During the Q&A session following Secretary Clinton’s speech on the Internet and freedom (previously discussed here), she said something that warmed my young heart: “We need the guidance of technology experts. In my experience, most of them are younger than 40, but not all are younger than 40.”

I was reminded of this recently when a colleague from a competitor firm bragged to USAID that his entire team was under 30.  His theory, which was greeted by sage nodding from the USAID delegation, is that most people who operate technology in South Sudan are under 30 and that their cultural deference to older people would make it difficult to create the peer relationships necessary to understand – and solve – IT challenges.  His approach was to take smart, young people who are interested in working in Africa and release them into the provinces of South Sudan with a laptop, a Sudanese colleague, and a boda-boda driver.  Good intentions, quick thinking, and the ability to quickly build rapport would win the day.

Deloitte’s approach (and the USAID approval process) prefers more experience.  For example, we are in the process of deploying a Financial Management Information System in South Sudan and our entire team has worked on similar problems for decades.  They have the grey hair to prove it.  There are manifest advantages to having a team that knows what it is doing: they remember what has worked (and failed) before, they understand the range of applicable solutions, and they don’t have to reinvent the wheel.  In this model, subject matter expertise, the ability to anticipate future challenges, and gravitas carry the day.

These options are not mutually exclusive.  Successfully deploying a new system requires teams that include both members with significant experience and younger members for whom it will be easier to connect with local IT staff.  (This is also a great way to get analysts and consultants out of the home office and into the field.)  While every project requires a different mix of capabilities, I think that the right team can be formed based on the following principles:

Understand the Audience. I am uncomfortable arguing that age alone determines the ability to forge successful relationships, but I think that it is a factor.  The guy in the server room, the computer operator, and the analysts (i.e. the people who use the technology) are young.  The managers and the political leadership (i.e. the people who make decisions about the technology) tend to be older.  Understanding this dynamic and structuring project teams to effectively work with this range of technical capability and leadership experience, is important.

Furthermore, as part of our efforts to build capacity, it would be incredibly valuable to match junior-level IT personnel with junior-level advisors, just as we match senior policy makers with experienced practitioners.  The IT environment – its security, reliability, and accessibility – has a huge impact on our ability to deliver effective solutions.  Mentoring the guys in the server rooms and working with them to provide a better infrastructure could be multiple the impact of the project.

Understand the Technology. The public sector in emerging markets tends to have limited infrastructure and technical capacity.  While deploying a client-server (or even a cloud-based) architecture may be the preferable long-term solution, this approach requires whole-scale modifications to the operating environment.  These modifications are costly, complicated, and chancy.  For example, a 2006 survey on eGovernment in developing countries found that only 15% of implementations were fully successful.  Today in South Sudan, the government relies on a primarily paper-based process for recruitment, appointments, and payroll.  Admittedly, this process is inefficient, inaccurate, and inflexible, but it still exists 60 years after it was implemented by the colonial government.  

While I disagree with solutions that reduce everything to an Excel spreadsheet (much less paper), simple prototypes that can be designed, developed and deployed quickly can be more effective.  Designing these prototypes requires a deep understanding of the problem, but doesn’t require extensive technical skills.  Deploying staff that gravitates to the simpler, less disruptive and (potentially) longer-lasting solutions can help implement technology that is more sustainable over time.

Understand your Goal. eGovernment systems achieve multiple goals: they streamline (and sometimes create) processes, they improve data quality, and they allow governments to perform new services.   They require inter-disciplinary teams that are able to understand the regulatory environment, improve the existing business processes, develop systems, and provide training on the solution.  If you think about these projects as purely technology – or, worse, structure your team with only technologists – you will be less likely to succeed.

I have no clue whether this broad scope means that teams should be younger or older, but I think it is a powerful argument for diversity.  Technology projects demand teams with varied competencies and (some) of these skills can be best provided by younger staff.