IBMers use their passion for a smarter planet to save
lives in Nigeria
Mat Osicki can't stop thinking about the people of the Cross River State in Nigeria. She was one of 10 IBM employees sent to that region in November 2009 to solve some of its most pressing problems as part of IBM's Corporate Service Corps (CSC) initiative.
One of the projects on which she worked is called Project HOPE—a network of free healthcare facilities located in remote villages for the purpose of reducing mortality rates among infants and pregnant mothers in the country. In the course of her assignment, she had some eye-opening experiences that changed her life forever. "I just have this child's face etched into my brain," she says. "Her malnutrition was so bad, she couldn't hold her head up."
Business, just not as usual
Osicki is one of 530 IBMers who have taken month-long service assignments to one of 13 countries since the program began in 2008.
After IBMers on CSC assignments return to their regular jobs, they work to apply the leadership lessons they have learned to their work. But Osicki and her teammate Tim van den Heede couldn't stop thinking about that little girl with malnutrition and the 15 percent mortality rate for children under 5 years of age in Cross River State.
The CSC program was developed primarily as a way to give IBMers service-learning opportunities in emerging markets, working on community-driven development projects at the intersection of business, technology and society. IBMers from 47 different countries have been placed in common living environments to foster cross-cultural teaming. As IBM prepares its future leaders for the realities of its globally integrated workforce, it is creating a smarter physical, social and economic infrastructure in local communities that will help the people there and pave the way for future IBM business.
Smarter healthcare for emerging nations
Though nearly all IBM participants say they have benefited from the program even as they have provided needed expertise and skills for local projects, Osicki and van den Heede are among the first CSC alumni to drive the company's entry into a new market, as well.
Osicki was part of the second phase of CSC in Cross River. In the first phase of Project HOPE, IBMers helped to implement technology that would enable Nigerians to get access to free healthcare no matter which remote clinic they visit. The clinics each have servers, networked in a cloud computing environment, with fingerprint reader cards to ensure that the medical records for each of the mothers and children is accurate and complete, giving medical practitioners better information.
"It's the kind of technology that we could use here in the States," Osicki says. "But most of the people and medical staff [in Cross River State] had little computer experience. So it was underused when we got there."
Building a system of trust
Osicki and her project colleague Georgia Watson travelled all over the Cross River State to assess the needs of the project and to develop recommendations to build out the system. The real work required establishing local data entry operators and training them so they could build a database of vital health information for the state's population. "We also had to develop a layer of trust," Osicki says—a sensitive issue for government agencies in a country with a history like Nigeria's. So she and Watson elaborated on programs initiated by Lindsey Blumenthal and Hermann Borchers of the first CSC team in the country, which were designed to help local community members understand that the government was trying to save their children's lives.
CSC projects are generally designed to be completed in 30 days or turned over to the local community to finish implementation; in some cases, as in Nigeria, subsequent CSC teams of IBMers will return to move the project further toward local deployment and operation. But when the governor of Cross River State, Liyel Imoke, and his cabinet were presented with the results of the IBM team's work on its projects, Osicki remembers, he was so impressed he said, "We just have to get IBM back in here to finish this work." To do so would mean creating the first consulting engagement for IBM Global Business Services in Nigeria.
Tangibility of a smarter planet
Back home at their regular jobs—Osicki works in human resources at IBM's offices in Somers, New York; van den Heede is a sales leader for IBM Global Technology Services in Brussels—they both made the case that IBM should pursue a services business in Nigeria, with Project HOPE as its initial engagement.
"Tim and I, along with our new-found friends Amelia Basson and Lesley-Anne Wilkinson of the Global Business Services South Africa team, have pushed really hard to make it happen," Osicki says.
She says she never expected her project would lead to business consulting work when her plane first landed in Nigeria. Yet Governor Imoke's invitation to Mat, Tim and their fellow IBMers after their presentation to join him at a dinner at his house led to a passionate discussion about the needs and challenges facing Cross River State.
"That was the beginning of the relationship that led to an IBM contract," Osicki says, adding that, if all goes according to plan, she expects the IBM Global Business Services consultants working on the service corps team's recommendations to help bring down mortality rates in Cross River State by as much as 50 percent by 2012.
Changing the world changes IBM
The work of the service corps could become a model for future projects for IBM. "There are 35 other states in Nigeria watching Cross River to see what happens," Osicki says. "They're all lining up for the chance to do this in their regions." In this way, Project HOPE and its sister, Project Comfort—an economic assistance program—can become models of how IBM can help fight disease and malnutrition in the developing world.
"My hope is that this can be a model for future Corporate Service Corps projects," van den Heede says. "We can save lives and make money." Which, in addition to the effect on IBM revenues, means that IBMers can continue to find new ways to save even more lives in the future.
As an HR professional, Osicki wouldn't normally go on sales calls. But the trust she and her team had established with the governor and his cabinet—and her and her managers' dedication to the success of Project HOPE—meant that on March 29, when the contract was signed between Cross River State and IBM Global Business Services, Osicki was back in Nigeria as part of the final negotiation, helping to introduce IBM's consulting business to this emerging market.
With a project that vividly demonstrates the value of smarter healthcare, analytics and cloud computing to the world's emerging markets, Osicki says it also demonstrates the role IBM has to play in making that world smarter.
Team by team, market by market, the Corporate Service Corps is changing the way IBM does business. The next phase of the project focuses on IBM executives who are placed into small cities, such as Danang, Vietnam. There, they assess the local infrastructure and prioritize ways to develop a sustainable, local economy.
Program manager Kevin Thompson explains that the chosen cities need to get smarter in ways similar to smarter cities in other areas. But many of these small cities have unique challenges that extend the IBM Smarter Cities concept.
"Our assumption with Smarter Cities is to upgrade an existing backbone: the transportation, communication, energy, water, health and education of the cities we go into," Thompson says. "The cities we target for the Corporate Service Corps often don't have that pre-existing backbone. We have to start from scratch to create the infrastructure, which has advantages and disadvantages. Sometimes it's easier to create a new smart water treatment plant than to retrofit an old one to make it smarter."
Thompson says the executives bring a different set of skills to the program. "They have skills in connecting with leaders and developing lasting relationships with local non-governmental officials that can help to establish societal progress in their assigned cities."
To learn more about other work already underway by IBM around the world to build smarter cities, visit ibm.com/smarterplanet/cities.
And to learn more about how organizations can be made as smart as the people who work in them, visit ibm.com/smarterplanet/work.
Chris Marquis, an assistant professor at the Harvard Business School, says one of the great benefits of the Corporate Service Corps program is how the teams are built. Typically, teams are brought together from many different nations and cultures. After two months of preparatory work, they come together to live in the same hotel in their assigned country. Bonds are formed from daily meetings, both formal and social, as well as activities such as field trips. Upon their return home from their assignments, service corps alums have a month of structured work to transition their projects. But the bonds remain long after the last official team conference call.
"Corporate Service Corps alumni have these networks all around the globe; the connections are relatively enduring because of the experiences they had together in their countries," Marquis says.
Marquis uses the Corporate Service Corps as a case study in the "Commerce and Society: The Strategic Value of Corporate Social Responsibility" course he teaches at Harvard. Teaming is one of the main aspects of the program he emphasizes in the case study. "This is a leading example of service learning and strategic teaming in the business community," he says.
"The Corporate Service Corps is a competitive advantage for IBM in several ways," says Rosabeth Moss Kanter, another Harvard Business School professor and author of Super Corp: How Vanguard Companies Create Innovation, Profits, Growth and Social Good. "In particular, IBMers are the best ambassadors that IBM could have to build relationships and foster good will in countries."
Marquis agrees. "The relationship with the local government leaders is also a great benefit of the program," Marquis said. "Businesses should do good, but they also should do well by doing good. If there's no business benefit, the program won't be sustained."