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Fighting Global Poverty with Information Systems
The World Bank is not a typical bank, but two financial institutions owned by 185 member countries. The International Bank for Reconstitution and Development (IBRD) is the part of the bank that focuses on middle-income and creditworthy poor countries, and the International Development Association (IDA) focuses on the poorest countries. Together, these institutions provide “low-interest loans and interest-free credit and grants to developing countries for education, health, infrastructure, communications, and many other purposes,” according to the World Bank Web site. The bank has about 10,000 employees worldwide, with loans of about $20 billion annually.
In recent years, the World Bank has suffered from front page scandals regarding suspected improprieties with its senior-level officials. In 2007, World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz was pressured to resign, and in 2005, vice president and CIO Mohammed Muhsen retired under a cloud of suspicion. However, while the press and the world were focused on corruption in the World Bank, some very positive developments were taking place with World Bank infrastructure and information systems that went relatively unnoticed.
The World Bank has traditionally been run as a top-down hierarchy, which is a traditional organizational structure. In recent years, through the use of global information systems, the World Bank has transformed into a “decentralized, front-line, matrix organization,” observes a recent article in Baseline magazine. Rather than controlling information systems from the top, the World Bank has been investing to empower its clients with the information systems they need locally to participate in the global economy.
The effort to distribute economic knowledge to World Bank customers began in the mid-1990s with then-president James Wolfensohn. In a 1996 speech to the Bank Board of Governors, Wolfensohn said, “The revolution in information technology increases the potential value of [the bank’s development] efforts by vastly extending their reach. We need to invest in systems that will enhance our ability to gather information and experience and share it with our clients.” Ex-World Bank CIO, Mohammed Muhsen, embraced that mandate to revamp the World Bank’s information infrastructure and communications networks to create a global knowledge-sharing network, which has been highly praised in the industry.
Wolfensohn and Muhsen were among the first to formalize what is now referred to as a knowledge management information system. Muhsen defined his mission as follows: “We position ourselves at a major intersection of the network economy where we help to connect global learning opportunities with investment assistance to governments. Put another way, it’s about having two currencies: the currency of money and the currency of knowledge. We believe our work in bringing knowledge and information to developing countries is as important as the capital and investments that we provide as an engine for development.”
Muhsen’s project cost the World Bank hundreds of millions of dollars over several years. It included many information system packages including an SAP ERP system; an Oracle Record Integrated Information System; a multilingual, natural-language system from Teregram for document management; a custom-designed, Web-based dashboard interface; Lotus Notes for e-mail, online collaboration, and content storage; and IBM WebSphere. While these systems cost the World Bank nearly $100 million, the bulk of its investment went to building its own global, high-speed network infrastructure complete with regional satellites and miles of fiber optics to provide network connectivity to remote and poor regions of the world.
1. Why do you think Muhsen believes that the knowledge provided to its customers by the World Bank’s information system is equal in value to the money loaned? Do you believe this to be true? Why?
2. What unique challenges does the World Bank face when designing an organization-wide information system?
1. Once the network infrastructure is created that connects the World Bank to its customers, what types of services might it support?
2. Mohammed Muhsen invested 17 years of his life in developing the World Bank’s international knowledge network, but retired under a “cloud of suspicion” over investments he allegedly made in an information system company that was contracted by the World Bank. What lessons can be learned from the unfortunate circumstances of Muhsen’s retirement?