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Extreme IT: Bringing It Home

Technology helps fight poverty, rebuild war-torn nations and respond to disasters. How do IT projects succeed under such extreme conditions, and what can we learn from them?

Federal agencies of every stripe today are
expected to have sophisticated information
gathering, security, communications and
accountability practices. They must also be
prepared to take action in the worst-case,
most unimaginable scenarios. The pressure is
definitely on for all federal agencies, from the
General Services Administration to the Department of
Energy to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

But for IT employees at agencies that
work in developing nations, war zones,
disaster areas, and similar sensitive and
dangerous situations, such pressure has
always been a given. "Unimaginable" isn't
in their vocabulary. Working under
extreme conditions, where nothing—not
electricity, not basic supplies and not even
safety—is taken for granted, has brought
clarity to their missions and helped them
block out the distractions common in
more typical projects. Their advice is as
useful for agency leaders in Washington
offices as it is for IT leaders in the private
sector.

"People take it for granted that they're
going to pick up their telephones, pagers
and faxes and they're going to work," says
Kenneth Denmark, a telecommunications
specialist with the Texas National Guard.
When they don't, he says, "business comes
to a screaming halt."

On September 11, for instance, when
landline and mobile telephones stopped
working, businesses were stranded at the
very time that communication was most
critical. The Texas National Guard went
into 24-hour mode, building emergency
phone lines at bases so that soldiers could
be called for duty around the clock.

"I didn't leave my office for three or
four days," Denmark says. "It's a job that
had to be done."

For regular communications, the
Guard relies on local phone companies.
For emergencies it has its own integrated
telecommunications system to handle
wired and wireless phones and computers.
So if a hurricane were to hit Texas, all the
armories could forward communications
to the Guard's system, and could establish
a command post in a matter of hours,
Denmark explains.

National Guard soldiers have also been
called for active duty overseas, some to
provide IT support for soldiers in places
like Bosnia and even Iraq.

"We're more aware," he says of the
Guard's post-September 11 operations.
"We are making our systems more robust;
we're making them more secure."

Imagining the Unimaginable

Be prepared for the worst. It's advice that
can apply equally to the most extreme IT
projects or the most mundane, says Jeff
Cochrane, an IT specialist at the U.S.
Agency for International Development
(U.S. AID), which assists nations struggling
with disaster, poverty and democratic
reforms.

"Our disaster people expect nothing
when they go to foreign places," says
Cochrane. "They're ready to jump out of
helicopters with solar-powered equipment
strapped to their backs."

That may seem irrelevant to U.S. tech
staffs, but consider the limitations posed to
government workers in New York during
last summer's blackout. In floods, fires and
earthquakes, technology helps rescue crews
locate survivors and communicate with the
victims' families. It helps connect remote
Third World villages to the rest of the world.
Technology helps the military distribute
needed resources in post-war nations.

As a country that, perhaps more than
any other in history, runs on information,
the United States makes tremendous use
of advanced technology in its efforts
around the world. It's using IT in Iraq to
help the military understand the social,
military and logistical situation there, says
U.S. Army Colonel Robert W. Milford,
deputy director of global operations for
the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

A Tool for Democracy

IT is also used to keep inventories of
both military and national infrastructure
and to efficiently distribute limited
water, food and fuel throughout Iraq,
Milford says. The databases, project
management and other technology tools
that the United States leaves behind will
help the Iraqis in their continued
evolution as a democracy, he says.

In Peru, where U.S. AID's Cochrane has
been working for the past year, many
remote health clinics have only a pay
phone in the center of the village connect
them to the outside world. If a
patient there needs to see a
specialist, he must brave what can
be a daylong jolting bus ride to the
hospital in Lima.

However, if those same clinics
had Internet access, doctors could
e-mail photos, X-rays or charts to
medical specialists, and collaborate
to treat the patient locally. "They
could solve the problem, [and]
perhaps save a life," Cochrane says.

Cultural Issues

Cochrane is working with the
health service, government and
telecommunications companies in
Peru to devise a telecom solution.
One option is installing a wireless
metropolitan area network with
high-speed Internet access that would
enable voice over Internet Protocol phone
calls, Web browsing and e-mail. But he's
still brainstorming with all involved to
determine their needs and limitations.

Technology is usually the easy part,
Cochrane says. "In the middle of the
Sahara desert, you can have Internet
access," he says. The hard part is finding
technology that meets the needs and the
financial means of the people who need it.

Samia Melhem, a global IT specialist
with the World Bank, deplores the gap
between what technology offers and what
it does today. Humanitarian missions—any
government agency—could improve use
of technology to provide universal access
to project information, Melhem says.

As it is now, she says, projects that serve
poor, rural populations have few resources
of any kind to draw upon, yet each new
project devotes much time to developing
plans to distribute food, water, seeds or
vaccines. "Everybody's reinventing the
wheel," she protests.

But the biggest technology challenge in
worldwide development work today, says
Melhem, is building capacity. That can
include teaching people who have no tech
experience to operate complex systems
and maintain those systems when the
project concludes, or ridding a culture of
corruption that can quickly undo the good
an agency has done. "We try to do in three
years what it took the United States 20
years to do," she says.

Cultural issues must also be considered
in IT initiatives. Melhem recommends
that project teams serve as role models for
new users. When working in a nation that
has traditionally excluded women from
the workplace or from leadership roles,
she tries to tap female project managers
and recruit women to work with the team.
The strategy can be particularly effective
in a field as male-dominated as IT.

"Technology is very important, but
when you get down to the nitty-gritty,
technology is usually not the constraint,"
U.S. AID's Cochrane points out. "The real
problem is almost always human."

His advice on all IT projects is to begin
by getting top-level support. At the start of
the Internet revolution, for instance,
Cochrane brought U.S. AID leaders to
cyber cafés so they could surf the Web and
experience its possibilities firsthand.

User support is equally critical, says
Caroline Price, the technology lead for
BearingPoint Inc.'s Afghanistan economic
development contracts through The World
Bank and U.S. AID. (See sidebar on pages
28-29.) Successes in Afghanistan are a result
of the overwhelming enthusiasm of the
Afghan government workers, Price says.

"All politics is local," she says. "And no
matter how big your project is and how
great your strategy is, it all comes down to
the change management. If people want it
to work, they can overcome any obstacles."

Melhem also recommends finding
ideal project liaison staffers who can break
down communications barriers, whether
cultural, linguistic or psychological.

"We need to show we really care
about what we're creating for them," she
says of users. "I think sincerity makes a
difference."

THE BOTTOM LINE

Whether setting up shop in the middle of a jungle, on a battlefield, in an
earthquake zone or in a Los Angeles high-rise, the following principles can
help any IT project, say tech specialists who work in some of the world's most
extreme conditions.

• Foster enthusiasm. From the highest to the lowest levels of the
organization, too often people are forced to move from paper to
technology without understanding why. Show users how technology
will help them do their jobs better and faster. Offer training, incentives
and recognition to make the transition easier.

• Exercise patience. Too often tech managers devote years to designing and
building systems but only a few weeks or months to training. That ratio
should be reversed, particularly in foreign development projects where
people have never used a computer before. "We cannot expect to go in and
make miracles," says Samia Melhem, an IT specialist with The World Bank.

• Transition wisely. Moving to new systems requires good planning as
users need to continue working during the systems change. A smooth
transition can also boost user acceptance and adoption.

• Be pragmatic. Choose practical technology that can be learned and
sustained, as opposed to the latest and greatest toys.

• Don't get sidetracked. Find out what users need and provide a solution
that they can understand to meet those needs. Keep it simple.

• Excel in flexibility. No project or plan goes 100 percent according to
expectations; flexibility is key to achieving goals. "That's the key to
everything now," says Kenneth Denmark, a telecommunications specialist
with the Texas National Guard.

HEAT, DUST AND IT

After landing at Khwaja Rawash Airport
in Kabul, Afghanistan, in June, Caroline
Price got her first indication of the
challenges that lay before her. A dusty
luggage conveyor belt lay collapsed in the
corner of the airport, leaving passengers
to sort through piles of bags to find their
belongings.

Price is the technology lead for
consulting firm BearingPoint's contracts
through The World Bank and the U.S.
Agency for International Development
(U.S. AID) to promote economic
development in Afghanistan. She wasn't
expecting a technology mecca in
Afghanistan, but she was taken aback
by the virtual absence of technology.

"I had no idea what to expect when
I was going," she says. "But I quickly
came to understand the huge
catch-up that had to take place from
every technological aspect, physical
and human."

Afghanistan had no real hardware or
software markets. No keyboards with
the local language, Dari, were available.
There were no compatible software tools
and no operating systems with the local
calendar, Hijra, Price says.

Within months, Afghan government
workers, many of whom had never before
touched a computer, were running a
complete financial information
management system. All Central Bank's
branches were connected via satellite, and
the Afghan government approved its first-ever balanced budget.

Danger Hovers

Most U.S. IT managers would find it hard
to imagine the day-to-day hurdles
impeding progress of IT projects in post-war environments, in the aftermath of
disasters and in developing nations.
Managers there are less concerned with
budget shortfalls and missed deadlines
and worry instead about the lives of
their workers. Limited resources in their
world means no electricity or phone
lines. Keeping a server up and running is
a big deal. In some situations, such as
BearingPoint's economic development
project in Iraq, IT leaders are working in
a physically hostile environment.

"When you're dealing with a people, a
society, that calls its leaders warlords, I
have a concern," says Doug Lynn, vice
president at META Group's Executive
Directions, which consults CIOs around
the world. "When there's political unrest
between different factions, it can ruin
even the best laid plans."

Starting from Scratch

Price's colleagues viewed the lack of
technology in Afghanistan as a chance to
build an infrastructure from scratch,
without the headaches of integrating new
technology with outdated legacy systems
or pre-existing technology silos.

"You don't have that ability very often,"
says Price. "It has enormous opportunities,
but it also has enormous challenges."

Most of the international development
projects Price has worked on—including
recently in Kosovo—have an infrastructure
damaged by war. In Afghanistan, it never
got started.

A few core principles have always
guided her work, Price says. "You have to
be able to do it in bite-sized pieces, and
your approach has to be flexible, as no
two countries are the same."

Installation of a financial information
management system in the Afghan
Ministry of Finance to track revenues and
expenses, a $3.95 million World Bank
contract that started in August 2002, was
the first BearingPoint Afghanistan project.
The consulting team chose a system
designed for the public sector by Ottawa-based FreeBalance. The team had used
the system in Kosovo and knew it was a
simple, but scalable, product that didn't
need much preconfiguration, says Price.

The system was running within two
months, recording source and donor
funds and tracking how monies were
spent. It has built a tremendous amount
of transparency and accountability into
the nation's finances, says Mike
Vlaisavljevich, BearingPoint's managing
director for the project. "It was totally
manual before," he explains. "There really
was no automated capability at all. It was
time-consuming and error-prone."

The most important aspect of the
project, according to Price, has been
building capacity within the Ministry so that
workers can manage the system after the
BearingPoint team leaves. The Afghan
government workers and Afghan
expatriate team members (who
returned to Afghanistan from
developed countries where they had
honed their business and technology skills)
rose to the challenge. "They took to it
like ducks to water," Price says.

The Ministry's financial system has
made big changes in the way the
government works, but it's only one part
of a much larger mission to promote
economic development in Afghanistan.

Fernando Ramos, a BearingPoint
managing director, has been leading a
related project to promote economic
development in Afghanistan by reforming
fiscal, trade and commercial law policies.

One of its first accomplishments was
creating a formal budget for fiscal 2003.
The team also developed a payment
system for transferring funds between
banks in the country and abroad. When
Ramos' team arrived, some of the six
existing banks—all government owned—
were operating; others were insolvent.

"There were no banking options,"
Ramos says. Since June, all Central Bank
branches throughout the country have
been linked via satellite to headquarters in
Kabul. That lets Afghans living abroad
transfer money to relatives, who then
spend more in local markets.

"As those funds start flowing in,
it's going to have a big effect on the
economy," Ramos predicts.

It Makes the World Go Round

The team also helped draft new
banking laws to help attract foreign
banks. By the start of 2004, five new
banks had been given licenses, two had
opened for business and a third plans to
open in March 2004. Two more banks are
applying for licenses, and others are
starting to line up, according to Ramos.

The $39.9 million U.S. AID project,
which has a three-year timeline, is
especially complex because of the
interdependency of its components, says
Ramos. You can't build the Central Bank
without a payment system. But without
operational telephones, you can't connect
the banks so they can make payments.

"You have to look at the building
blocks, starting with the foundation, and
go step by step," says Ramos. "If you try
to do too many things at once, you'll
stretch yourself too thin."

But it often doesn't take long before
the pieces start falling into place, Price
says. When she returned to Afghanistan in
October, she saw changes all around her.
There was even a new luggage conveyor
belt up and running, connected to a
central power supply.

Dec 31 2009

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