making a difference in South-Africa, the experience of a lifetime

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I have just returned from what was one of the best experiences in my life. I had the privilege of being selected for the IBM humanitarian Corporate Service Corps (CSC) program. CSC is a total win-win-win initiative because (a) it positions IBM in emerging markets, (b) brings real value to the local communities and (c) is excellent leadership training for us, the employees. Since 2008 CSC has sent out around 2400 employees in teams of 10 to 15 all over the globe. Our team was the twelfth team deployed to South-Africa, We were 13 strong with people from 8 different countries. Forging such a diverse group of leaders in a short time into a team is a challenge. In practice it works like a charm because all of us share common values of respect and professionalism. It has reminded me once again that there are in fact ‘IBM values’ which allow us to work together globally.

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Our client was the Ikamva National e-Skills Institute (iNeSI), an organization in the national ministry of Communication of South-Africa. Their mission is to broadly promote the knowledge and usage of ICT skills to help the South-African society benefit from the e-economy. To that end they have already established Colaborative Laboratories (CoLabs) in six provinces. These Centers of Excellence are a catalyst for collaboration between universities, governments and private stakeholders. For our mission we were split in four sub-teams, each with a clear objective. One team worked on the funding question on a national level, i.e. how can the available seed money from government be pooled in an e-readiness fund. Another team focused on best practices for the CoLabs. A third team worked on the definition of performance indicators and a dashboard for monitoring and evaluation.

North-West University Mahikeng campus

My own team worked primarily on the establishment of a seventh CoLab in the North-West province. Our main objective was the search for the core focus area for the CoLab, what should they specialize in, given the specific challenges of the province, the government priorities and the strength of the university. We worked for three weeks from the Mahikeng campus of North-West University. This setting gave us access to the university staff who were very willing to collaborate with us, even though they were in the middle of grading exams just before the winter break. We also talked to representatives of the incoming government and were even mentioned in the new Premier’s provincial address. In the end it was clear that the focus should be on agriculture and tourism as areas where most impact and benefit can be realized. Our second objective was the definition of a strategy for collaboration between all iNeSI stakeholders on a national level. To that end we proposed the usage of social business techniques to create a platform for communication and innovation.

What we delivered are a set of recommendations and international best practices. The next step of course is to operationalize the CoLab. After the final presentation we had a sit-down with iNeSI to do an evaluation. We were very pleased to learn that they are planning to follow through on 90% of our recommendations. The discussions with the North-West university around a memorandum of understanding are already under way and in November iNeSI will organize their bi-yearly conference where our report will be refined and further translated into action.

After four weeks on-site I clearly see that South-Africa is a country of contrast. On the one hand there is the overwhelming beauty of the land and its innumerable riches. On the other hand there are serious challenges with poverty, inequality and healthcare. Many problems stem from a lack of education. We learned that only 30% of students actually finish their basic education, that there is 57% youth unemployment. I believe that our work with iNeSI to further the promotion of eSkills is a step towards a more competitive South-Africa. Once touched by this country and its people it is simply not possible not to act so I am looking forward to follow through on our project and to contribute where I can.

(this post also appeared on the IBM smarter planet blog)

apple + ibm – a superb match

Apple and IBM are entering into an exclusive partnership! Being a proud iAficionado (I am writing this on Yosemite beta 3 if you really want to know) this is wonderful news! When you think about it the two companies are really complementary. Apple has ‘insanely great’ mobile devices and user experience, IBM brings top notch industry and enterprise-customer knowledge as well as big-data/analytics and cloud capabilities. The idea is to jointly develop hundreds of industry specific apps. IBM will also sell iPads & iPhones to the enterprise customers. I am really looking forward to go to market together with the Apple team, we can bring such a strong story!

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PS. maybe we get a MacBook Air at work now… please let me dream 🙂

Why Your Business Should Follow IBM and Not Apple”

softlayer rocks

This I have wanted to share for a while… In the beginning of June I had the privilege of being a guest at the IBM Academy of Technology leadership team meeting in Armonk, NY.

One of the speakers was Lance Crosby, founder and now IBM General Manager of SoftLayer. When you hear this guy speak then you instantly understand why IBM wanted to acquire his company. Not only do we now have state of the art cloud capability but in addition his mindset is changing the whole of our company. Lance thinks about disruption all the time, just like silicon valley investors do. He sees potential in startups that even the startups don’t see themselves. Think big, then think even bigger. IBM is in the middle of one of the biggest changes in its history. This is not going to be easy but with guys like Lance rocking the boat I am very optimistic and ready to rock as well 🙂

Lance also gave examples of how startups, by using the flexibility and scalability of SoftLayer, are disrupting whole industries. Take for example WhatsApp, a company ‘born on the web’, more specifically born on SoftLayer. Whatsapp has revolutionized instant messaging and has badly shaken the excessive profit machine that text messaging/SMS was for telecom companies. Companies like WhatsApp can start small and grow steadily with unlimited scalability as they become more popular. They do not have to charge their customers since their model is fundamentally different, the client gets the service for “free” in exchange for their privacy data which is happily sold to advertisers. How can traditional companies cope with this? They don’t know what has hit them and more importantly, they don’t know how to respond (if you have the answer please let me know).

On the techie side one of the unique points of SL is the availability of bare metal servers that can be provisioned with the same flexibility as virtual servers. Raw bare metal power is required for high performance applications like game servers (130 million gamers) and the above mentioned real-time chat service. Another point is the high speed interconnect between the data centers so that replication for availability is a breeze…

If I sound a bit enthusiastic about SL then that is because I am 🙂

cradle of humankind

On Wednesday July 9th we moved back from Mahikeng to Johannesburg. On the way we visited the Cradle of Humankind heritage site in the Gauteng province. It is actually a large area with many caves where an important, 2,3 million year old fossil named “Mr. Ples” was found as well as many other (even older) fossils. There is a beautiful building with a modern, clear explanation of evolution. You also get to visit one of the caves. There was warning that the passages where small and that you shouldn’t go if you have any kind of back problems. I guess they exaggerated a bit because it wasn’t all that bad.

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safety instructions before entering the cave

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Leigh admiring the cave

final presentation at NWU

From Tuesday July 8th onwards we were on a schedule of presentations. We first started with the big one at North-West university with the different stakeholders for the new CoLab/Center of Excellence for which we have selected the focus areas and have created an operating model. We prepared heavily for this session, both on Monday and on Tuesday.

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team 2 – Wouter, Sanjay, Valentina, Savie

final preparations

Valentina and Sanjay taking Maymoena through the presentation

Me trying to channel Charles’ enthusiasm

the professa

Over the last weeks in South-Africa we have come to appreciate very much retired sociology professor Modise Maaja. Especially for our team two he has been nothing less than a life-saver. We could never have navigated NWU the way we did without his help. I will not forget how we pretty much ‘ambushed’ several university deans to get a slot in their agenda. Over the course of many conversations I have come to know him as really knowledgeable on the complex history of South-Africa in general and the intricacies of North-West university in particular.

He calls himself a ‘recycled’ professor and maybe that actually is an accurate description. He is grounded in tradition and carries the wisdom of his experience and at the same time he is modern in his thinking, flexible and dynamic.

It was a privilege to work with him.

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workshop with major stakeholders

Yesterday we had a workshop with several stakeholders for our project, both from the provincial government and the university. We explained our project and then went into a very interesting discussion on what should be the focus area for iNeSI in North-West province. It is clear that the province needs to address many issues at the same time, the point will be to find sufficient focus for the new Center of Excellence that we are setting up.

PS. thank you Aruna for taking these nice pictures!

Valentina discussing with NWU vice-rector Lalendle

Sanjay & Wouter talking to Mr. Africa from the NW province planning commision

alignment with the provincial Premier

On June 26th we were invited to the television interview that the entering Premier of the North-West province, Mr. Supra Ramoeletsi Mahumapelo, gave to talk about his plans for the legislature.

Premier Mahumapelo talking about his political agenda.

the team posing before the television stage

 

We were also planning to attend the actual State of the Province Address address. We all got up early and were taken to the parliament building but somehow, although we were invited, we did not have the required badges and could not get in. The speech actually mentions the work our CSC team is doing here! This is the relevant passage:

Honourable Speaker, we wish to announce that IBM (ICT Company) will be piloting a programme in partnership with both Provincial Government and the North West University (Mafikeng Campus) to roll-out E-Skilling to the young people in the Province. The project will start in Mafikeng before being rolled out to other parts of the Province.

wow!