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Overhauling the IT function to better support the World Bank’s dual mission of alleviating poverty and creating shared prosperity.
[Update: In November 2016, Stephanie von Friedeburg was named Vice President, Corporate Strategy & Resources, International Finance Corporation (IFC)]
By Stephanie von Friedeburg, CIO and VP of Information and Technology Solutions, World Bank Group
Necessity may be the mother of invention, but it’s people that make it happen. For an IT organization to help transform an institution, the individuals in the technology group need to make a concerted effort to look beyond their jobs in order to understand the needs, struggles, and goals of the business. Only by doing so will they be able to create and bring to the table new technology-enabled solutions.
When I became CIO of the World Bank Group, my job was to figure out how we could strategically apply technology to either grow the business or make it run better. At that time, though, very few of our IT staff members understood the business. And only a handful could tell you the mission of the Bank, which is what we call our twin goals: to alleviate poverty and create shared prosperity.
I was intimately familiar with those goals, having come to the CIO role from the operations group. That was a beneficial perspective for me to have, putting me in a unique position to be a bridge between the business and the technology function. But I could not do that alone. I needed a team that could connect the needs of the business with new technology solutions and processes.
It’s been four and a half years since I became the World Bank Group CIO. It has taken time, but today our IT organization has created a solid relationship with the business. Everyone in IT lives and breathes the mission of the bank. We are able to quietly lead from behind and bring solutions to problems the business didn’t even know it had. We have created a standardized technology foundation in what was a largely decentralized business. We’ve brought new people and new ways of thinking into what was an insular IT group. We are forging relationships with technology vendors and startups and getting more creative in our solutions. And we’re just at the start of what we can accomplish.
Building a Foundation for Change
For years, the World Bank Group IT department had been decentralized. Today, we’ve consolidated into one central IT function, and that has created the foundation we need to accomplish what we want to do with new technology solutions.
But we didn’t start with standardization. In fact, we decided not to change anything right away. The first step was simply to bring everyone from the five different subsidiaries together. We started to manage the various systems in a more holistic way. Even that was a challenge because two groups may have been using the same technology, but they managed it very differently.
Once we got everybody together, a process that took more than two years, it was easier to see what we might want to accomplish. It was then that we created our IT strategy for standardizing around common processes and technology.
A great example of what we did is our CRM system. Different operations around the world were using the same CRM system, but employing different business processes. So we looked at what everyone was trying to accomplish and created more standardized processes for everyone. Over the next couple of years, we will be doing more of that, which should result in cost savings.
The ROI of Diversity
As part of the new technology strategy, we developed a new staffing plan that created positions for the new technologies we were going to support and eliminated the positions that were redundant and/or supported technologies that we being decommissioned.
We had 80 new positions to fill. We took a step back to look at how we were staffed at the time and what new types of people we might want to hire. The bank is a unique organization. We serve 189 member countries! And at an enterprise level, we attempt as much as possible to reflect that tremendous diversity in our staffing. But that wasn’t true in the IT organization. We realized that we needed to focus on diversifying the team. As a result, my management team agreed that half our new hires should be women and 12.5% ought to be from Sub-Saharan Africa or the Caribbean.
We have had great success with this approach. It may have taken us a little while longer to fill some positions, but our staff is becoming more diverse. We have 1,200 people working in IT, and change takes time—but we’re really starting to see a difference.
The younger staff members we have hired, for example, are able to bring new ideas to the table. They’re more curious and open to new solutions than some of our more tenured employees. For example, a year and a half ago, our team told me that our storage contract was up and they wanted to sign a new, very expensive five-year contract with the existing vendor. They didn’t see the value of putting that contract out for bid. They were comfortable with their high-end storage solution.
Ultimately, we did an RFP and signed a deal with a new vendor. That new technology and those new relationships are changing the way with think about storage, not just from a cost perspective, but from an access and a speed perspective. And the team is so excited. Both the older and newer members are talking about what they might tackle next that we hadn’t been able to accomplish in the past. A combination of new technology and a few new faces has changed how we think and operate.
To Innovate, First You Must Understand
Today, our IT organization actually understands what it takes for the bank to operate. They see what it takes for a task team leader in Ulan Bator to do his or her job and they’re beginning to ask themselves how we might do things differently.
We have an operations portal, for example, that a task team leader must use to produce a country project review every six months. The report used to have 800 fields, and task leaders had to toggle back and forth between our ERP system and the portal to enter the information.
Because our teams had gotten to know the business process and what the task team leaders were trying to accomplish, they knew that many of those 800 fields weren’t needed. They suggested removing 500 of them and created a much more efficient work flow for the task team leaders. It’s been a massive success. And we’ve made similar changes to many standardized reports. Those kinds of things couldn’t have happened had the technology teams remained the technology teams, and the business teams remained the business teams.
Digital Starts with Data
When I arrived, the World Bank did not have much in the way of data governance. I suggested that we create a data council and agree on the terms we were using to define things so that we might make better use of the data we were collecting. And as we started to think about how we might use digital technology to drive our mission, we realized that the same problem we were encountering in the central IT group was happening at the operational level as well. Each of our 189 member countries gathered economic information differently and defined data in its own way.
The data council that was created has a pillar that defines data for operations and a pillar that defines data for development. This has created a foundation for digital transformation. We have a staff of incredibly well-educated economists, but they weren’t terribly tech savvy. Once we were able to have these conversations about data, however, it opened their eyes to the technological possibilities. And we brought in some younger IT professionals who began to show them the really interesting things they could begin to do with data.
For example, in order to achieve our twin goals of alleviating poverty by 2030 and creating sustained shared prosperity, we need to be able to measure these metrics. But not every country can afford to conduct a household survey at least every other year in order to assess its economic progress. In fact, there were about 75 that couldn’t – and it would take hundreds of millions of dollars in World Bank loans to those countries to fund the surveys.
So we had to get creative. Pakistan, for example, had a very robust annual survey process. We know more about its income distribution than any other country in the region. So we took high-resolution satellite imagery in Pakistan, compared that geospatial view with what we knew about income distribution, and found that the information was tightly coupled. We could then take high-resolution satellite images from Sri Lanka, which could not afford the survey, and make some accurate assumptions about income distribution. We worked on that project with Orbital Insights, a Silicon Valley startup.
Venturing to Silicon Valley
Orbital Insights is just one of our startup partners. Before becoming CIO, I had worked closely with venture capital firms and invested in new technology for emerging markets. For me, it’s a natural instinct to want to keep on top of what’s going on in Silicon Valley.
The first startup we worked with was Box.org, which provides nonprofits with world-class technology tools that can help them innovate and fulfill their mission. Since then we’ve brought in lots of interesting pieces of new technology.
Our cloud-first strategy has made a connection with Silicon Valley, the epicenter of new technology, even more important. We need to know what the latest and greatest advancement is for Amazon Web Services or Azure. I don’t know how you stay on top of the quickly evolving technology landscape otherwise. Now I take interested members of my staff with me every time I travel out West, and they share what they learned when they return.
Having established that foothold in the Valley, we now have startups and VCs come to us with technology they think might have value for the bank. They ask us what problems we’re trying to solve. The CEO of a startup with whom we partner will share his or her development path with us and we will share our strategic plans with the CEO, so we can innovate together. There’s a willingness on the part of many small or startup companies to co-develop products. They share our own excitement—and I mean the World Bank IT function, as well as the organization as a whole—about our mission to make the world a better place.
Meeting Millennials Where They Are
The World Bank Group has been built by people like me: lifetime employees who were drawn to the mission early on in their careers and never left. And we’re an important part of the organization. But to continue to innovate, we need to attract younger workers who take an entirely different approach to their career. I have a fabulous data scientist who helped us figure out how to use drone technology to get a better idea of the situation on the ground in the Balkans. He did some great work with us for eighteen months, and then he wanted to leave to see what he could accomplish elsewhere. Many of his peers are the same way.
We as an organization have to be able to bring young talent in, learn from them, and be able to let them go. That’s not something we do very well. Our culture is built around doing your time as a junior member of the group and working your way up to do bigger things. We’ve got to change our approach, because that’s not the way Millennials operate. They want to contribute right away and may only stay for a short time.
We’re trying to change our approach within IT. One way we’re starting to do that is by forging partnerships with local universities. We bring students in to work with us for a summer or for another internship period. They help us evaluate and incorporate new technology to support our mission, and then we send them back out into the world.
Emerging Technology for Emerging Economies
From what I’ve seen, I believe that the digital divide is getting bigger, not smaller. I hear people say that the Internet of Things is going to fix everything. And I say, “Well, what about Africa? You can’t support the Internet of Things on a 2G network.”
The World Bank has a huge responsibility, and historically we haven’t been good about including technology in our solutions. One of the things I try to do is make sure technology is always a part of the conversation.
I’m fascinated by Blockchain, for example. The way that technology is able to prove a chain of custody and eliminate the middleman in transactions could be a game changer for our financial advisory groups. That’s one technology we’re beginning to examine, although we haven’t made any investments yet.
For an IT function to really help the business, it has to understand the business, living and breathing the organization’s mission. When that happens, IT can offer solutions to problems that the business doesn’t even know it has.
One way that IT can help a sprawling multinational organization is to bring consistency to the way data is gathered and defined. This creates opportunities for all kinds of creative new uses for that data.
Really understanding the different job expectations of Millennials means changing your expectations of them. Sometimes you have to be willing to benefit from what young employees have to offer over the course of a year or two, then wish them well in their next endeavor.