Member Profile: Saeed Elnaj, Project Concern International

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February 06, 2017

Member Profile: Saeed Elnaj, Project Concern International

A herd of goats raising dust in arid Ethiopia. Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Brown, PCI.

By Saeed Elnaj

Vice President, Global ICT, Project Concern International Project Concern International

Our Member Profile blog series features InsideNGO members talking about their work and how they manage the operational challenges within their organizations. Saeed Elnaj, vice president of global ICT at Project Concern International, joined PCI in 2015 after a distinguished career on the private sector side of information technology. Here he talks about managing IT services across 11 countries, the importance of KPIs, and how partnering with Google on an award-winning project provided his team with learning opportunities.

Q: You began your career in the private sector. Tell us a little bit about your path to PCI.

A: Most of my career has been in the private sector working for companies such as Oracle, Ericsson, and the Ooredoo Group. Working with Ooredoo in telecommunication in international settings and in developing countries paved the way for me to work with PCI. In many ways, managing IT assets and services is similar in for-profit and nonprofit organizations. For example, the email system, cloud, collaboration, website, intranet, mobile technology, cybersecurity, HCM, or ERP systems have very similar functionality, implementation, and requirements in both types of organizations. However, IT assets tend to be drastically different and more complex in for-profit organizations when it comes to supporting customer service, product lifecycle, risk, and compliance management.

What are some of the specific operational challenges/issues you face in your role?

Supporting our global IT operations in developing countries where internet access, electrical power, and technology skills are limited is a big challenge. Hardware delivery and support is quite a challenge as well, with additional costs and regulatory implications, not to mention providing helpdesk support across a wide range of time zones where local technical skillsets are very limited. Also, unifying our IT products and services across 11 countries is a big challenge along with unifying the IT governance and IT spending decisions globally.

What strategies/tactics do you use to respond to these challenges?

About eight months ago, we conducted an assessment of our IT products and services globally, and based on that we came up with a number of initiatives. First, we embarked on what we called the Productivity Initiative that would move many of our IT collaboration tools and assets, including email, into the cloud, eliminating the need to purchase, ship, and support hardware and servers. We have moved eight out of the 11 countries where we operate into Office 365, and we are in the process of moving the remaining three. This obviously creates another challenge as it increases our reliance on power and internet connectivity in certain countries where power and internet connectivity are still an issue. So, we are working with our country directors to improve connectivity, and we are also working on a solar power initiative to address the acute power shortages in some countries. As for IT governance and unifying IT products and services globally, I have worked with the executive team to create an IT investments committee, and we are in the process of creating a catalogue of IT products and services that will be unified across all countries, but I must admit, it will be a long journey until we get there. However, once we get there, making IT investment decisions will be easier, more efficient, and more effective. (Read Saeed’s blog on Managing Change in the IT Department here.)

How do you define operational excellence in the specific area of information and communications technology within the NGO sector?

From my perspective and regardless of being an NGO or a for-profit organization, operational excellence can only be achieved if it is measured, monitored, and improved. This can only be done by applying a set of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that are specific to the IT operations. I have written a blog on this topic called 7 Essential KPIs that Quantify IT Value, but in a nutshell, KPIs such as average handling time (AHT) for helpdesk tickets, unit cost per user, and agility and project delivery KPIs are essential to understanding where the IT department is and how well are we performing and delivering IT products, services, and ultimately value to the organization.

The field of IT is ever changing and innovating. What kind of learning and development opportunities do you provide to your team in order to keep them advancing professionally?

Attending technology conferences and training classes are essential tools for keeping up with technology advancements. Obviously with limited resources, we have to focus on training and conferences that directly correlate and add value to what we do and need. So, our training plans are focused on increasing our knowledge of Salesforce and Office 365 since these are two core technologies that we rely on to run the organization. We also had staff members attend the Salesforce Dreamforce ’16 conference, and we will continue to send people to these type of conferences in the future. Clearly there are technology innovations where we rely on outside vendors to educate and keep us up to date on these technologies and support us with projects that require them.

One good example of this is the Satellite Assisted Pastoral Resource Management (SAPARM) program that was selected as a winner in the 6th Annual Classy Awards for innovation. On this project, our innovation team along with partners from Google and USAID utilize sophisticated technology such as the processing of photosynthesis on images taken by satellites of specific areas in Africa to produce maps. These maps indicate the availability of grasslands and help our pastoralist beneficiaries in their herd migration routes. In such cases we rely on vendors and partners to solve these specific complex technology innovations, and our staff benefits by learning about such technologies throughout the project.

What do you perceive as the value of InsideNGO membership for you in your leadership role?

InsideNGO offers us a tremendous value where we all benefit from the wisdom of the crowd. The vast majority of the InsideNGO members have similar missions, goals, and operations, and many times we are doing almost the same thing at the same time. InsideNGO provides a great platform for sharing and exchanging ideas, knowledge, and experiences. I always read the InsideNGO IT Practice Group newsletter, and I do my best to always attend the DC IT roundtable meetings. The amount of experience and knowledge sharing is unimaginable and adds a great value.

 

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