Saturday, June 25, 2005

 

Analogies with the private industry: What can we learn from eBay?

It is now almost three months that I have been working full time as a business manager for our nonprofit start-up “The Constellation for AIDS Competence”. While I have always been convinced of our societal vision of working towards an AIDS competent society I must admit that I didn’t really know how an organization that wants to contribute to such a goal should concretely look like.

When I started working for the Constellation I remembered the vision of Jim Wolfensohn, the former World Bank President, who aimed at transforming the institution he was heading into a “knowledge bank”. The vision is attractive, but that model wouldn’t really do it for us because I think the Bank got stuck in an old “knowledge banking model” that was hoarding its assets (i.e. storing knowledge) rather than putting them to productive use. So it wasn’t really something we could identify with as an organizational model.

Now, after three months of working the fog is clearing. Astonishingly, I realized some things about our organization more clearly today when I was reading an article in The Economist. The text was about one of the most successful Internet companies to date, the online auction platform called eBay. One of their top managers, Bill Cobb, was saying “managing is the wrong word for what we are doing. We enable, we listen, we respond”. He went on to emphasize: “generally in a company the employees know the most about the business. In eBay, our community knows more than we do”.

While there are certainly limits to comparing eBay to the Constellation I believe we can learn a lot from eBay. We are also a platform. While eBay catalyzes local businesses and auction exchanges over the Web we catalyze local responses to AIDS and the exchange of experiences. Like eBay we think that the individuals, communities and networks we work with know more about their “business” than we do. Our roles are very similar: to connect, to foster exchange and to grow our reach in order to grow the value of our platforms for the user’s benefit. And it all comes together in one organizational mission: listen and enable to foster local action.


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