ICT tools have become crucial to the accomplishment of the organizational missions of the CGIAR Centers. The average CGIAR employee uses word-processing and spreadsheet programs, communications tools such as Skype or Communicator, media creation, management software, and online information management systems for documentation, finance or research. When these systems fail or become unreliable, the CGIAR suffers in its ability to accomplish its missions and meet its targets.

During the initial phase of the ICT-KM Program’s Second Level Connectivity (SLC) project, it was discovered that many regional, country and project offices of the CGIAR receive poor ICT support. With the majority of research and administrative work relying on ICT, this means that there is much inefficiency in the way staff work and a lack of coordination both within the regions and with CGIAR HQ offices. This has led to poor implementation of standards and procedures, loss of data and information through poor data management and lack of access to important resources on the intranet and Internet sites. Local ICT support is usually provided by contracting local ICT professionals following the advice of a regional specialist.

Regional ICT Specialist

In an attempt to rectify this situation, the SLC project implemented a 10-month trial to provide a regional ICT specialist to coordinate and carry out ICT support within the East and Southern Africa region, with technical backstopping support from the joint ICT Unit of ILRI and the World Agroforestry Centre.

The ICT specialist was responsible for:

  • Coordinating the local ICT support provided to the CGIAR offices in the region, ensuring the required quality was provided and maintained and that the CGIAR standards were implemented.
  • Providing ICT Support, advice and guidance, both remotely and during site visits to the CGIAR offices in the region.
  • Acting as the link between the CGIAR offices in the region and the respective CGIAR HQ Offices on technical ICT issues.

The goal of the position was not to provide hands-on, technical support but to ensure improvements in the ICT standards, conditions and practices in the region.

At the end of the 10-month trial, the pilot project’s effectiveness was evaluated via email, an online survey and interviews (conducted by an external evaluator) with CGIAR staff ranging from local users and office heads, through regional ICT staff and administrators to Center HQ ICT managers.

The Benefits

The evaluation highlighted certain practical, technical benefits arising from the position:

  • New shared VSAT satellite systems for IITA and IFPRI in Kampala, ICRISAT in Bulawayo, and CIMMYT and CIAT in Harare
  • Inventory of ICT status of offices in the region and development of improvement plans following discussions with office heads (Chetedze and other locations)
  • Improved backup procedures for local ICT staff (Chitedze, Harare and Kampala)
  • Assistance to WorldFish in remote locations (Maputo and Zomba)
  • Improved understanding, by staff and management, of ICT challenges: careless use of bandwidth, and efforts to address anti-virus and data backup needs

Organizationally, the benefits included:

  • Development of a mailing list for ICT support issues
  • Improved ability of ICT staff in the region to liaise with their own HQ ICT staff
  • Development of relationships between the ICT specialist and regional managers and office heads and the initiation of discussions about developing common ICT staff or services in areas where CGIAR Centers share common premises
  • Improved standardized systems and practices in support of mobility for traveling CGIAR staff and visiting researchers

In offices where the ICT specialist was able to contribute to visible improvements (such as improved bandwidth and ISP services and, in some cases, assistance with developing terms of coordination between local CGIAR offices), there is broad support for such a position. A number of staff interviewed felt that the value of strategic and planning advice is more important than the technical skills of the specialist. Even in the case of two small offices where the experiences of the office with the work of the specialist were not entirely positive, there is, nevertheless, extremely strong support of the concept of a regional ICT position.

The Challenges

Of course, employing an ICT specialist on a permanent basis won’t be without its challenges, chief of which relate to the following:

Geography – The position needs to be located in a place from which travel is most effective and as inexpensive as possible.

Finance – With only one exception, the HQ ICT managers supported in principle a financing model whereby they support overhead costs for the position, including one trip per year to each CGIAR office in the region, with the local offices paying for any additional visits or work they request or require.

Management – the specialist and his/her supervisor must both be comfortable and skilled in the use of communications tools and be in the habit of initiating communications between each other about successes, problems, changes or initiatives as appropriate.

Collaboration – The specialist must demonstrate an ability to work collaboratively, both in person and remotely, using such ICT collaboration tools as are shown to work well in the region.

Looking ahead

The major benefit to come out of this pilot project is a rare and encouraging display of unanimity across a broad spectrum of staff, offices and locations that a regional ICT specialist position is very important and central to their ability to accomplish their work efficiently and productively. More importantly, even when this support was offered with caveats about the implementation of the post, no one questioned whether or not it should exist.

At levels from local or regional offices to HQ ICT managers, there is broad agreement on a cost-shared funding approach. In addition, there is an existing model for cross-Center ICT management that provides possible guidance for a management model. One CGIAR programme director described cross-Center services as “the future for such things as ICT support”.

Indeed, the biggest risk to ICT management as a consequence of this pilot might be that it not result in a permanent post for the region, which would likely bring to a close several promising initiatives and practices coming out of the project to date and would respond poorly to the many comments about the importance of the post.

All it takes is just one specialist.