoo has any lessons for us in higher ed.  We could probably come up with hundreds of lessons, but since the evidence shows that we remember things better in sets of 3 - I’’ll start with 3 lessons:

Lesson #1 - Be Clear About Your Strengths:

Yahoo’s motto is "We make the world's daily habits inspiring and entertaining.” Do you have any idea what this means? I don’t.

What exactly Yahoo does really well is impossible to tell from Yahoo.com. The strategy that Yahoo seems to have chosen is to have no strategy.  To throw up as many different sites and digital services as possible, and to see what sticks.

Yahoo Tech could have been great, as David Pogue is a master tech entertainer and some talented folks (like Rob Pegoraro and Daniel Howley) write for the site. Instead, Yahoo Tech is a mess of sponsored advertising, inconsistent coverage, and a lack of any overall editorial voice.

The lesson for higher ed is that each college and university needs to get really clear on where they are really good.  Leave aside comparatively good to start with, just start with good in relation to other parts of the school.  Find the faculty, departments, schools, units, institutes, organizations or entities that best reflect the values of the organization - and invest in those people and places.

The idea that a modern university must do everything in order to cover all aspects of scholarship and instruction is outdated (if it ever were true).  The job of leadership must be to choose which areas to invest.

Lesson #2 - Stop Doing Things That Are Not Strengths:

The other side of the coin to investing in areas of strength is to be willing to let go of areas of weakness.

The (ugly and almost unnavigable) Yahoo portal links from everything from Mail to News to Sports to Weather, Auto, and Dating - with everything else in-between. Can Yahoo be good at all these things? When Yahoo does shut something down, they do it late.  Yahoo took a long time close its original video content business, Yahoo Screen, even though it was obvious to everyone that the service was not getting any traction.  

This lesson, to be willing stop doing some things, is particularly challenging for colleges and universities. Higher education is explicitly set-up to protect unpopular ideas against the short-term thinking of the market or of the latest political orthodoxies.  The inefficiency of higher ed is a feature, not a bug.

The argument here is not to stop doing what is unpopular, but rather what is being done poorly. This goal may be difficult given the governance structures of our postsecondary institutions, but it still should be a goal.

Lesson #3 - None of Us Are Immune:

My final, and most important, lesson from Yahoo is that none of us are immune from following in Yahoo’s footsteps.

Yahoo still generates lots of revenues, even if profits are skimpy.  What Yahoo no longer has is cultural capital. Yahoo is no longer a force in our thinking about technology, media, or the internet. Yahoo has lost its relevancy.

It is not that Yahoo did anything particularly poorly, it is just that the world moved on much more quickly than Yahoo could adapt.  Yahoo missed the social web, and was very late to mobile. And Yahoo stuck to a portal when the world went to search.

The lesson here is that our colleges and universities can’t assume that doing things as we have always done them will keep us relevant. The world of education is changing quickly.

The question is how can we be true to our core values while also evolving?

Are our schools investing enough resources in R&D?

Are we open to new ideas while insisting on preserving our cherished traditions?

Are we trying to learn from Yahoo?



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