For Technology Solutions, Design with the Field Office in Mind

Melissa Cook
May 1, 2018 | 3 Minute Read
Many field-based international development projects struggle with frequent power outages and low bandwidth, making coordination with the home office a challenge. How can the development community better support field offices?

Have you ever asked yourself “did the person who built this software system ever even remotely talk to anyone that has to use it?” I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that you (like me) have. Digital transformation efforts are littered with cautionary tales of designing tone-deaf systems that don’t meet the needs of the company. Over the years at Chemonics, we have developed many disparate, siloed information management and accounting systems, which in recent years have been showing normal signs of aging. They don’t “talk” to each other and they require a lot of computer code patches and manual work-arounds to maintain. Static data is usually emailed back and forth across the 76 countries we work in. Like a lot of companies, we use Excel more often than we’d like to.

Sound familiar? You’re not alone.

The world has vastly changed in the 10+ years since we launched our simple accounting software in our field offices abroad. Overseas communications have dramatically improved, regulations have become increasingly complex, and access to information no longer depends on where you are. Today the world is connected, online, and rapidly changing. Global development organizations must be able to adapt to this new environment.

In response to these challenges, we began our digital transformation journey in 2016. Our new Enterprise Resources Planning (ERP) system will be built by customizing Microsoft Dynamics 365 software to meet our requirements. This initiative has two phases:

  • Phase 1 (complete): We shifted all staff onto a single, cloud-based work environment for email, file storage, and Microsoft applications. We also converted our 4,380-person global workforce onto Office 365, which means home- and field-office staff are finally using a mutual document management library, eliminating delays in information sharing and allowing for more streamlined collaboration.
  • Phase 2 (current stage): We are transforming and automating our key business processes to replace legacy business systems, streamline project management, and make innovation easier through an open enterprise IT platform.

The digital transformation initiative is creating a more unified and inclusive workforce by bringing Chemonics staff onto a single cloud-based, digital platform. Staff in all project field offices will be able to take more ownership of their program, as they will have real-time access to their own employee data, financial reports, and project management tools for the first time. Most importantly, by globalizing and streamlining our financial and business systems, we are empowering our global workforce to simplify moves and seamlessly transition between roles in field offices and the home office.

We recognized that to successfully develop and implement an ERP system for our global network, it was critical to understand and be able to meet the needs of the personnel implementing our programs around the world — often in low-resource environments that are faced with frequent power outages, low bandwidth, and other logistical challenges.

Putting the Field Office First

We recognized that to successfully develop and implement an ERP system for our global network, it was critical to understand and be able to meet the needs of the personnel implementing our programs around the world — often in low-resource environments that are faced with frequent power outages, low bandwidth, and other logistical challenges. We sought to avoid the common pitfalls companies often make when rolling out major organizational reforms, such as starting with the home office shepherding the institutional change.

By putting the field offices first, we are turning the ERP transformation process on its head. Our system was designed with users from both field and home offices, piloted in our field offices, and will be continuously developed in the field before the final step of home office roll-out. We selected multiple pilot programs to influence the design of our ERP, based on varying structure, size, scale, and complexity of program needs. With each field office pilot program, we are learning, updating, renovating, and advancing our capabilities as a global organization.

We have already gone “live” in the Dominican Republic — our first of four pilots — and we are gearing up to test and employ increasingly advanced and complex features of the new system in Africa and the Middle East. As we continue to pilot the ERP in our field offices, the Digital Transformation team has taken valuable lessons from the initial pilot activities. In addition to continuously collaborating with the field office, we have become cognizant of a shift in roles and responsibilities and how we can most effectively support teams from the home office. It is our responsibility to identify a pathway for success for each of our field office members and we are developing a robust set of training materials and tools to be utilized by all staff as our programs transition to the new system.

Continued process improvement is cross-cutting and vital to the global development community. From Afghanistan to Zambia, our field offices will continue to drive our digital transformation. By meeting the needs of the field offices, we better serve our clients — streamlining otherwise burdensome processes and dedicating our time to increasing our development impact. Seamless collaboration and increasingly efficient project management will change the way we work, together.

About Melissa Cook

Melissa Cook is an economic growth specialist with 15 years of experience in strategic planning, program development, capacity building, and systems strengthening. As Deputy Chief of Party on USAID’s E-PESO program in the Philippines, she designed and implemented USAID’s largest digital finance program. She currently leads Chemonics’ Digital Transformation team to create and implement a…