by Michael Goldberg

Lessons from Unicef’s CIO

Feb 15, 20034 mins
IT Leadership

Early in his tenure as CIO of the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), Andre Spatz met some resistance to his arguments for increased IT spending. After all, why would anyone buy new software when they could help more children who needed medicine and books?

Thanks to Spatz, managers at the humanitarian relief agency now see IT as improving both programs and fund-raising efforts. And that makes him a CIO worth listening to.

From his office with a view of U.N. headquarters, Spatz sounds appropriately diplomatic. “At Unicef, it was possible to energize people and energize them around a vision, to execute that vision instead of debating what our vision would be,” he says.

When Spatz, 48, joined Unicef in 1997, the New York City-based United Nations as a whole was under pressure to institute better management controls. Spatz’s mandate: create a centralized IT function and replace legacy systems; oversee the implementation of an SAP R/3 ERP system to manage corporate financials and other functions; establish a communications infrastructure (including e-mail and voice over IP) to support 6,000 employees, including field workers in 240 sites in 162 countries and territories, fund-raisers in Tokyo and Brussels, Belgium, and a supply operation in Copenhagen, Denmark; and do it all for as little money as possible.

In meeting those goals, Spatz moved IT from afterthought to center stage?a significant shift. Agency executives can now track spending on specific programs around the world in a uniform way in close to real-time, says CFO Ellen Yaffe. That process used to take months. Field workers in Africa and Asia can communicate with regional managers. Most important, the new business processes (including a project portfolio management approach) and the IT systems that support them have changed the culture at Unicef.

“Andre brought to us in pictures what it really took to have global connectivity, to have the right infrastructure, the right staffing. We were moving into an era where we were becoming totally dependent on technology, and we didn’t understand what implications that would have,” Yaffe says.

The changes, however, were not immediately embraced. “This was going to cost a lot of money; it was going to take away from humanitarian programs,” she says. “But it would also make us more efficient and help us to improve fund-raising. It’s only in the last year or so that people are starting to understand that.”

Spatz, a native of Vevey, Switzerland (also NestlŽ’s hometown), cites the following as some of his largest lessons learned.

Deliver quality. Spatz embraces an IT service management standard known as IT Infrastructure Library, after a British government model that documents best IT practices and guarantees quality-of-service levels (including a 24/7 global help desk).

Credibility is a CIO’s most important asset. Delivery on promises is a must, even if they are not initially big promises. “Building trust is not a quarterly based thing,” he says. “It goes over time.”

Listen?a lot. Soon after Spatz joined Unicef, he visited regional management teams to share his strategy and solicit feedback. He says that process helped him win buy-in and mobilize resources.

Share a big-picture view?of everything?often. “You have to have a mosaic view of the world and know which pieces will impact which others,” Spatz says. Explaining how small projects affect Unicef’s overall progress helps him energize employees, he says.

View IT infrastructure as a business enabler, not a utility. This is important for any company but more so with Unicef, Spatz says. He has a modest IT budget (he declines to share figures), but a strong infrastructure adds cumulative value with each new application and function.

“Some of the strategic elements that we put in place at the start, we didn’t realize their importance,” Spatz says. “Now it’s taken for granted that we have a global help desk available 24/7.”