CIO interview: Andy Williams, global CIO, Save the Children

A new IT strategy is about to be implemented at Save the Children, focusing on mobile technologies, cloud and advanced data analytics

A new IT strategy is about to be implemented at Save the Children, one of the world’s largest children’s rights charities, focusing on mobile technologies, cloud and advanced data analytics.

Andy Williams, formerly a senior IT executive at Unilever, took on the chief information officer (CIO) role in October 2012. Since then, he has concentrated on understanding the organisation and shaping up a new global IT plan.

The strategy has recently been finalised and will be communicated in the coming months, internally and externally, across the majority of the 120 countries in which Save the Children is active.

“It is critical that the IT strategy provides an information linkage between the health, education and child protection services we provide to children and our relationship with our donors, who are a key part of the work we do,” Williams (pictured) tells Computer Weekly.

“Communication is a core priority, to ensure we connect the IT strategy with our day-to-day programme execution.”

Once the strategy is implemented, Williams’ team will decide which areas will take priority in the next annual planning cycle.

“I will be helping my leadership colleagues to include IT-enabled improvement opportunities in their plans for 2014. In the next few months, we will be doing a lot of work to select the five-to-seven strategic projects we will be focusing on,” Williams says.

The charity has focused on making improvements in its grants management and finance systems over the past three years and this work will continue in 2014.

The organisation has selected the Agresso finance system from supplier Unit 4, which will be integrated with Microsoft SharePoint. Save the Children is also one of the largest users of Microsoft Office 365 in the third sector, with more than 11,000 staff globally using the cloud-based email services.

Andrews says that a major area of focus for his team in the next 12 months will be the integration of the charity’s information and presentation of it to staff in the field, “in a more engaging and useful way.”

“To achieve this, we expect to be working with mobile technologies, with cloud storage and with data analytics tools,” he says.

“We see these technologies becoming more and more valuable in the provision of the health and education services we deliver to children. [But] we have not yet made strategic choices of tools in these areas.”

Understanding “the art of possible”

Network connectivity is notoriously one of the major headaches for IT departments in organisations focused on international development and that is also the case at Save the Children. Many of the programmes the charity works on take place in remote areas, with low or unpredictable bandwidth and internet connectivity.  

When we look at IT companies who could become partners, we are looking for those that share our beliefs and want to help us achieve our goals for children

Andy Williams, Save the Children

“Our network capacity planning and optimisation tools will be considered a strategic capability in future. We need to understand the ‘art of the possible’ in areas such as mobile, along with developments and cost improvements in satellite networks and fibre-based broadband,” Williams says.

“We will need tools which can work in both online and offline mode. This will allow us to plan and deliver new systems which work in the toughest parts of the world.”

Another implicit, but also ever-present constraint in the charity world is delivering technology services in tightly-controlled staffing and financial budgets.

To make the most out of the resources available, Williams is now introducing important changes across the global IT team, based primarily in Save the Children’s largest offices across Africa, Middle East, Asia and Latin and Central America.

“In order to help the team become even more connected, and to drive high levels of productivity from our IT support staff and partners, we will be introducing an ITIL-based service management framework, supported by a standard set of tools,” he says.

Selecting partners

Williams and his team will be reviewing many of the charity’s existing supplier arrangements in the next six months, as well as seeking new partners to help with strategic projects. And vendors should start doing their homework.

“In terms of advice to potential partners, I would say they should be prepared to take a little time to get to know our organisation. That really does drive the way in which we select people to work with us,” says Williams.

“If anyone wants to work with Save the Children, they should take advantage of all the material that is available online, but we are also willing to brief them on our goals and our values. Understanding that is more important than finding out about the technologies we are using or may use in future.”

While some IT leaders in the charity sector have complained publicly about the apparent lack of interest in the third sector from large suppliers, due to the fact they are less profitable than commercial firms, Williams maintains that doesn’t always need to be the case.

“When we look at IT companies who could become partners, we are looking for those that share our beliefs and want to help us achieve our goals for children,” he says.

“Of course, we want to develop arrangements which allow our partners to benefit too. These benefits can be derived in a range of ways, including joint marketing campaigns and employee engagement or volunteering programmes,” he adds.

“We understand that our relatively low IT budgets may be off-putting to some potential partners but we try hard to look at the bigger picture.”

Williams says his move from the commercial world to a charity has been positive, despite the inherent constraints in the sector and the complexities associated with a global CIO role.

“Given the challenges which children face in so many parts of the world, the opportunities presented by changes in technology and my passion for sustainable international development, it is a great chance to use my experience to build a truly high-performing global IT organisation,” he says.

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