Lessons from Unicef’s CIO

Early in his tenure as CIO of the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), Andre Spatz met some resistance to his arguments for increased IT spending. After all, why would anyone buy new software when they could help more children who needed medicine and books?

Thanks to Spatz, managers at the humanitarian relief agency now see IT as improving both programs and fund-raising efforts. And that makes him a CIO worth listening to.

From his office with a view of U.N. headquarters, Spatz sounds appropriately diplomatic. “At Unicef, it was possible to energize people and energize them around a vision, to execute that vision instead of debating what our vision would be,” he says.

When Spatz, 48, joined Unicef in 1997, the New York City-based United Nations as a whole was under pressure to institute better management controls. Spatz’s mandate: create a centralized IT function and replace legacy systems; oversee the implementation of an SAP R/3 ERP system to manage corporate financials and other functions; establish a communications infrastructure (including e-mail and voice over IP) to support 6,000 employees, including field workers in 240 sites in 162 countries and territories, fund-raisers in Tokyo and Brussels, Belgium, and a supply operation in Copenhagen, Denmark; and do it all for as little money as possible.

In meeting those goals, Spatz moved IT from afterthought to center stage — a significant shift. Agency executives can now track spending on specific programs around the world in a uniform way in close to real-time, says CFO Ellen Yaffe. That process used to take months. Field workers in Africa and Asia can communicate with regional managers. Most important, the new business processes (including a project portfolio management approach) and the IT systems that support them have changed the culture at Unicef.

“Andre brought to us in pictures what it really took to have global connectivity, to have the right infrastructure, the right staffing. We were moving into an era where we were becoming totally dependent on technology, and we didn’t understand what implications that would have,” Yaffe says.

The changes, however, were not immediately embraced. “This was going to cost a lot of money; it was going to take away from humanitarian programs,” she says. “But it would also make us more efficient and help us to improve fund-raising. It’s only in the last year or so that people are starting to understand that.”

Spatz, a native of Vevey, Switzerland (also Nestl