Using Tech to Reduce Poverty

The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) exists to improve people’s lives throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. Since its foundation in 1959, the bank has been working with countries throughout the region to help them address their economic and social development challenges and provide them with solutions that are tailored for their own unique situations. In partnership with 26 borrowing member countries, the bank works to reduce poverty and inequality by not only providing financial resources to bring to life sustainable, practical and in some cases innovative solutions, but also conducting cutting-edge research across a wide range of development issues as well as providing policy advice.

Nuria Simo has been with the IDB for nearly two years, having joined the company after many experiences around the world in private industry. She was excited about the opportunity, but was curious if the pace of the organization would match that of AirBus and Cargill (two of the major companies she had worked with previously). Simo discusses with CIO Insight contributor Peter High how tech can improve lives, why adding connection points between IT and the business makes sense and what the future holds for CIOs.

CIO Insight: How large is your IT department, and what is within your purview as CIO?

Simo: Our IT department is almost 100 staff strong, plus an ecosystem of partners and contractors that complements the talents of our team. Together we work towards meeting the mission of the bank by providing infrastructure and business support to colleagues in 29 countries around the world.

Beyond the day-to-day services we provide to ensure our IT infrastructure is running smoothly to meet the needs of our staff, our team is charged with looking for new and innovative ways to facilitate the work of development. In these times, being an enabler of innovation and digitalization goes far beyond the IT department, so we have the responsibility to reach out outside our teams to find better solutions.

My job as CIO includes ensuring we recruit, retain and develop professionals who are not only specialists in their field, but who want to apply their skills to contribute to improving the quality of life of people in the region, but I’m also co-responsible for ensuring compliance with our institutional strategy, promote teamwork with other IDB leaders and employees, and support the management of organizational change.

CIO Insight: You have led a digital transformation at the bank. Can you describe what this has entailed and some of the value derived so far?

Simo: The IDB intends to become a digital leader in the development sector by evolving the way we think about the use technology and changing the way we work. We see digital innovation as a critical success factor to help Latin America and the Caribbean move forward in enhancing the quality of life of its citizens. But, we need to start inside the organization first.

Our digital transformation has included a bank-wide understanding of the importance and value that digitalization and the use of technology, such as open data or business intelligence, can have in identifying and shaping development opportunities.

The IDB has created digital platforms that allow increased collaboration inside and outside the bank, including Connect Americas, the first social network for businesses in Latin America and the Caribbean dedicated to promoting international trade and investment; and our Convergence platform, which was launched in 2014, and today allows us to engage more efficiently with the governments we work with by integrating all operational processes into a single platform.

Our digital transformation has just begun, and I’m confident that it will inject more innovation and efficiency in the work we do.

CIO Insight: You spend a lot of time in the field, having visited ten countries in which the bank does business in 2015 alone. When you make trips like that, how do you spend your time, and how do you think about taking what you learn and translating that into possible solutions that IT can deliver?

Simo: Visiting the development projects that the IDB supports in the region is one of my favorite parts of the job. When I travel, I spend about 80% of my time in the field with my colleagues, meeting with partners and beneficiaries. For me, beyond a responsibility which I take seriously, it’s a privilege to have the opportunity to meet with the citizens who benefit from the work that we help bring to life. I’m reminded of the positive impact we have on people’s lives, on communities, cities and countries as a whole.

It’s vitally important that we understand the changing realities of the places we operate in so we adjust our IT tools and services accordingly along the way to meet people’s needs.

That’s why the rest of the time in the region, I spend it listening to my team and colleagues. They are the ones on the ground who can give me a reality-check on whether our IT solutions are making an impact or not, so we can adjust and adapt.

CIO Insight: You have led an IT reorg. Why did you do so, and what has that entailed?

Simo: When I came to the IDB, I noticed that the IT department was organized around technology, rather than around the business. This is something I’d seen in other organizations. There weren’t enough connection points between IT and the other departments, preventing the necessary continuous dialogue to generate success.

Today, we have built a model of demand and supply, where we offer technology, infrastructure and coding solutions based on the needs that departments have to improve their interaction with clients, and long term results. We’ve created a structure where the departments can express their needs to someone in IT who understands their business, and who talks in a less-technical language, yet, still has the ability to use agile methodology to be more efficient and cost-effective in the solutions we offer.

CIO Insight: You also have started an Innovation Group aligned to the different sectors of the bank. I realize it is in its infancy, but what is its charter, and do you have a read on some of the innovations that will be produced?

Simo: We have big plans for the Innovation Group as its objective is to promote digital innovation at all levels of the organization by creating an environment where we can scan for opportunities that would add value to the region, prototype and test solutions and then bring them to scale.

It’s too early to say what kind of innovations will occur as a result of this project. First, we need to get the talent, processes, partners and governance to drive innovation successfully and in a sustainable way.

CIO Insight: You had worked in the private sector over your entire career in places like your native Spain, in the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, and the US. Why did you elect to change to a development organization, and were there biases you had coming into this organization that led to pleasant surprises?

Simo: Throughout my career I’ve looked for ways to give back, to use my experience in IT to help others, even doing pro-bono work and volunteering. When the opportunity at the IDB came up, I was thrilled. Here’s an organization whose mission it is to work with partners to positively impact peoples’ quality of life. I have to confess, that I did wonder whether I would fit into the culture of the IDB, and whether I was fully grasping what it would be like to be an international civil servant. I had worked with global teams with operations in Latin America, but had never worked in an organization that is basically the region itself. Some people said I was going to find many roadblocks in terms of getting things done, but that never happened. In the end, everything has worked out. I’m in a culture that values what I, and my team, bring to the table, and it’s incredible to do work that I love for an organization whose mission is aligned with my values.

CIO Insight: What are technology trends that particularly excite you as you look, say, three or five years into the future?

Simo: I am excited about the breakneck speed of technological advancements and innovations. Honestly, I believe machine learning has enormous potential for enhancing the speed effectiveness of sustainable development in Latin America and the Caribbean. I also see the impact that the Internet of things can have on everything we do; however, if we do not prepare, the results may not be as good as they could be.

What’s really important is to understand that the future and innovation is not just about technology and digitalization. It is about improving the way we work, changing our own behaviors and attitudes, and promoting collaboration between people. If we can make these things happen, the future will be full of good ideas and innovative solutions that will really transform the lives of many people.

Peter High is President ofMetis Strategy, author ofImplementing World Class IT Strategy, moderator of the Forum on World Class IT podcast series, and a keynote speaker. Follow him on Twitter @PeterAHigh.

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