Saturday, December 31, 2011

IBM's Corporate Service Corps: Beyond Profit

By Kathryn McConnell

Kathryn McConnell is a staff writer with the State Department's Bureau of International Information Programs.

Work in the private sector means more than helping a company turn a profit. It means contributing to communities.

That's why in 2008 computer giant International Business Machines Corp. (IBM) started its Corporate Service Corps linking its employees to governments and nonprofit organizations in developing countries. It is part of a new era of international volunteerism.

Based in Armonk, New York, IBM spends $60 million a year on the corps. "It's at the intersection of technology, economic development and job creation," said Stanley Litow, IBM's vice president of corporate citizenship. Since the program began, IBM has sent some 1,400 of its employees to work on projects in about 50 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Litow said that's more than any other company doing pro bono work in the developing world.

The Corporate Service Corps enables IBM to identify and train its next generation of skilled leaders while helping developing nations solve pressing problems, Litow said. "This is a model that increasingly other companies will be emulating."

The program offers a triple benefit, Litow said: technical assistance for the communities it serves, a chance for employees to hone their leadership and technical skills, and inroads for sales in expanding markets.

Teams consisting of six to 12 employees with skills in technology, science, marketing, finance or business development immerse themselves in places like Cross River State, Nigeria; Chiang Mai, Thailand; and Johannesburg for up to one month while developing solutions to local challenges. "They are providing those skills to make a real difference," Litow said.

Team members come from IBM locations around the world. They have 2 1/2 months of preparation before they leave home, meeting with fellow team members via phone, over the Internet and in person. They receive information about project goals and their host country's culture.

The Johannesburg team was asked to recommend ways to use information technology to improve the city's public safety infrastructure. "Public safety is so linked to economic development and livability," Litow said. "The project required people with expertise in safety, software development, business processes, government, law and finance."

Ron Dombroski, an IBM marketing executive, went to Johannesburg as part of the six-member team that included colleagues from India, Brazil and the United States. He said the team proposed a five-year plan calling for installing security cameras to deter crime and aid emergency workers and adapting mobile terminals like smart phones to provide maps of the locations of fire hydrants and power switches to aid firefighters responding to emergency calls.

Beginning a Relationship

Another IBM team went to Nigeria and worked on a health care project for pregnant women and young children in remote villages in Cross River State. The IBM team networked each clinic into a cloud computing environment, with fingerprint reader cards to ensure that medical records for each mother and child are accurate and complete. That gave doctors quick access to information needed to make good decisions. (In cloud computing, an organization rents excess server capability from another entity, freeing it from the need to acquire its own data center.)

With IBM's help, the Cross River State health project expanded the number of people it served from 1,000 to 20,000 in a short time, Litow said.

In Jakarta, the Corporate Service Corps is helping to improve the city's transportation system. In Chiang Mai, an IBM team is working on an information system that will help the city expand its health tourism industry. In Cebu, Philippines, corps members are helping officials develop a land-use plan.

The idea of corporate volunteerism is catching on with companies like Dow Corning, PepsiCo, Novartis and John Deere, which are looking at IBM's model, Litow said. IBM is also working with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and CDC Development Solutions, a consulting firm, to build a website for international corporate volunteerism where companies can share information about their programs.

"If businesses share their skills and knowledge with governments and people of the developing world, we'll all be better off," Litow said.

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State.)