Interview with Prof. Tina Ambos on innovation in IOs
As part of the International Organizations MBA (IO-MBA), Tina Ambos, Professor of International Management, Director of the Institute of Management at the Geneva School of Economics and Management (GSEM) and Academic Director of the IO-MBA was interested in what meant bottom-up innovation in international organizations.
She co-directed a study on this topic published in October 2018. We asked her a few questions :
Centre for continuing and distance education (CFCD): Isn't innovation in International Organizations (IOs) an oxymoron?
T.A.: 10 years ago, we could have answered this question with a yes, but in today's world, innovation is key to all IOs to stay relevant. It's their only chance to survive. Antonio Guterres said: "Beginning at the top, we must all from country level to headquarters engage practically with technology pionneers, innovators, policy makers and users." These shouldn't remain empty words. There is a kind of innovation inflation taking place in IOs these days, everyone speaks about it but we don't know what it means. Creating innovation departments make sense, and it is happening in real-time. We are currently working with UNAIDS which set up their innovation unit this June. But it is important that these units remain lean units and don't become overly bureaucratic. Current best practices of innovation structures or units (like the Accelerator at WFP, UNHCR and UNDP) work well because they are lean structures with very few people, who have a deep understanding of the issues and the challenges in the field. Innovation structures should avoid being taken over by bureaucrats, rectorates or policies. When we talk about innovation, it's more about creating the conditions for innovation rather than providing a recipe for innovation. In all big organization structures, for-profit or non-for-profit, we tend to look for recipes. But that’s not the way innovation works.
CFCD: What are the 3 key takeaways of this report?
T.A.: We have three main takeaways to make innovation in the context of international organizations more tangible. Our goal was to go beyond the buzzword “innovation” and put our finger on innovation initiatives that really make an impact.
1. The power of bottom-up innovation: This is a red-thread of my academic work. It shows how innovation from peripheral parts of the organization can create impact. It is critical that discussions on how to innovate within IOs include not only staff dedicated to innovation, but also field staff (who have the closest ear and eye to the needs of IO beneficiaries) as well as decision makers (who need to support and promote innovation for it to translate into culture change).
2. Design for outcomes (rather than outputs): Outputs are easier and “shiny” but without outcome metrics, you eventually will hurt your portfolio. This is why our report distinguished three different types of impact: social impact, internal impact and mission impact. We need to know what to measure and don’t waste time in collecting data: it is the only way we can ensure projects actually create impact.
3. Maybe less reflecting about contents and more about the process. This is how the report came about: share the successes and the failures. The initiatives we collected are from very diverse organizations in very diverse contexts: joint projects, collaboration between IOs, learning from one another. Innovators also recognize a need to be better connected with startups and private sector companies that often have designed solutions that IOs could scale.
Innovation can impact the mission of the IO
CFCD: How much does the difficulty for IOs to innovate jeopardize their very existence?
T.A.: I think this is one of the most interesting findings of our report: innovation can impact the mission of the IO. This implies a mission stretch. For example, the World Food Program’s (WFP) Building Blocks initiative seeks to make WFP’s cash transfers more secure, traceable, cheaper and collaborative using Blockchain technology. The project targets refugees and their families and has allowed WFP to reduce banking fees by 98%. But WFP’s mission is to eradicate hunger and poverty globally. So how does implementing Blockchain for payments match this mission? WFP is stretching its mission of delivering food to vulnerable communities by broadening its platform and acting now on a greater scale to comprehensively address the resilience needs of people in the field without shying away from the potential of new technology to aid in its mission.
So, yes, it is a threat, but maybe also a necessity to “rethink” one’s role and allow for a transformation. International organizations are better equipped than we think to go through transformation. The key is to think about their core mission and activities and redesign them in a new ecosystem.
CFCD: How much does the struggle for implementing innovation have an incidence on funding?
T.A.: Many IO funds are subject to big cuts, but at the same time new funding mechanisms to IOs and INGOs are being established. What they require is a more transparent and accountable mindset. This means that these organizations have to adapt new skillsets and ways of working. Personally, I see many great opportunities, but also the risk that the attention on financing innovations - which is needed - is distracting too much from building meaningful solutions to address the core of the problems. Ideally, they should go hand in hand.
We need to differentiate innovative ways of financing and financing innovation. Both are crucial for the survival of IOs, but only looking at innovative financing may distract from looking closely at the contents, the types of people or the priorities.
The only solution to make new ways of financing and new ways of doing innovation go hand in hand is to think about business models. How can a startup, an IO and a multinational company team-up? Who would take the risk? Who would be engaged long-term? IOs need people who understand the different sectors to invent new business models.
CFCD: How do you think these examples can lead the way to innovation at a larger scale, not only in the operational activities of the IOs but in their structure at large?
T.A.: Over the past ten years, both formal and informal innovation teams and structures have emerged within international organizations. UNICEF’s Innovation Unit was founded in 2006 and now includes UNICEF Ventures, which makes investments into open source technologies and UNICEF Innovation Fund, a pooled funding vehicle. UNDP’s Innovation Facility was founded in 2014 and has since helped develop over 170 projects in the country offices. WFP’s Innovation Accelerator was founded in 2015 and has projects ongoing currently in 30 countries. UNHCR also has an innovation service unit launched in 2012 that supports the experimentation within the organization and has brought many initiatives to live. ITC’s volunteer based Innovation lab was founded in 2014. These new structures are an important stepping stone in the innovation journey. They exist to assist staff in the essential transition from viewing the world as stagnant to viewing the world – and the activities of international organizations – as fluid, modular and moldable.
Innovation is the only chance to achieve the SDGS!
CFCD: Do you see innovation in IOs as a chance to achieve the SDGs or do you see the SDGs as a fuel to foster innovation in the IOs? Or both?
T.A.: Innovation is the only chance to achieve the SDGs. Technology and innovation are key to accelerate the process, but technology is not innovation. The Center for Global Development recently found that the SDGs are unlikely to be met by 2030 without rapid, all-encompassing innovation. After all, the SDGs were also bottom-up efforts.
CFCD: We can see in this report that partnerships are key to implement innovation at all scale. But at the same time, you identify some partners as becoming challenging when it comes to managing their expectations around what constitutes an impact. How can we overcome this challenge? How can the University help?
T.A.: University is acting as a neutral convener, allowing IOs to come around the table and share their ideas. I believe we have, at the moment, the largest database of innovation activities across IOs. Our ambition is to act as a place where different stakeholders can discuss eye-to-eye. To some extent, we are also a bottom-up initiative that is about to formalize its activities. We are currently launching an "i2i hub" – a platform to bring together IOs, private sector funding, and tech start-ups to create joint-projects focusing on improving the world and hope we can facilitate innovation activities in IOs.
Not every innovation in IOs has to be financially sustainable, but it has to be organizationally sustainable as part of an ecosystem.
CFCD: Among key challenges identified in the different projects studied, is the inability of some projects to shift from a non-profit model to a viable business model. What does it mean for you, as a business school professor at IOMBA?
T.A.: I think, in general, a big shift towards addressing the SDGs – or the Grand Challenges of this World – will only succeed if there is a business case. E.g. investments in climate change, eradication of hunger and poverty. There are also promising models of hybrid organizations – that have a social mission as well as a for-profit goal. And there is more of a recognition in big businesses that social goals are also important.
But most IOs are concerned with helping the most vulnerable in the absence of markets and institutions - and there will always be a need for social engagement. So, in short, I don’t think every IO innovation has to be financially sustainable, but it has to be organizationally sustainable as part of an ecosystem. And building organizations that can host and nurture such innovations is the next challenge.