Social and ethical responsibility are key factors in IBM’s global strategy, and nowhere is this more evident than in the activities of the Executive Services Corps – a branch of the Corporate Service Corps, dedicated to bringing the expertise and knowledge of IBM’s top executives to places where it can really make a difference.
“When you work in a virtual environment, it’s easy to forget that the skills you have acquired can really make a contribution to people’s lives, even in the most challenging of environments,” says Christel Verschaeren, IBM’s Director of Global Change Management and Europe CIO Integration. “It took this unique experience to remind me of that. I was at a point in my life where I wanted to ‘give back’.”
In October 2011, Verschaeren was given the opportunity to travel to Johannesburg, South Africa, as part of a team of six IBMers tasked with working alongside Johannesburg’s City Council.
In 2011, the city launched its “Growth and Development Strategy for 2040,” aimed at improving life in all areas of the city. Part of that strategy focuses on moving towards being a “Smart City,” and the IBM team’s five-year “Smart Public Safety” roadmap, developed in just three weeks, focused on five key areas of improvement: Crime Prevention and Investigation, Crisis and Emergency Response, Asset Management and Infrastructure Safety, Governance and Integrated Intelligence, and Community Engagement.
The team developed strategies to integrate Johannesburg’s disparate emergency services into a single working unit. (The city has its own Metropolitan Police, but the South African Police Service is also active in the area, and there are a multitude of private security companies and Community Volunteer Patrols as well.) One of the team’s main recommendations was the creation of an information warehouse that would enable all agencies to communicate effectively and efficiently, from ambulance services to traffic control.
Against the odds: strategies for change in a short time-frame
However, the team faced numerous challenges in doing so – and one of the biggest was time. “In the first week, you feel like you have all the time in the world, but that’s not true – three weeks is an extremely tight window to get everything done. Some people have called it a three month consulting assignment that has to be done in three weeks. You end up working night and day.” For Verschaeren though, it was a refreshing change from office life. “Eighty percent of the time in my daily job I’m on the phone with people or working virtually. To be in a room with six people face to face, you have to get used to a new way of working, and you quickly become very close. When I came back home, I felt totally alone in my office!”
More challenges came in overcoming the huge differences between rich and poor, which is a big hurdle for the emergency services in Johannesburg. Verschaeren was shocked at some of what she saw. “We visited a school to give inspirational talks to their 15-16 year olds, but when you hear the head of the school explaining that most of the 400 students come because they get a free meal, it’s almost unthinkable.” To help combat crime in poorer areas, the team proposed strategies for increased community involvement, and the provision of access to phones and other communications mediums to aid in the reporting of crime.
Verschaeren is positive about her visit and the impact they had. “IBM is such a wonderful company to work for, but my working life is usually so different from a country like this, where you see all these contrasts – from rich to poor. I feel like we really made a difference, and I’m sure I’ll remember the experience for the rest of my days.”