Helping Those Who Help at Oxfam, Part 2

In the Field

In the meantime, though, there are more pressing requirements. In the

job for barely two years, Jennings has recently concluded a review of

the charity's systems, aided by the U.K. arm of Gartner. Sitting in his

cramped office, with its faded carpets and timeworn furniture, Jennings

is unabashed about spending donors' dollars on IT consultants. Spending

on fund-raising and administration totals just 14 percent of Oxfam's

total income, and there's scope to reduce this even further, he

reckons. "The commercial world uses IT to take its costs down and to

improve its effectiveness, and we need to do the same," he says.

Indeed, there are some obvious targets. In 1998, senior Oxfam

management recognized that the decentralized approach to information

systems led to duplication and waste (hence Jennings' appointment as

the charity's first CIO-equivalent). For example, Oxfam uses PeopleSoft

financials and supply chain planning, but not PeopleSoft human resource

management, which is handled by a smaller application that covers the

U.K.-based staff. The result? "We've got a human resources system that

doesn't cover half our people," says Jennings. Paper- and PC-based

systems overseas handle the rest of the staff -- hardly optimal.

Financial control is another potential weak spot. As a recipient of

donations from the general public as well as government, European Union

and United Nations agencies, Oxfam needs to be able to prove that funds

allocated to, say, Kosovo or El Salvador were actually spent on relief

work in Kosovo or El Salvador. With a financial management system that

is, as Jennings puts it, "creaking at the edges," this is sometimes

difficult: The project codes in use at the charity's eight regional

centers around the world are not necessarily the same ones used back at

headquarters.

Partly, the problem lies with the systems themselves, he explains;

partly it lies with the environment in which they are used. Field

workers with laptop computers and satellite phones, for example, must

upload their transactions as an Excel spreadsheet. And although the

field workers report to the eight regional centers for administration

purposes, their in-the-field links have been via slow dial-up lines to

Oxford -- even though the eight centers themselves are linked to Oxfam

HQ and each other in a leased-line virtual private network.

Most important, any potential solution must not only meet the needs of

the people on the ground, but it must do so without incurring charges

of profligacy. Jennings will never forget, he says, a conversation with

an Oxfam relief worker in Mali who was conserving money by deliberately

minimizing the use of dial-up links and satellite phones in order to

provide additional donkeys for an irrigation project.

A decision to migrate to a browser-based enterprise system looks set to

please both Oxfam's accountants and its relief workers. PeopleSoft 8 is

scheduled for implementation by this October, says Jennings. The new

software's low-bandwidth requirement, he explains, means that it will

now be practicable for local offices around the world to use the same

financial system as Oxfam headquarters -- an option not economically

open to the charity in the days of client/server technology.

Better still, when it comes to disaster relief, Oxfam workers will no

longer be constrained just to sending out e-mail requests for supplies

-- requests that are complicated if the particular items are not in

stock and substitutes have to be made by headquarters personnel. Come

October, Jennings says, aid workers will be personally ordering the

materials they need online from the disaster site, making their own

substitutions where necessary. They will be able to see which special

charter flight their order is on, thus better predicting the actual

arrival of the materials onsite. It may not sound like much, says

Jennings, but in the aftermath of tragedies such as the Gujarat

earthquake, it can be a real lifesaver.

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