Innovation at the IDB | Straight Talk


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Digital transformation as a vehicle for development.

By Nuria Simo, CIO, Inter-American Development Bank 

Change is never easy and it’s viewed by many as an even bigger challenge in public sector and inter-governmental organizations. This common perception was highlighted for me when I decided to join the Inter-American Development Bank. I was very excited about the IDB’s vision to improve lives across Latin America and the Caribbean, but most of my friends warned me that I should prepare for a bureaucratic structure and a strong resistance to change.

So I was pleasantly surprised when the plans to push digital capabilities as a vehicle for development received support from my supervisors as well as my team.  This is not to imply that there were no challenges, but the pace of change was definitely no slower than in the private sector.

On the contrary, I found some serious advantages in the development sector. For one thing, we are not driven by quarterly results or profit and loss, and that helps us plan for the long term and drive digital transformation smoothly on many levels.

If I’ve learned one lesson at the IDB, it’s this: Whenever you feel that an institution is slow and bureaucratic, always stop to check who is moving slowly — you or the institution?

Promise of Connections

In the two years since I joined the IDB, my agenda has been pretty simple: To drive the strategic digitalization of IDB’s processes and operations in order to become a leading source of development finance in Latin America and the Caribbean.

We have faced frequent challenges, like the lack of information, inadequate infrastructure, and complex regulatory systems in the region. Digital platforms have helped us increase collaboration inside and outside the Bank.

Two years back, we noticed that several small and mid-sized companies in our partner countries didn’t have the information and networks required to explore opportunities outside their home markets. Inspired by the great success of social networking platforms in the private sector, as well as our own trade integration and business matchmaking initiatives, we launched ConnectAmericas to help these companies connect to potential clients and partners throughout the region and around the world. The online ecosystem helps to promote international commerce by providing contacts, industry-specific information, and financing options for Latin American and Caribbean companies looking to expand their markets. The platform also offers tariff and trade related tips and courses on how to begin exporting products.

Building a Service Culture

Another step we’ve taken is to re-organize the IT department around business needs, rather than around technology.

First we created a service-oriented culture in our IT team. We began by dipping deeper into understanding the Bank’s business and partners’ needs and then looked for the best ways to implement technology solutions to meet their needs and solve their problems. We also hired people who understand how to use new technology to solve development problems. Then we conducted a series of workshops and training sessions to explicitly tell our partners about our service-oriented and customer-centric culture.

Today we have built a model for providing technology infrastructure and solutions based entirely on the needs of our business departments. Because business staff members interact directly with our customers, providing them with digital solutions is the best way to ensure that our work stays aligned with our main mission of improving lives in Latin America and the Caribbean.

It's crucial to track the changing realities of the places we operate, so that we can tweak the model whenever and wherever required. That’s why I often visit the development projects supported by IDB in member countries. When there, I try to spend most of my time in the field. That gives me first-hand insights into these countries’ needs and provides a reality check on whether our IT solutions are having an impact and whether we need to adjust and adapt.

Our Three Pillars

To ensure that our digital innovation is focused on identifying and shaping development opportunities, our digital agenda is focused on three core areas.

  1. Improving Efficiency. It’s easy to see that digitalizing all our operations and improving efficiency is IT’s most logical and traditional role. So, we scout for digital technologies that can help us streamline our process and create a tighter customer connection. For instance, we rolled out Convergence, a one-stop platform to manage all our operations. It integrates more than 10 systems across departments and regions to enable us to track operations in real time, while reducing redundancies and improving operational efficiency.
  2. Open Data and Knowledge. A big chunk of our digital transformation effort is focused on helping us further our commitment to the open sharing of data and knowledge. We have people with amazing experience in several areas and we want to make this knowledge available to everyone in the Bank across geographies, as well as to entrepreneurs in partner countries. We believe that the use of data and knowledge we produce can help our clients and partners go through a more intelligent decision making process.
  3. Fostering Digital Capabilities in the Region. As we proceed with our own digital transformation, we are becoming increasingly knowledgeable about digitalization and new technologies that could benefit our clients in various countries. We might not know everything about every technology, but we try to help them learn from our experiments. That means creating alliances and ecosystems with people outside the bank and even outside the regions where we operate.

And our digital journey has only just begun. We have plans for projects like our Technology Innovation Lab, which is a one-stop shop where people within IDB and from our customers can exchange challenges, ideas, and solutions. It’s too early to point to dramatic results of this project. But I am excited about the pace of change in areas such as machine learning and the Internet of Things and the potential for enhancing the speed and effectiveness of sustainable development in Latin America and the Caribbean.