Global IT With UNICEF

By Brad Wieners  |  Posted 2004-08-23

Global IT With UNICEF

On the wall behind his desk in his New York City office, UNICEF CIO André Spatz has hung a framed CPU and a 32-megabyte memory board from an old Wang computer. Its debatable if the old-school circuitry succeeds as art, but the decommissioned hardware resonates as deeply with Spatz as most anything in the Louvre.

"Until 1999, when I turned off this Wang, thats what most of the organization was running on," the 49-year-old Swiss national explains, clearly enjoying the stupefaction that "1999" and "Wang," together in the same sentence, elicits from his guest. "When I arrived in 1997, we had no global IT organization—few LANs, no WAN. In fact, 70 percent of our countries had less than 1,000 bits-per-second connectivity, and that was dial-up to New York! As backup for the Wangs, we had diskettes and paper printouts sent by diplomatic pouch." Glancing back at the retired Wang parts, Spatz smiles broadly. "Its a symbol of progress and a piece of history."

And so, to a degree, is the IT transformation Spatz has led at UNICEF, the 58-year-old nonprofit childrens health, education and relief organization established—but not funded—by the United Nations General Assembly. Presently, UNICEF has 8,000 staff and volunteers working from 245 locations in 158 countries; in 2004, its operating "income"—all of it in the form of donations from governments and private parties—is expected to reach $1.7 billion.

Five years after he shut off that last Wang, Spatz has seen to it that UNICEF has standardized its desktop programs and server architectures, and the organization now boasts a fully deployed SAP enterprise resource planning system, a global wide-area network, a virtual private network accessible from 126 field offices, Voice over IP phones in more than 90 countries, and Net access at a minimum of 128K bps everywhere the organization operates.

Under Spatz, UNICEF has also codeveloped a "Fly-Away emergency IP VSAT"(very small aperture terminal), essentially a satellite system with QoS, firewall, switches, wireless and IT back office in a set of rugged metal shelf boxes that can be landed by plane and be up-and-running in under four hours. Fly-Away VSATs have already seen duty in Liberia and Iraq.

What makes his IT upgrades all the more impressive is that Spatz has had to convince himself, and others, that every dollar spent today on IT will do more, in the long run, than a dollar spent on medicines or life-preserving vaccines. (UNICEF is the worlds largest provider of vaccines for poor countries.) A further challenge: There is little budgetary carryover from one year to the next at UNICEF, so its hard to book multiyear implementations.

Mind you, its not as though Spatz has gone unrecognized for his efforts. On another wall in his office, mixed in with workflow diagrams and agendas, are scores of awards and press clips. Theres even a new Hewlett-Packard print ad, ripped from The Wall Street Journal: Aptly enough, Spatz has become a poster child, of sorts, for H-Ps Adaptive Enterprise campaign.

Welcome as all the attention has been, such "glamour," Spatz says, can be distracting, too. And it isnt as if he doesnt have plenty to do. For starters, natural disasters, AIDS and war continue to create fresh hells for children—and such emergencies require an immediate response from UNICEF even as its staff tries to tackle more chronic problems such as unsafe drinking water.

For another thing, funding for humanitarian initiatives like UNICEFs has been, if anything, shrinking. Spatz says this means that IT has become a "competitive differentiator" for UNICEF—a way to demonstrate that a dollar donated to UNICEF goes further toward helping the worlds kids than it might at other relief agencies. In a recent interview with CIO Insight Executive Editor Brad Wieners, he revealed how hes made the most of his IT budget.

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Next Page: The interview.



CIO Insight: Youre a bona fide Swiss banker. What motivated you to leave the world of finance for UNICEF?

Spatz: To put IT center stage of UNICEFs operational and programmatic excellence and to make IT a key enabler of the organizations competitiveness, that was—and is—a truly unique challenge. Its not often in the lifetime of a CIO that one is in a position to fundamentally transform with technology the way an organization operates on a truly global scale.

You faced a daunting IT challenge when you first arrived at UNICEF. Where did you begin?

With a combination of elements that basically included interacting with and listening to the executives and managers, talking to the users and to existing IT staff, assessing the existing technology landscape and status/usage and going out and seeing what the reality was. That was one of the first steps. At the same time, the IT globalization began by establishing a three-tier IS organization—headquarters, regional offices, and local sites—to mirror UNICEFs structure.

To suit UNICEFs new IT global orientation, the IT strategy was termed a "hypothesis," which was taken around the world as a "management road show," testing and validating it with the division and regional management teams. I needed to make people understand what an IT strategy was and show our need for an overall application and infrastructure strategy, a telecommunications strategy, and a standardized environment—as well as the operational implications. These road shows have continued, mainly to obtain feedback, adjust the implementation, and instill new management processes.

The development of a centralized IT architecture and strategy plan was obviously also done. This plan included guiding principles on how IT activities should be managed, technical criteria for making decisions and both organizational principles and business principles.

Was it difficult to reconcile the recentralization of IT and the decentralization of chain-of-command?

It was. In 1996, UNICEFs new executive director initiated the Management Excellence program to streamline the agency and decentralize decision-making and accountability to the regions and countries where the field activities took place. In order to implement this business model, a new IT strategy was required that included a re-centralized IT organization. IT previously was so fragmented, under-invested, lacking in governance, processes and infrastructure, that there was not much of an option but to bring it back under one central control.

Did presenting your strategy as a hypothetical win over those who might have resisted?

Well, that certainly brought a lot of credibility and validated the strategy and its implementation, but it was only one aspect.

And the others?

The key is that you cant just have a strategy. Underneath it, we had specific projects with clear deliverables and clear milestones. And we started delivering on those milestones and commitments even as we discussed the global strategy and principles. So it was never just a strategy on its own, but also the delivery with specific projects that validated it at the same time. You have to earn credibility by delivering on your promises, to demonstrate how your strategy is working, to get positive momentum and positive change-management processes in gear.

Was there one service in particular that gave you the greatest credibility?

No, not really a single one, but a combination of several global, flexible, adaptive and responsive IT systems and networks, such as a global IP-WAN with QoS, Voice over IP services, the enterprise management systems (24-hour-a-day global help desk and operations), a fully deployed ERP (SAP-R/3) in headquarters, one custom-developed field system deployed in more than 200 locations, global Intranets, and other elements. For about four years, we were pushing technology to the organization. But for the last two and a half years, basically [UNICEF] has been converted and sees the value and benefit of IT investments. IT has become a core and mission-critical function as well as a key enabler of the organizations competitiveness. Now the business units and functions pull from IT. They come to us with suggestions, projects, business cases, etc.

Has your role changed as a result?

It has changed in some respects, yes. In the push phase, we needed not only to deliver; we needed to coach, to educate, to create the global baseline and implement the fundamental pieces of the architecture and also to make understandable what we were doing. Today, the baseline has moved significantly: Everybody assumes we have the same platform, systems, services, processes and infrastructure everywhere. The users expectation level has gone way up. Now the emphasis is on services management, skills, governance, implementation of the investment portfolio and leveraging the IT strategy for the benefit of UNICEF.

Next Page: Enabling VOIP globally.

VOIP Globally

What are you doing to exploit that infrastructure? I noticed, for instance, that youre an early adopter of Voice over IP.

Our WAN is IP only, managed with two service providers globally, as one integrated network, which is the backbone of our whole organization. Voice over IP has allowed us to save a lot of money and enable major improvement of phone communications in parts of the world which have challenging telephone infrastructures. This is now deployed in over 90 countries.

But you make a distinction between VoIP and IP telephony.

Well, the distinction is that we dont have an IP telephone handset. [With IP telephony], you dont replace the PBX with an IP system. We integrate the existing systems to our network. Voice goes over our data networks, where its legally permitted. From a cost/benefit perspective and also a skills/maintenance point of view, we do not have a clear and favorable business case for IP telephony today.

What else are you doing thats new?

We are leveraging some of our platforms such as SAP with new business projects like grants management and SAP-HR; both are being co-developed with SAP. Also in the area of IT services management, we are expanding UNICEFs usage of the existing 24x7 global help desk platforms for business process support. People think of the global help desk primarily for IT support. We have moved beyond that and are using the help-desk software and personnel for business processes support—not just IT. We are continuing to deploy a very innovative Web content management system that allows decentralized content creation without IT support, with electronic workflow and approval and subsequent automatic updating of the main UNICEF Web site.

A favorite catchphrase is to "run IT like a business." Do you?

I would say yes. I manage IT like a global business entity as much as I can. But I think its an evolution. It develops as both the business and IT organizations mature in the usage and understanding of the role of technology. For example, the governance process. To achieve a good level of IT governance sophistication, there were three main stages of evolution at UNICEF. First was project-level governance. Second was adoption of a global IT strategy and infrastructure. Third was implementation of a global-level IT portfolio management process. And educating management about recurring IT costs, operating costs and mandatory system upgrades has been a challenge through all three stages.

Lets say a hypothetical CIO is coming to grips with the problem of global leadership. How can he or she prepare?

Several elements come to mind. One is multicultural. Unless you have an appreciation of what it takes to bring people of different cultures together, I do not believe you can ever achieve globalization. Globalization is not one culture. It is a conglomerate of different cultures. You have to make sure that you have one line and one framework, but you have to adapt to local environments.

Second, you have to have a mosaic view of the world, in terms of IT, business and processes. As a global CIO, you have to know which piece will fit where. When one piece changes, it resonates somewhere else because it is part of an integrated global picture. Unless you get that picture, you will not succeed in a global organization IT perspective. I think that is, and will remain, a challenge for CIOs.

Another piece of advice is that you have to be credible to the top management, and in a multicultural environment this is not easy. The credibility is not granted; its earned. As the saying goes, credibility does not come from putting strategy on paper, but by executing it, showing results and delivering. You have to demonstrate short-term results and balance them with the long-term investments, because change will not happen overnight, but in a more radically paced evolution.

No Average Technocrat: Prior to becoming CIO at UNICEF in 1997, André Spatz served as CIO and managing director for the Domestic/Swiss Division of Swiss Bank Corp. (SBC). A citizen of Switzerland, Spatz holds a masters degree in electronics and electrical engineering from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. He has also studied IT management at the Harvard Business School.

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