World Bank: Behind the I.T. Transformation

Amidst the World Bank’s recent management brouhaha, a more significant event has gone overlooked—the bank’s dramatic transformation from a hierarchical source of low-interest loans to a decentralized organization that uses knowledge-sharing technologies to fight poverty and disease in developing nations. The enabler of this transformation: the bank’s overhaul of its antiquated I.T. infrastructure and construction of a truly global network.

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Using I.T. to Fight Poverty

Last month, Robert B. Zoellick became the 11th president of the World Bank. A few days before he walked into the bank’s Washington, D.C., headquarters, he issued a short statement: “The Bank’s Board, staff, and many stakeholders know we face large challenges,” he said. “The world has changed enormously since the creation of the Bank some 60 years ago. This accomplished institution of development, reconstruction, and finance not only needs to adapt: It must lead the way to achieving sustainable globalization, founded upon inclusive growth, opportunity, and respect for personal dignity.”

It’s clear Zoellick knows what he’s getting into.

The World Bank has had more than its share of turmoil, particularly in its senior management ranks. In addition to the June 30 resignation of Zoellick’s predecessor, the controversial Paul D. Wolfowitz, the bank’s former vice president and CIO Mohamed Muhsin, who retired in November 2005, has come under a cloud of suspicion.

But amidst all the recent management brouhaha, a more significant event at the World Bank has been largely overlooked. This is the dramatic transformation from what was a top-down, hierarchical Washington, D.C.-based source of low-interest developmental loans and grants to emerging countries, to a decentralized, front-line, matrix organization that’s using information and communications technologies to fight poverty, AIDS/HIV and other diseases, and environmental degradation. At the core of the bank’s strategy has been its hugely ambitious effort to empower its clients—many of then technically disenfranchised—with the tools and knowledge-sharing capabilities they need to improve their lives and bring them into the mainstream of the world economy.

It hasn’t been easy. In order to create a working knowledge management system, the bank’s information infrastructure and communications network had to be completely overhauled.

Muhsin, the World Bank’s first CIO, led the revamping of the bank’s antiquated I.T. infrastructure into what is now the foundation of the bank’s knowledge-sharing network, which has been highly praised by noted I.T. management luminaries such as Tom Davenport and F. Warren McFarlan.

After 17 years, Muhsin retired from the bank in November 2005. But then two months later, Wolfowitz, who had just become World Bank president, told The Washington Post that while most bank staffers were honest, “I’m aware of a particularly serious set of allegations involving a senior bank official.”

At the time Wolfowitz, the former deputy defense secretary and one of the principal proponents of the war in Iraq, charged that “staffers had become too comfortable” with the anti-corruption unit, which he claimed had been run with “very puzzling negligence” in the past. That was when he dropped a bombshell, noting that one of the bank’s senior officials was in the Department of Institutional Integrity’s crosshairs.

Wolfowitz wouldn’t name the individual, as the investigation was ongoing. Soon after, however, the Post said it obtained internal bank documents that indicated the official in question was none other than Muhsin, the head of the bank’s Information Solutions Group (ISG) and CIO.

According to The Washington Post and U.S. News & World Report, Muhsin was being investigated for having been given stock in one of the bank’s key I.T. contractors, which U.S. News named as outsourcer Satyam Computers. Satyam didn’t respond to e-mails and calls regarding the matter.

While Muhsin wouldn’t comment on the matter, his lawyer, Joshua Hochberg, told Baseline that the retirement had been planned. “I think it’s unfair and highly distasteful that unfounded rumors have circulated at the end of [Muhsin’s] 17 years of dedicated service during which his integrity was never questioned,” Hochberg said. He added that Muhsin expects “full exoneration.”

Ironically, Wolfowitz resigned his post, effective June 30, after an internal panel tasked with investigating the lucrative pay and promotion package Wolfowitz arranged in 2005 for his partner, Shaha Riza, found him guilty of breaking bank rules. Wolfowitz was replaced by Zoellick, former deputy U.S. secretary of state, while Muhsin was succeeded as CIO by Guy-Pierre De Poerck, previously CIO of corporate business informatics at the International Finance Corp. (IFC), a bank affiliate.

Next page: Sharing Knowledge