Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Gap Brand gets real with documentaries about its 1969 denim design team


Fortune Magazine: Overseas job assignments get a haircut

Say farewell to that company-paid stint in Paris. Some companies are now sending budding leaders to emerging markets to test their adaptation skills and grit.

By Elizabeth G. Olson, contributor

FORTUNE -- For rising managerial stars, an overseas assignment can be a glamorous perk. Spending a few years abroad, largely on the company dime, sounds almost as good as a paid vacation. Almost.

But some corporations are taking a new approach to the overseas assignment and have begun to send employees abroad to work on short-term projects as a means to test how they work, and adapt, outside their comfort zones.

Companies still send executives to attractive locales like Paris, but short-term projects are often based in emerging markets where companies are looking to expand. Some businesses are even taking a page from the missionary's playbook, sending employees on charitable assignments with the side goal of promoting their business.

IBM (IBM), for example, is sending its budding leaders to Africa and other developing markets through its Corporate Service Corps program, with the goal of seeing how these managers how operate in unfamiliar surroundings, work with people from different backgrounds, and lay the groundwork for future business by developing relationships with local decision-makers.

"This is part of operating a global enterprise," says Tom Vines, vice president of business and technology leadership for IBM. "Leadership has to be more than just a class and more than just a webinar."

IBM vets its employees for performance and leadership qualities before selecting candidates to work on an array of projects in areas such as education, health care, and economic development. IBM has sent teams to Egypt, India, Kenya, and Nigeria, all strong growth regions for the technology giant.

In Kenya, John Fredette, a Boston-based IBM manager, joined a team last March for a month-long pro-bono consulting project with the Postal Corporation of Kenya. "Our goal was to work with the postal corporation to add financial services to what it offers customers," says Fredette. "We ended up giving them a roadmap so the postal corporation can add services like issuing passports, which people now wait in line for at government offices, to make better use of their locations around the country."

He had to present the team's plan to the Postal Corporation's national board to persuade them, he says, "that if you don't change the [company] mindset, it will become irrelevant. It was dicey to say that to them."

Too short for its own good or just right?

Since its launch three years ago, IBM's Corporate Service Corps has sent 1,200 employees to participate in more than 100 projects in 23 different countries. And its model has been adopted or adapted by other corporations like Dow Corning and FedEx (FDX).

Few programs are as large as IBM's, which selects around 500 employees to participate each year. The teams, usually between eight and 12 members, spend three months preparing for their trip, a month on location, and two months back at their home office wrapping up their work and sharing their experiences with other IBMers, typically through blog posts and public appearances.

Many companies argue that these short-term projects abroad help them respond to the demands of an increasingly global work environment, but leadership development experts have given mixed reviews to this approach.

Rosabeth M. Kanter, director of the Harvard University Advanced Leadership Initiative, praises such short-term projects as "cost-effective ways to build skills and relationships in a diverse team."

IBM's model, she says, "mirrors the way people increasingly work: thrust into new situations that require them to learn and react fast while adjusting quickly to different styles and cultures." A drawback, notes Kanter, who wrote Super Corp, How Vanguard Companies Create Innovation, Profits, Growth, and Social Good, is that: "People don't learn a country in depth the way they would on a longer-term assignment. "But they learn how to learn about countries," she adds. And, "sometimes the projects demand innovation that isn't possible in more routine business work."

Taking the costs into account

Briefer assignments also allow companies to provide leadership experience to upcoming managers without the family disruption and major relocation expenses of a long-term international move. Also, studies have found that there is a high rate of departure for executives that return from assignments abroad and find themselves off the management track or out of sync with the culture at company headquarters. Brookfield Global Relocation Services' annual trends survey for 2010 found that 38% of executives surveyed left their companies in the first year after their return from an assignment abroad.

Devising a relevant experience for each employee is key, says Michel Buffet, a managing partner at Fisher-Rock Consulting, which specializes in organization change and talent management. "There's a trend toward moving to short assignments, and customizing the experience for each employee," he notes.
Still, companies are not likely to abandon traditional overseas assignments any time soon as it allows companies to quickly address talent shortages in different parts of the world, says Haig Nalbantian, a director at Mercer, the global consulting firm.

"But we are seeing more concern at companies about the impact, given the high costs such moves incur," says Nalbantian. "A number of recent clients have talked to us about substituting shorter term assignments…. It has to be a balance."

"It's a struggle for every company," agrees Ed Hannibal, who leads Mercer's North American mobility practice. In a survey last year, some 30% of some 462 Mercer clients said they were using shorter term assignments, he says.

Charity with a twist

FedEx is launching its own take on IBM's leadership program. The company recently completed a pilot program in Brazil for its new Global Leadership Corps which "marries the Peace Corps with business," says Tess Smith, a human resources manager for the company.

During this particular project, FedEx employees helped Afro-Brazilian youth in Northeast Brazil prepare for college-entrance exams, teaching English and helping them obtain scholarships, according to Smith.
Candidates had to be nominated and recommended as high potential performers -- a vetting process similar to IBM's. But Smith notes that the FedEx program "is much less direct than IBM's. It does promote our brand, but it's not set up to get new business."

Dow Corning Corp. began its own program last year, starting with a cook stove technology project in Bangalore, India, to give its employees a chance to learn about working in emerging markets.
"International leadership experience is valuable, and people want to sign up," says Ed Colbert, the company's global director of talent management. Last year, 100 director-level employees applied and 10 were selected to participate.

"Short or long-term, it's much more valuable if an employee [goes] outside his normal comfort zone. The key for the employee is immersion."

Monday, April 4, 2011

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Never forget

Had the opportunity today to stop by the U.S. Embassy Memorial in Nairobi. With 9/11 happening not long after, many people have forgotten about August 7, 1998 - when U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were both targeted with bomb attacks. Al Qaeda was responsible for the coordinated efforts, which had been planned years in advance. Kenya was the most dreadful, with 291 people killed and nearly 5,000 injured.

The U.S. Embassy in Kenya has now moved, while the memorial and visitor's center remains at the site. It was nice to see in person, and re-acquaint myself with this part of our (and Kenya's) history.

Masai Market

On weekends in Nairobi, an outdoor market is set up downtown, where all the local artisans and tribes can sell their wares. Being the last full day here, I had to stop in and check it out. Now I have seen markets and bartering before, but this was at a whole new level.

When you first come near the market, a number of young men surround you and offer to help you along the way. Turns out these are 'brokers' of sorts that walk with you, pick out everything you may want, then negotiate summarily at the end of the process. I don't know if this was absolutely mandatory - but it was certainly an experience, so I was all in.

This guy and his 'assistant' walked with me - telling me about the crafts, tribes and anything else. If I was potentially interested in something, the assistant would speak Swahili to the shop owner and put it in a bag. At one point, I actually saw them exchaging some kind of ID number - which makes me think this is bit more structured than it is made to feel.

Once the shopping is done, the fun begins. We find a place in the shade, where they lay out the few items I am interested in. They then proceed to pull out a notebook (no lie), and write down their 'number'. I've seen this act before - so my move was to just walk away. The dance begins - back and forth we go - I walk away a few more times, which drops the price 15-20% every clip. In the end, we seal the deal with handshake and a smile, as it worked out fair for both of us. Overall, an interesting experience - not for everyone, I'm sure - but just another story from our time here.

It's a wrap

Well, presentation day was as hectic as expected, but well worth the effort.

Team Twiga was up first, with a 9:00 date with our friends at Posta Kenya. The presentation went well - even with some pretty strong words from our team on the urgency of their organizational change. They are not alone, however - postal corporations around the world are struggling, so the common theme is evolve or become extinct. Posta has clear challenges ahead - but with some support from the government and the right leadership, they have a chance to do some great things in the new Kenya. They were very thankful for all our work, and we exchanged some nice words and gifts before we left.

Then it was off to a meeting with the P.S. (permanent secretary) to share our work, then right into Team 3's presentation at the ICT board.

We wrapped the day with a team dinner at the Carnivore restaurant - ironic that at least one member of our team is a vegetarian. Very cool place - and the food is as exotic as you would think. From ostrich (very good) to crocodile to camel - it was all in play!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Pitch Day

Hard to believe our presentation today will be the summation of 4 weeks worth of work. These projects seemed to overtake our lives while we have been here. When we weren't working in our 'war room' at the hotel, we were in the field conducting interviews, doing research - or traveling back and forth to Nairobi for client meetings. We usually converged on the terrace or hotel bar after dinner (the only two places that had internet access), and continued to work until 11 or 12. With the drastic time difference, after 11 was the only time to catch up with the kids after school as well. It was a special treat to see there smiling faces on Skype.

The first team completed their project yesterday, and the final two presentations take place today. For my team, it's off to Posta Kenya to present our findings. They have been a great client this far - and we look forward to sharing our ideas with them.

Team Twiga on the 'war terrace'.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Go Time

Today is our final day in Nyeri, our home for the past few weeks. We will definitely miss the hospitality of the local citizens.

Yesterday, our Posta Kenya contact, Jane called to let us know that the regional postmaster would like for us to stop by for tea in the afternoon. We stopped in for a visit, and were greeted by them with gifts for the team - local handicrafts, and even official Posta Kenya caps. We also had some IBM gifts for their team as well. It was a great way to close out with the local Postal team that was of so much assistance in our project.

Tomorrow, we depart for Nairobi, and the first of our team presentations. Time to pack once again...


Another fact you may not know about Kenya.

They use business cards. A lot. Business is conducted in a formal manner in Kenya – with established hierarchies and roles. Much pride is taken in promotions, and proper respect conveyed. There is a process for the exchange of cards – the proper technique is to present and receive business cards with both hands.

Business cards are almost a lost art in the United States these days – it was nice to step back a little bit and not enter a cell phone number directly on a BlackBerry. Just one of the little things that makes this country special.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The art of the Samosa

In one of first official meetings here in Kenya at the ICT Board – we were treated to tea and a local Kenyan treat called Samosas. They are kind of a baked or fried pastry, filled with anything from beef to vegetables – and oh so good. Since then, as only a team of IBMers can do, we have taken these delicacies to a new level – conducting our own market research if you will, to find the best samosas in the country.  From fine establishments to roadside stands, we have tried them all. Interestingly, and as with many experiences, there is nothing quite like the first time – and the ICT Board fare remains the nzuri, as they say in Swahili.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Home Stretch

Forgive the U.S-Centric metaphor, but I've just about had enough Premiere League Soccer and Cricket - and Opening Day is right around the corner.

We now enter our fourth and final week in Kenya, and the itinerary does not any get any easier. All of our projects are moving along – with interim presentations happening last week, and our final work coming together for presentations at the end of this week.

Every now and then as we scramble for one more piece of research, the magnitude of our work dawns on me. The final presentations will be attended by some of the top Kenyan business and political leaders, including the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Information and Communications. Coming into an assignment like this, I wasn’t sure if the work was something that would be appreciated – but subsequently placed on the back-burner for future consideration. But it has been proven to us in many ways how our work will help to drive the information agenda for the country.

After spending so much time here and getting to the know the people and culture – whether it’s IBM, or anyone else, I do hope (and know) that Kenya is about to round third into a new era for the country-

Friday, March 11, 2011

Coffee anyone?

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the frustrating aspects of Kenya (for coffee lovers anyway) is that here in the Central Highlands region, we are literally surrounded by coffee plantations, yet you cannot get a fresh cup of brewed coffee - as tea is the drink of choice.

So, when faced with a daunting challenge, you have to go right to the source, right? One of our CSC project contacts is the local postmaster here in Nyeri – a tireless professional and overall nice guy. He agreed to introduce us to one of the local plantations - so we could look around, talk to the proprietors and maybe even sample some of the product.

Thanks to our contacts, we were actually able to visit operations for both coffee and tea – both huge natural cash crops for Kenya. The bonus being this was both project related and fun – as we got to see firsthand how two of the primary local businesses operate. Both were fascinating – we first visited Gathaitha tea company, one of the biggest producers in Kenya. We saw the production process from beginning to end – from withering and drying, to cutting and fermenting, packing and shipping. Our Italian colleague Francesco, (a connoisseur of these things from the home country) of course tried his hand at the tasting process.

Then it was off to Central Kenya Coffee Mills, a Kenyan leader in production and enablement of co-op growers. We toured the fields and plants, and saw the operation for processing and shipping to Nairobi. That is where the beans are sold at auction to one of many worldwide producers like Starbucks. Interestingly, both tea and coffee work in this way in Kenya - with the auction market dictating the price and demand. Then it was off to the tasting room, which smelled of pure heaven. We were treated to some of the freshest and most delicious coffee in the world.

“Molto bene!”, as Francisco would say...


Thursday, March 10, 2011

Tick tock...

Our teams have been in Kenya now for almost 3 weeks - amazing how the time has passed so quickly. If there is something I would say about this group of people - it is that we do not leave one minute on the table. We are either working on our projects, coordinating community activities, organizing weekend plans -  but no time is wasted, and I'm sure we will greatly appreciate that as we look back on this experience.

Yesterday, we traveled to Nairobi for a midterm review of our project with the client team. Overall, they are a good client and really appreciate the work that we are doing. They recognize the state of the world in postal services - and know that if they do not inherently change the work they work, they will be left too far behind to recover (and even now it is a question). I do hope we can be a catalyst in all this. Either way, I will leave Kenya proud of the work we have done.

Tomorrow, we will travel to a local coffee plantation for a combination of work and also pure curiosity. We will be talking to the owners about their business, but I am definitely also looking forward to seeing the operation and hopefully tasting some of the freshest brewed coffee in the world.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


Having toiled over the past couple weeks on spreadsheets, presentations and endless data collection - the team split up this past weekend for some Kenya fun. Half the team departed to Mombasa, the legendary resort city on the Indian Ocean. The rest of us stayed local in Nyeri to enjoy some of the local culture.

On Saturday, we visited the Aberdares, a beautiful area of hills, plains and native wildlife. We were treated to a walking tour of the area - with a ranger armed with what looked like a world war II shotgun. I'm not sure if the gun would have stopped a wild cat, less a rhino, from charging - but the cool factor alone was worth it in my book.

We had seen many animals on our journey thus far, but it is a different experience altogether to be in their midst. In safari vehicles, the animals almost forget you are there, going about their business. When walking, they always have an eye on you - and seem to automatically keep a safe distance away. Anyway, it was a great afternoon, and just another experience here in Africa that I won't soon forget.


Our guide doing his best to look like a bad man.
Us, doing our best (and succeeding) in looking like tourists.
If you look closely, you can see the White Rhino charging me from behind.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Career Change?

No matter how hard I try, I can't seem to leave my day job behind...

The local external relations lead contacted me over the weekend, letting me know that a team from CNBC Africa would be joining the team Monday, to do some filming for a documentary video and segment on the network. The topic (as it always these days) is Africa: the last real growth market. We did some filming of our team, with some of our community contacts and of course for the actual CSC work. We had previously set up a meeting with a local PCK branch, so took the opportunity to have the crew join us and see in person what exactly we were doing out here in the middle of Kenya.

The filming went well - we spoke to everyone, from employees and customers to people on the street. My colleague Eva and I had a chance to provide some project context to the camera as well. It felt good to be in 'production' mode again - as much as this consulting work is engaging and challenging, I don't think I'll be changing my career anytime soon.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Reaching new heights

One of the many things our team wanted to do while in Kenya was see Mount Kenya up close - our home base in Nyeri is set in the Central Highlands, and some would say in the shadow of he 2nd highest peak in Africa (5199 meters).

We finally had the chance to get out for a (quick?) hike on Sunday. While it takes several days to actually summit the mountain, we chose the less-strenuous and more work-friendly method of a weekend day hike. But when the trail head is at 2400 meters (higher than most peaks in Colorado), the thin air gets to you right away. We all had to work for our lunch, that's for sure - but 10K and 600 vertical meters later, we were rewarded with a beautiful vista of African countryside.

10 things you didn't know about Kenya

10. As far as I can tell, Coke is the Official Sponsor of Kenya (and all of Africa for that matter). They have branded the entire continent, and it is the only soda everywhere and anywhere.

9. Kenyans drive on the left side of the road - actually, they drive on all sides. It is customary to pass at high speeds, using various blinker and high beam combinations to communicate with oncoming traffic.

8. Coffee plantations are everywhere, but all you can get is instant Nestle coffee (another company that has seized the branding high-ground here). Kenya is a tea culture - and business relationships are not sealed until tea is 'taken' together.

7. Pole Pole means "slowly slowly", and is the unofficial tagline of Kenya. Things here are task-driven, rather than time-driven - so long meetings or lunches are to be expected.

6. National Parks are enclosed safe havens for wildlife, and no one is allowed to live there. National Reserves are open land where people and wildlife live together. And yes, the giraffes, zebras and other animals roam freely around the countryside. Amazing, really.

5. Kenya is a very proud country and rightly so. Education is taken very seriously from early years.

4. The infrastructure is a major challenge, yet the omnipresent construction is one of the many signs of progress.

3. Some context to 4 above - Kenya was first declared an independent country in 1963! The US has had a 200 year head start on establishing our country, rules and infrastructure.

2. Mobile banking is widespread in Kenya - maybe moreso than in any other country.

1. Over 80% of Kenya's college graduates move on to work in other countries. Retaining and attracting top talent is a major issue, especially in the ICT industry.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Kimathi University

As part of our community efforts, we had reached out to Kimathi University School of Technology - a college local to our home base in Nyeri. The students and administration were terrific in helping us put together a program that would benefit all.

We started out by introducing DOT, our partner in Kenya - and then followed with a brief update on IBM, including our Centennial and celebrating 100 years of innovations. After sharing the 100x100 video, my colleague Dave Sloan did a great job on articulating smarter planet, and what it means to everyone in the room  - it's not about servers, but issues that affect us all, like energy, healthcare and cities.The theatre was full of stident and faculty, a testament to the 'marketing' our university partners had done.

After the presentation, we had 3 breakout sessions - career skills, led by our resident HR expert Reka, Digital Whiteboard presentation led by Francesco, and a continuation of the smart planet dialog, including a discussion on Watson, led by Dave.

I would say the day was a great success. The students were receptive, curious and asked all the right questions. I would say the future is bright for the Kenya technology landscape.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

"Africa will change you."

That is a quote from my friend Cindy, upon finding out that I was to be deployed to Kenya for a month as part of the IBM CSC. She had recently returned from an extended trip to Africa – and said it was nothing short of amazing.

To date, our work here has been focused on our client projects. This alone has been a great experience - to be working in an emerging market on issues that many countries around the world are also facing. But the “S” in CSC stands for service – so we as team decided early to be very involved with our host communities. So even before we arrived in Africa, we had done some research and coordinated some team visits to community organizations.

Today, we visited Allamano school, a home and education facility for mentally disabled children. The reception was amazing – we were greeted by the head of the facility, Sr. Jane – who promptly led us out to the soccer pitch, where the children were already playing. They we so happy to see us, and promptly swarmed us as we approached. It wasn’t long before a game of soccer (ok, futbol…) broke out – and let me tell you, these kids weren’t pushovers. Some might say we were doing a bit too much huffing and puffing for a pickup game – and I will go down swinging saying it was the altitude (1,900 meters).

We were treated to a tour of the school, and then presented them with a number of gifts from the team – including a laptop computer loaded for bear with educational and fun software. The children performed some amazing songs for us, and there was a lot of time to just hang and have fun.

In the afternoon, we visited an orphanage in the town of Mweiga – another great facility (if you would call it that – it was really just a couple small buildings), with terrific people running the show. We spent the time singing, dancing, playing games – just being there with these great kids.

As with most people, I have done some community work and of course been exposed to different situations. But something about these children and the setting was different. Really an amazing experience overall. I could tell by the smiles on faces all around when we left (both us and the students), that “change” was in fact the right word.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Hot, Flat and Crowded?

Well, Kenya has the hot covered. Crowded? In Nairobi - absolutely. The infrastructure cannot keep up with the growing population. Traffic is already a major issue, and data shows it will only multiply in the years to come. Flat? Hardly. Especially when you make the drive from Nairobi to Nyeri. The combination of old roads, new construction and a steady climb to higher elevation makes this a white-knuckle commute every time. We're still getting used to the driving customs - such as flashing high-beams to indicate you have the right of way (and blinding all oncoming traffic in the process). Really makes you appreciate some of the basic infrastructure luxuries from home. But that is what all the change is about here - putting Kenya back in the fast lane (if you will).

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

IBM100 Icons of Progress

The IBM Corporate Service Corps is highlighted in the latest IBM100 Icons of Progress series:

"It had been raining for 20 days straight when, on May 20, 2010, Piotr Uszok, the mayor of the industrial city of Katowice, Poland, kicked off a five-hour meeting with a group of IBMers. The mayor had been awake since 3 a.m., and parts of the city were flooded, but he insisted that the situation was under control. This meeting was too important to miss. The IBM team—drawn from around the world—was to present recommendations on how Katowice could compete more successfully in the global economy. One day later, the mayor explained that he had previously known IBM only as a leader in the computer field. Now, he said, “we have seen the other face of IBM, which is connected with solving the problems of our contemporary world."

Monday, February 28, 2011

Something old...

We are finding out firsthand how Kenya is a country of old and new. While Kenya (and Africa overall) may lag on basic things we take for granted in the U.S (roads & infrastructure as an example) – they also lead in other ways.

One area in particular is mobile. Virtually everyone in the main areas of the country has a cell phone, and most if not all use it as their main form of cash transactions. Safaricom is the market leader for mobile phones, and their M-Pesa platform is nothing short of revolutionary. People link their M-Pesa accounts to bank accounts – so they can make purchases at stores, ATM withdrawals, transfer money to other people and many other functions all from their phone. No need for a wallet full of debit and credit cards. The technology is pretty straightforward, and I know it’s available in the states - but the usage and market penetration here is staggering. You literally can’t travel 100 meters (see, I’m already adapting to life outside the U.S…) without seeing an M-Pesa sign - and it has literally become the primary form of transactional finance.

When you think about it, the root cause of this phenomenon is quite simple. Very few people in Kenya own their own personal computer – but everyone has a cell phone. So while, in the US, it is second nature for us to pay bills and do our banking online – this is not possible elsewhere in the world.

Definitely an example of a smarter planet in action.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

All work?

Well, not completely. As they say in Kenya, "Pole, Pole", (slowly, slowly). So as a team, we decided to take a break from our projects and see some of Kenya's wildlife over the weekend. With some recommendations from the local team, we arranged a camping safari to Samburu National Reserve, a few hours north of our home base in Nyeri.

It was truly amazing. Samburu is a semi-arid area (almost a desert) - and as a 'reserve', it is one of the many locations in Kenya where animals live and roam freely in their own environment. In other words, the people are the ones held captive - in this case in a touring van with an open roof. We saw many different animals, and the landscapes alone were truly breathtaking. We also had a chance to visit a local village of the Samburu tribe - nomads who have lived in the same traditions for hundreds of years.

And, of course we had to make a quick stop at the equator on the way home!

Friday, February 25, 2011

From Business Daily in Kenya - Some nice press coverage of the work we're doing with the Kenyan postal service:

Changing landscape

“The IBM team will help PCK to review the changing economic landscape in Kenya and develop a plan to deliver financial services to the poor across Kenya,” said IBM in a statement, adding that they would help the postal firm get a larger foothold in the agency banking market.

An IBM team of 12 professionals in IT, research, marketing, finance and business development drawn from nine different countries will arrive in Kenya this week to work free of charge for a month as part of its IBM Corporate Service Corps global programme.

The programme has seen IBM deploy close to 1,000 employees on 100 teams to 20 countries around the world over the past three years. "

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Quote of the Day

Courtesy of Dave Sloan, CSC member, while watching a Brazilian Soap Opera dubbed in English, airing in Kenya:

"Look at that mustache! It's like a ferret came to rest on the guy's upper lip!"

Why I am not in Market Research

Today we set about in the data gathering phase of our project - and this involved a custom research study focusing on consumer awareness and consideration for our client, Posta Kenya. Sounds fancy, right? Well, that part ends quickly - when you are standing on a street corner in unbearable heat in a remote African village asking passers-by whether they would like to participate. The initial looks were quite amusing. But actually, I have to give the people credit - as I myself must have looked pretty funny with my clipboard and safari hat.

As usual, the people here were very gracious. They were very forthcoming and willing to talk (and talk and talk). It was really a great way to meet the real people of Kenya - in their environment.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Hot off the press!

Our team and assignment has been getting some great coverage around Kenya and beyond. A couple of recent articles...

CIO Magazine; IBM Corporate Service Corps to facilitate efficient delivery of financial services

Capital Business of Kenya; An International team of consultants from the IBM's Corporate Service Corps program has arrived in Nairobi for a one month project

East African Standard; IBM experts to boost IT capacity in counties: attached is the print version and a link to the online version.

Article in The Standard

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Move day

One of the objectives of the CSC project is to immerse the IBM team in the local culture – and I mean the real local culture, not the board room at the Intercontinental. So today, after 2 days of meetings with the local IBM and customer teams, we packed our bags and relocated to Nyeri, a town 142km outside of Nairobi.

Nyeri will be our base for the next 4 weeks – working out of our makeshift “war room” at the hotel, and traveling for meetings as needed. The accommodations are rustic, but we are truly getting to know the local people and way of life. A walk into town center earlier today yielded many handshakes and “Karibu’s” (Swahili for welcome). The Kenyan people are proud of their home - and very hospitable.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Monday was quite a busy day for the teams. We started out by meeting the rapidly growing East Africa IBM team, based in Nairobi. One year ago, the IBM presence was only a small subsidiary, and today they are at 45 employees and growing - quite a statement on the local economic growth and relevance of Kenya on a worldwide scale.

This was followed by kick-off meetings with the 3 respective clients at their offices:

  • Postal Corporation of Kenya
  • Kenya Office of e-Government
  • Kenya ICT (Information and Communications Technology) Board

All meetings went very well – project scopes were validated, some questions answered (some pictures taken…), and we were off.

Tomorrow we relocate to Nyeri, our home base for the rest of the project.

Editorial Note: I’m stealing the “Passion and Power” line from Muriuki Mureithi, one of our hosts here in Kenya, and quite a motivational speaker. He has referenced the “passion and power” of IBM and Kenya in many of our meetings – and we as a team have adopted it as our 'war cry' if you will...

The IBM CSC and Kenya team

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Kenya Briefing and Local Culture

Today is our 2nd full day in Kenya - it is hard to believe, as we have already done so much. This morning, we had a briefing with the local IBM Marketing Manager and also our DOT hosts. They layed out a very compelling story for the country of Kenya - one of great history, some turmoil and a potential for amazing growth.

Kenya is already the business hub of East Africa, and is poised for a surge of new business opportunities in the near future. The already well established financial services sector is growing, while other areas such as telco are rapidly on the rise. Is Kenya - the same country whose presidential turmoil caused nationwide riots a short time ago - ready for this? Only time will tell. One thing is clear though - the 'tribal' aspect of this country continues to this day. This is not in a negative way - but when people introduce themselves, they usually follow with their heritage - Masai, Kikuyu or wherever. There is a lot of pride that has been carried down the generations.

Following the briefing, we went to a local cultural center, where tribal villages were set up in the proper fashion - there was also a ceremony where traditional Kenyan song and dance were performed - all done by their respective tribes of course.

Tomorrow is our first in-person presentation to out government clients. This meeting will definitely shape the rest of our time here.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Getting to know Nairobi

With our kickoff dinner tonight, the team members who are already present decided to visit the Nairobi Museum today. Wonderful facility, with lots of history on the Rift Valley and 'Cradle of Mankind'. So much of our history stared right here. There was also some great work by local artists. Team meeting with the DOT hosts tonight - looking forward to it!

Outside the Museum: Joshua, Anna, John, Reka and Eva.

Hopefully we'll see some of these that aren't the stuffed variety.

Think these can fit in my carry-on?


24 hours after leaving home, I have arrived safe and sound in Nairobi. I was on the same connecting flight as two of team members, Reka and Nimeesh from Hungary and Canada. It was great to finally meet some of the team in person. It's now time to get settled as we start our CSC itinerary tomorrow. We were treated to a beautiful African sunset on the approach to Nairobi.

The best sight you can see when getting off a plane in a foreign country.

This doesn't do it justice...

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Wheels Up!

Time to recharge with 20 hours of travel looming ahead.

Getting Ready

Bags are packed, details checked (and double checked) - wait, what is the luggage limit for Air France?

It's with mixed emotions that I depart today for Kenya. While this is truly an amazing opportunity and a great business challenge, I will dearly miss my family and friends while I am away. I know the time will go by fast though, as we will be immersed in the project and local culture.

Our itinerary starts immediately once we arrive in Kenya - meetings are scheduled with the local IBM team, our partner DOT, and our clients for the CSC projects. At this point, we are familiar with all the key parties, having been introduced and kicking off the project remotely over the past few months. I look forward to finally meeting the teams in person.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

About our partner...

Digital Opportunity Trust (DOT) is IBM's partner for our Corporate Service Corps assignment in Kenya. They coordinate everything from travel to our client assignments to community outreach while in-market. For our work-to-date, we have been collaborating with the local DOT team in Kenya - and they are truly first-rate. They are very knowledgeble about the market and business opportunities, and have great connections with the government and client teams.

From their site: "Digital Opportunity Trust is a leading international organization, headquartered in Ottawa, Canada. DOT focuses on creating educational, economic, and entrepreneurial opportunity through the effective use of ICT for communities and people in countries that are developing, are in transition, or are under stress. DOT has a particular focus on youth and women. DOT operates programs in Canada, China, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, Mexico and the United States."

I look forward to finally meeting our contacts in person.

Asante sana-

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

IBM Watson

One February 14-16, IBM's Watson supercomputer will compete on Jeopardy! against the top winners of all time, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. Watson (named after IBM's founder, Thomas J. Watson) represents a huge leap in artificial intelligence and computers being able to understand natural language. I've had the privilege of working on some of marketing efforts around Watson and the Jeopardy program, and seeing the progress over the past year. It really is amazing to witness. I'm sure there will be a lot of dialog after the shows - and rightly so. The idea behind Watson is not to compete on game shows - but to change the way that people interact with computers. Until now, people have worked with computers on their terms - whether that is DOS, or Fortran, or Windows or OSX. Watson represents computers understanding of how humans speak - and having the computing power to then conduct research and answer queries (of any subject) within milliseconds. The possibilities are endless - healthcare, financial services, legal applications. Tune in - this will be fun to watch.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Jambo, as they say in Swahili!

On February 17, I am deploying with a team of 11 other IBM people from around the world to Kenya, to work with the government on some key technology initiatives. Kenya is the already the business hub of East Africa, and Nairobi is fast becoming one of the world's top cities for financial services. Over 4 weeks, our team will be consulting with various divisions of the government, ranging from the Office of e-Government, to the Postal Division to the Ministry of Information. In order to really understand the country and culture, we will staying outside the metropolis of Nairobi - in a village called Nyeri in the central highlands of the country. There is a large community aspect to the project - we'll also be visiting universities, health care facilities and other areas, meeting the people and lending a helping hand. I feel honored to take part in such an effort - and wanted to document the effort in this blog. I've never really had a reason to blog before, but this seems like a worthy cause, with a great story to tell. Wish me luck and check back for updates-

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

IBM Watson: Watson After Jeopardy!

Why is IBM developing a computer that can play on Jeopardy? The same technology will be used in various industries for years to come.

Microfinance for Emerging Markets

Over the past few years, I've had the opportunity to work with some of IBM's best customers to document their real life examples of a smarter planet in practice. As we prepare to deploy to Kenya for the Corporate Service Corps, I wanted to share a video we created with Grameen Koota, a microfinance institution based in India. Microfinance is definitely as relevant in Africa as it is India. With a great idea and the right technology, Grameen Koota is taking steps to eradicate poverty, one small loan at a time.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A truly global team

Italy, Demark, Japan, Canada, China....these are just some of countries where our IBM Kenya team members originate. We represent marketing, research, sales, consulting and all aspects of technology. The common denominator? We're all IBMers doing our part to help make Smarter Planet a reality. Over the next several weeks, we will be working with the government of Kenya on several projects that are of utmost importance to the country overall - communications, financial services and e-government to name a few.

Why Kenya? Kenya is the business hub of East Africa - a growing economy set in the same place known as the 'cradle of mankind'. Kenya is a place of community, of family - but also a country that embraces innovation, technology and the need for progress.

I know I speak for our team when I say we are ready for the challenges ahead.


Check out this great site, commemorating IBM's progress over the past 100 years.

Can a computer win on Jeopardy!?

Over the last century, IBM has reached numerous scientific breakthroughs through its commitment to research and its tradition of Grand Challenges. These Grand Challenges work to push science in ways that weren’t thought possible before.

Jeopardy! The IBM Challenge poses a specific question with very real business implications: Can a system be designed that applies advanced data management and analytics to natural language in order to uncover a single, reliable insight — in a fraction of a second?

The competition will air on Jeopardy!, 2 games over 3 nights - February 14-16. To see some background on Watson, tune in the Nova Special February 9 at 10:00PM.

100 Years of Innovation

IBM Centennial Film: 100 X 100 - A century of achievements that have changed the world.

This film features one hundred people, who each present the IBM achievement recorded in the year they were born. The film chronology flows from the oldest person to the youngest, offering a whirlwind history of the company and culminating with its prospects for the future.

Monday, February 7, 2011

About IBM's Corporate Service Corps

IBM's Corporate Service Corps (CSC) exposes IBM employees to the 21st century context for doing business --- emerging markets, global teaming, diverse cultures, working outside the traditional office, and increased societal expectations for more responsible and sustainable business practices. CSC participants perform community-driven economic development projects in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America, working at the intersection of business, technology and society.

Since the official launch in July, 2008 the CSC has deployed 500 IBM employees from 44 countries on 29 teams to 9 countries. Projects vary from assisting networks of entrepreneurs and small businesses trying to grow to the utilization of information technology by communities left behind the "digital divide."

The countdown is on...

10 more days until we depart for Kenya and the beginning of the Corporate Service Corps assignment. To date, the preparation has consisted of learning local culture and business practices, engaging with our client and managing the seemingly millions of details needed for a month-long assignment abroad.