I watched with great fascination the visit of Bill Gates to Australia this week. His session on Q&A was excellent with great questions from a diverse audience. He was also good at the Press Club lunch, although the questions from the press were decidedly average (proving that no journalist can go a lunch and desist from drinking a full bottle of wine).
Bill was spot on the money with his message – that properly targeted resources can make a real difference to the tough problems in the world. He showed us the outcomes, highlighting the reduction in infant mortality as a key indicator of success. He also highlighted the influence that the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation has had in driving towards that success.
This set me to thinking why a “software geek” should be so effective when countless billions of aid money from other sources has done less. I think there are a few imperatives that he has learned as a CEO of Microsoft that stand him in good stead for the task:
1. Outcome driven. There was very clear purpose in the work that Bill presented. The purpose could be expressed simply (eradicate Polio) and no matter how complex the issues, all initiatives could be measured against this target.
2. Information Technology. Bill knows that IT is really about the information and not the technology. You have to gather good information, work out what the problem / opportunity is, postulate a solution, implement and measure, react to the outcomes with new programs or improvements to existing programs. Technology allows you to do this at scale, but information and analysis point you in the right direction.
3. Governance. Bill understands how powerful a force governance is. As the world’s richest man, he must be tempted to decide unilaterally, but evidently that is not his style. His position on GM foods was telling – don’t stop the science, but put in place governance structures for countries to decide whether the risk outweighs the benefit.
I contrast this with my experience as CIO for the International Red Cross. I was besieged by donors wanting to put technology in the hands of the poor. The purpose was to provide wings so the poor could fly! I would emphasise that technology costs resources to operate and unless the value proposition is clear it withers (as happened to innumerable high tech aid projects). Where resources are needed is in the systems and data that can be used to improve livelihoods.
Well done Bill for squeezing $80M from Julia for his cause celeb, and well done for inspiring us to keep trying to make the world a better place. I have just one request – please don’t die before you eradicate polio!