Sharing Knowledge

By Brian P. Watson Print this article Print

To provide technical assistance and developmental knowledge to fight poverty and disease, the World Bank first had to overhaul its antiquated I.T. system and build a global network.

Sharing Knowledge

The World Bank is a major source of financial and technical assistance to developing countries around the world. It isn't a bank in the conventional sense, but is made up of two unique development institutions: the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), which aims to reduce poverty in middle-income and creditworthy poorer countries by promoting sustainable development through loans; and the International Development Association (IDA), the part of the bank that helps the world's poorest countries.

Owned by 185 member countries, the World Bank has about 10,000 employees—7,000 of them in the organization's headquarters, the remainder in field offices in 80 member countries. It also retains thousands of consultants, many of them retired bank officials. The Bank Group, which includes the IBRD and IDA as well as other affiliated entities such as the IFC, loans out about $20 billion annually, making it one of the world's largest sources of development assistance.

Founded shortly after World War II, the bank was established initially to focus on European reconstruction projects. Beginning in the 1950s, it began financing mega-projects like dams and roads. Its focus changed dramatically, however, in 1996 when James Wolfensohn (not to be confused with his predecessor, Paul Wolfowitz) was named president of the bank.

An Australian-born investment banker, Wolfensohn, who didn't respond to requests for an interview, is characterized as "brilliant and a highly persuasive speaker" by several former bank officials. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen, made a fortune on Wall Street and agreed to head up the World Bank in July 1995 after being nominated by President Clinton.

Almost immediately he set about changing the behemoth of global developmental economics from a centralized, "headquarters-driven" organization to a decentralized, matrix-networked operation that relied on member countries to carry out and supervise their own project development and make their own decisions. To facilitate this, Wolfensohn told the World Bank Board of Governors in an October 1996 speech: "The revolution in information technology increases the potential value of [the bank's development] efforts by vastly extending their reach. We need to invest in systems that will enhance our ability to gather information, and experience and share it with our clients."

One of the pillars of Wolfensohn's vision was knowledge management, or knowledge sharing. " … [W]e will build a world-class knowledge management system throughout the bank to capture and organize our knowledge, make it more readily accessible to the staff, clients and partners, and strengthen the knowledge dissemination and capacity building efforts," he said in an internal bank document. " … It will connect with universities, foundations and other world class sources of knowledge so that the bank becomes a clearinghouse in knowledge about development."

In order to support a global decentralized organization that was close to the bank's constituency, and deliver, as a Harvard case study (Enabling Business Strategy With I.T. at the World Bank, Dec. 22, 2003) noted, "more comprehensive and integrated (and therefore more effective) development solutions by increasing collaboration, consultation and knowledge sharing both within the organization and with partners and shareholders at all points in the process," the bank had to completely rebuild an out-of-date I.T. structure and construct a far-flung global network from the ground up.

To carry out this mission, Wolfensohn, in 1997, appointed the bank's first-ever chief information officer, Sri Lankan native Mohamed Muhsin, who had worked as the director of the bank's information-technology services but came from a largely business background. Before joining the bank, he had worked in Zambia, where he served as finance director for the state-owned mining and industrial corporation and eventually became an adviser to president Kenneth Kaunda. In 1988, he joined the World Bank as a country officer for the Eastern Africa region. Wolfensohn made Muhsin vice president of the Information Solutions Group and told him to revamp the bank's I.T. infrastructure.

Though Muhsin, through his attorney, declined to be interviewed for this story, in a September 1997 bank newsletter, he described ISG as "the newly consolidated information management organization headed by the CIO [himself]." The information systems units of six different bank groups, Muhsin said, "have been brought together to support the [bank's] business strategies… We are integrating our work around four Strategic Partnership Programs." These were:

• Support for decentralization and field office operations

• Support for knowledge sharing and knowledgemanagement

• Comprehensive renewal of bank information systems

• Implementation of cost effectiveness review recommendations

In a subsequent interview with Asia Pacific Development Technology, he described his mission as follows: "We position ourselves at a major intersection of the network economy where we help to connect global learning opportunities with investment assistance to governments. Put another way, it's about having two currencies: the currency of money and the currency of knowledge. We believe our work in bringing knowledge and information to developing countries is as important as the capital and investments that we provide as an engine for development."

The bank appointed a program director for knowledge management, Stephen Denning, who reported to Muhsin; created a $55 million budget for knowledge management for fiscal 1998, 3% of the bank's entire administrative budget; brought in Arthur Andersen to prepare a report as to how this initiative should be managed; and by March 1997 had a sign-off on the project from Wolfensohn and the bank's board of directors. All systems were "go," on paper at least.

"My goal is to make the World Bank the first port of call when people need knowledge about development," Wolfensohn said at the 1997 annual meeting. "By the year 2000, we will have in place a global communications link, videoconferencing and interactive classrooms, affording our clients all around the world full access to our information bases—the end of geography as we at the bank have known it."

Next Page: Disconnected Systems

This article was originally published on 2007-08-05
Associate Editor

Brian joined Baseline in March 2006. In addition to previous stints at Inter@ctive Week and The Net Economy, he's written for The News-Press in Fort Myers, Fla., as well as The Sunday Tribune in Dublin, Ireland. Brian has a B.A. from Bucknell University and a master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

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