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March - 2003 - issue > Technology
The CIO For Global Issues
Pradeep Shankar
Thursday, February 27, 2003
MOHAMED MUHSIN, VICE PRESIDENT AND the Chief Information Officer (CIO) of the World Bank, has the privilege of demonstrating how a decentralized institution can build a centralized information system to teach and encourage the sharing of information.

“When we wanted to offshore to India during a major systems implementation, some of our partners discouraged us, saying that they could not take the risk. However, being a development institution, we said, “If economic development and working with developing countries are risks not worth taking, then we would be out of business!” exclaims Muhsin.

As the CIO of a global bank, Muhsin frames IT strategies in keeping with the bank’s mission to reduce poverty in the world. He oversees the bank’s information and technology management, including global telecommunications, videoconferencing, information management, and enterprise business systems. His team is comprised of 450 professionals and a number of contractors, consultants, and partners.

When Jim Wolfensohn became the President of the World Bank in 1995, he envisioned the World Bank as an effective knowledge bank. To achieve this, Wolfensohn knew that technology, in particular information technology, should become a key enabler in the business strategy of the bank. He recognized the need for a CIO to manage the bank’s IT strategy and, hence in 1996, he roped in Muhsin who was the director of the Bank’s information technology services. Muhsin had implemented a wide range of information management initiatives to align services with the needs of bank operations around the world.

Several organizational efforts taken by the bank in the 1980s led to a decentralized system, which hindered the access to, and sharing of, information within the bank. By the early 90’s the organization’s values had shifted, calling for greater collaboration among all bank sectors. The creation and implementation of a standardized, user-friendly information technology was needed.

To achieve his vision, Muhsin decided to get rid of the existing legacy systems across different locations of the bank. In undertaking the renewal of the bank’s knowledge and information system, the bank centralized over 10 organizations and built a high-powered team. Muhsin and his team undertook a major standardization of computing infrastructure and built an extensive high-speed global network for data, voice, and video with outreach to over 120 locations. Through this multi-point outreach, the bank currently conducts an average of 50 two-way, video conferences a day, reaching about 100 sites. The bank has also invested in developing more than a dozen distance learning centers around the world.

One of the bank’s major undertakings after Muhsin stepped in as CIO was the implementation of ERP systems (PeopleSoft and SAP suites) that replaced the 65 disparate systems and 125 databases. The entire ERP system went live at 100 sites on a single day! Muhsin is excited about this “big bang.” “It has been four years since the implementation was completed and all seems well,” says Muhsin.

“Having 65 systems and several databases was a nightmare,” says Muhsin, “The users did not see the extraordinary complexity behind this. When we renewed the systems, we had accurate data and useful information available. Without a global network and real-time systems like SAP and Peoplesoft, there would have been no way that we could have managed this 24/7 operation. Today, it is so pervasive that it is as if everything is done out of Washington.”

The renewal of systems at the World Bank has brought intangible benefits and enhanced productivity. Today, the bank can perform transactions in real-time. Earlier, the bank used to take almost a month to close its books, since its country offices were not networked and had to send the information on diskettes. Today, the bank is able to close it books in a few days.

With the global network in place, the bank is now able to offshore its business processes to other locations. Several different functions such as HR processes, accounts, statement of expenses, and procurement can all be done in a real time.

Building the network wasn’t Muhsin’s endgame. He had to get people to use the network. His challenge was to generate support and to persuade employees accept to the new systems. “This was not about systems alone. It was about business process change. Change management was essential to deriving the value out of what we had done. Today, it is a matter of acceptance. We have seen benefits growing from efficiency to effectiveness, and now, the transformation of the bank.”

CIOs have to take several risk factors into consideration upfront. “During the system renewal we had a budget over-run, which created a lot of anxiety among the senior management of the bank. The senior vice president of IBM, who was our global implementation partner, said to our President, ‘Don’t think this happens in most systems implementations,’” recalls Mushin. In the case of the World Bank, the order of magnitude was very small, so there was no looking back.

A key program that leverages the robust infrastructure that Muhsin has built is the bank’s Knowledge Management initiative. “Once the reliable global network, enterprise software and the content management systems were in place, we were confronted with managing the unstructured data. To become an effective organization, providing real-time useful information in a structured and personalized manner, is important.” The Knowledge Management initiative is all set to explore ways to use the unstructured data and thereby enable knowledge and information sharing.

A CPA by profession, Muhsin believes that it is not important for a CIO to be a technology person. But, it is very important for him to have business acumen largely to do strategic management. In early years, Muhsin worked as a Business manager in a private sector and later worked for ten years as financial director of Zambia’s industrial and mining conglomerate. He was also an advisor on state enterprise reform in the office of the then-president of Zambia, Kenneth Kaunda. He later joined the World Bank and was the Chief Administrator of the Africa Regional Vice Presidency.

With such rich experience, Muhsin talks about the essence of business management. In any business, one has to look at issues from the perspective of risk management. It is important to evaluate the risks that a business can face in areas such as processes, systems and people. To do this, one needs to do risk mitigation and then decide what needs to be done.”

“The key challenge for any CIO,” he says, “is to get the business and the IT team to talk about the need for business process changes. All automation have to be efficient and provide value. And often, the businesses do not understand the power of IT. A successful CIO will communicate in simple terms how technology can promote business.”

The CIO who today works with various Indian partners such as Satyam Computer Sevices for application development, says, “Indian IT service companies are very professional. But it would be a danger to rest on their laurels. When the market bounces back, as it will shortly, there will be demand for a different type of service, not the type of services that existed prior to the bubble bursting. There will be appetite in the marketplace for services that bring in productivity improvements and address issues related to risk management. It is a big challenge for Indian companies to provide such a service.”

Expanding on the WorldBank role in poverty management, Muhsin summarizes, “Information Technology is not a luxury. Globalization is not optional; and hence IT is not optional. Leveraging IT for poverty alleviation gives us the opportunity to do well and do good.”

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