Disconnected SystemsBy Brian P. Watson 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.
When Muhsin took over as the bank's CIO, he discovered a bewildering patchwork of disparate and disconnected I.T. systems throughout the organization. An inventory showed 65 different legacy systems, 100 databases and almost 90 business processes. Each field office seemed to have its own individual approach to I.T.
Scattered all over the world, these offices had no way of communicating or collaborating with each other, or for that matter with headquarters in Washington electronically. Mission reports from the field offices had to be couriered to Washington, approved at the home office and mailed back—a process that often took weeks.
In a report dated April 10, 2001, on the bank's information technology and knowledge management, Yale M. Braunstein, a professor at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, noted that the bank had a multitude of different databases and disconnected repositories, and multiple I.T. systems; had poor documentation and control; and produced inconsistent information that created delays in preparing reports, auditing activities and managing at all levels.
Costs were out of control and were in the hands of chief administrative officers. Moreover, as Muhsin told researchers from the Harvard Business School (Information at the World Bank: In Search of a Technology Solution, Sept. 17, 1997), there was a lack of a "common goal, lack of a common strategy, lack of a common vision as to how all this can come together to make the Bank in its totality work together."
Just how serious the disconnect Muhsin was inheriting between I.T. and the bank's business became evident in 1995, when according to the Harvard Business School case history, the staff in the president's office extracted data from the financial database (FDB) in preparing the bank's annual report. Problem was, the FDB wasn't the master data source. The staff was unaware that the FDB was refreshed from the cost accounting system, which drew its numbers from various sectors within the organization. At the time the annual report was produced, the final numbers from the cost accounting system had not been transferred to the FDB. As a result, the numbers in the report were incorrect.
The knowledge-sharing initiative wasn't exactly taking off with a bang, either. "They had 10 action items for establishing a knowledge-management program," Braunstein told Baseline. "They didn't prioritize and determine what were the most important drivers of change."
The major focus of knowledge management, or knowledge sharing, of course, is to identify and gather content from documents, reports and other sources, and to be able to access that knowledge to establish best practices, address a specific problem and grasp how others have dealt with particular issues. In the late 1990s, it was a buzzword technology that was still seeking traction. Users often weren't quite sure what it meant or how to make use of it, especially since some of the key content search and relationship tools such as data mining and business intelligence software were still in their formative stages.
As the knowledge-management program director, Denning's job was to educate bank officials as to the value of knowledge management. His message, he says, was an extension of Wolfensohn's vision. "Why don't we share our knowledge?" he would ask. "We need to at least make that as important as lending."
To support this argument, Denning says he drew on proposals that had come in from Zambia, where in June 1995 a health worker in a remote area logged on to the Web site of the Centers for Disease Control, which works with the bank, and got an answer on how to treat malaria. "If a remote worker can do that, think of what we can do if we made all our resources available," Denning says he told his colleagues.
Denning and his group often got favorable responses when they talked to country directors. In one instance, a country director in Africa wanted information on the feasibility of using solar power in low-income countries. The bank had an abundance of information on this topic but lacked the means of sharing it electronically. Many in the organization, though, weren't interested in what Denning had to say. "They didn't know what I was talking about," he says. "There were a lot of obstacles because this was a very conservative, change-resistant organization."
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