Clearing the Decks for Transformation | Straight Talk


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Freeing up resources to invest in transform-the-business technologies

By Susan Swart, Chief Information Officer, International Monetary Fund

During my four years as CIO at the International Monetary Fund, we have tackled three issues that will be familiar to many CIOs, whether of a multinational corporation or an inter-governmental organization like the IMF. 

First, we needed to rethink the way IT delivers services to the organization. While we generally have had positive feedback from users on the basic services IT provided to them, the money and time required to simply keep systems up and running was limiting our ability to invest for the future.

Freeing up resources previously devoted to running IT would give us the opportunity to experiment with and adopt emerging technologies that would truly transform the way the IMF does business.

Finally, we’ve been working on something that may not feel quite so familiar to CIOs of global enterprises but that I think is of crucial importance. We support a business that operates in hundreds of countries around the world. So we have begun to focus on building an IT organization that reflects that global diversity and can bring new ways of thinking to our technology strategy.

Shifting from Stability to Growth

For the past four years, my team and I have worked to modernize the IT department’s processes and technologies for delivering services. The aim has been to shift resources from run-the-business activities to new technologies and technology-enabled processes that the business needs as it moves forward.

We started by evaluating exactly what we were doing and how we were doing it, then came up with a series of initiatives called “Transform IT” to enable the more efficient delivery of IT services. We have begun moving to a managed services model for our infrastructure. We also reexamined the way we contract for our IT services from third-party providers. We started approaching our outsource projects with statements of work, focusing on the outcomes we want to deliver to the business rather the number of people required to do the work.

And we have an initiative to move more services to the cloud, having developed a framework for deciding which systems are good candidates for cloud-based delivery, based on an assessment of the business, technology, and security risk involved with each one.

An Appetite for Disruption

There’s a lot of interest in new and innovative technology in the broader organization of the IMF. Because of the nature of the work we do, which is heavily data and analytics-based, our business users are tech-savvy. They are very aware of the innovation going on in the FinTech space and what that technology might enable us to do for our member states. And, like everyone else, they use more and more technology in their personal lives, and that elevates their expectations for what technology can do within the organization. There’s the realization by people throughout the organization that new technologies can change the way they do what they do.

So in tandem with transforming the way we deliver basic services to the business, and enabled by the resulting cost savings, we have explored a number of new technologies to support the IMF’s work. Data management and analytics are a high priority, and we are looking not only at how we can capture new data but at how we can more effectively use the data that we already have.

Part of this requires modernizing our knowledge management systems. We are a knowledge-based organization, so IT needs to better support both how knowledge is created and how it is shared within the organization and around the world, breaking down some of the silos that have prevented us from doing that in the past.

Certain artificial intelligence technologies, such as natural language processing, can supercharge those knowledge management systems, helping us to better uncover knowledge that we have that may not be readily apparent and make it more available to the larger organization.

We are also looking at technologies like blockchain, both in terms of its implications for the banking and financial sector overall and the potential opportunities for us to implement blockchain-enabled services internally. We have a couple of projects underway to explore the value for our organization.

We encourage both IT and the business to bring forward new types of technology innovation. We have run a series of challenges around big data and analytics, for example, inviting employees to submit their best ideas for us to test. They’re small projects to start out with so there is minimal investment required. And there is no downside to failure, so that takes some of the risk out of it. We have already piloted a number of these ideas.

Think Global, Act Global

We are a pretty headquarters-centric organization, with the vast majority of our 2,400 employees in Washington, D.C. However, we have small offices around the globe that we support. And more, importantly, we serve 189 member countries around the world.

That international footprint influences not only the skills and capabilities for which we hire, but the diversity of experience and background we want represented on our IT team. We recruit people from all over the world, not just D.C. We look for people who have international experience, living and working in more than one geographical area. We lean toward experience in central banks and international finance institutions because that domain knowledge is just as important as technical skills for us. Recently, we’ve also begun hiring people from the private sector in order to bring that perspective and experience in as well.

My background has certainly helped me in this role. I have 26 years of IT experience, most recently as CIO at the U.S. Department of State, but my career has included roles managing budget, human resources, and general services, and work in countries that include Egypt, Venezuela, and Peru.

We also look for diversity when hiring our vendors. There are certain cases in which we need to work with a provider that’s based in the U.S. But overall, we are looking for a portfolio of vendors that looks at lot like the member states we serve, focusing on underrepresented countries when we do our contracting.

Of course, diversity isn’t only about geography or skill sets. While I’ve never felt that being a woman has hindered me as I’ve risen through the ranks of IT from programmer to CIO, I know that women are often treated differently and may not have the same opportunities presented to them as their male counterparts. Gender bias exists, whether it’s conscious or unconscious.  So that has been an important focus for us, as well. We have a “Women in IT” organization that brings women together for mentoring.

One of the most beneficial things we’ve done is to bring men into the conversation about women in our workforce, getting their participation in figuring out what we can do to be more inclusive and to better engage our female employees.

The Importance of Being Bold

Personally, I have always been willing to take a risk. Even when I’ve failed, I’ve always learned something from it. And that’s what I advise others in IT careers. You need to be bold.  Now, that may be expressed differently in different countries or corporate cultures. But if you know something and understand something, you need to make that clear and never second-guess yourself.

You don’t necessarily have to have a master plan for your professional life. I haven’t always mapped out my career. When I was first hired, I was just happy to get a job. But I’ve always kept an eye out for the next opportunity and made sure that I learned what I could in my current role to best prepare myself for that next step. I didn’t have to know everything I needed to know to advance to the next role, but I was willing to accept the challenges of moving forward. It’s all about making the right decisions today to support the challenges you are going to be faced with tomorrow. That’s what I’ve done with my career. And that’s what we are doing here within our IT organization on a much larger scale.

The Takeaways 

Encourage both IT and the business to bring forward new types of technology innovation. Implement these ideas with small pilot projects to minimize risk.

Develop your own framework to decide which IT systems are good candidates for cloud-based delivery, based on an assessment of the business, technology, and security risk involved with each one.

Running a business with a vast international footprint requires diversity in teams, in terms of both experience and background. Look for diversity even when hiring vendors.