Shirin Hamid, Principal Director & CIO, Asian Development Bank

By Nurfilzah Rohaidi

Women in GovTech Special Report 2019.

How do you use technology/policy to improve citizens’ lives? Tell us about your role or organisation. 

Asian Development Bank (ADB)’s mission and vision resonate with me. In ADB, I see my role and that of the IT department as invigorating the work of our colleagues with the use of technology. This enables them to more productively assist ADB’s developing member countries in alleviating poverty and improving the quality of life of their people.

Our IT team has put in place a digital transformation program based on the Bank's Real-Time ADB IT reforms and our Digital Agenda 2030 to enable the organisation to increase efficiency, productivity, resiliency and innovation.

Today, many of the business benefits and objectives set by the strategy have been achieved, including building core, modernised IT platforms. As an example, we have set the foundation for cloud applications enhancing organisational effectiveness and resilience, while assuring cybersecurity. We also introduced IT mobility and flexible working arrangements by providing laptops and mobile devices to transform a typically desk-bound workforce, and improved online meetings to enable staff connectivity, anytime, anywhere.

What has been the most exciting thing that you worked on in 2019?

My team and I intensified our digital transformation initiatives in ADB in 2019, including the continued use of online collaboration tools. Modernising content collaboration has dramatically reduced ADB’s paper consumption. For example, paper usage at the 2019 ADB Annual Meeting was reduced by 82 percent compared with that of the previous year.

We automated ADB’s fund accounting and reporting, which enables more strategic management of the Bank's partner funds. Eliminating spreadsheets means much faster reporting, stronger internal controls and reduction of exposure to risks, and improved transparency and efficiency.

For data governance, we are taking efforts to provide official definitions and sources of data items used in ADB. This enables a “single version of the truth” in managing data and facilitates effective integration of ADB’s IT systems.

In line with our goal of having a dynamic and empowered IT department, we have initiated changes leading to the evolution of IT’s role from that of a support office to being an integral business partner for every department and office in ADB.

What is the best thing you have experienced in your career?

To see change happen and reap the benefits of that change is very rewarding. What is critical is that there should be an appreciation of the need to change and a conscious effort to effect that change. Staff should want it, and be committed to it. I’ve seen my staff grow and have the maturity to set aside differences to accomplish tasks.

There are many moving parts, but the team works together very well, like a well-oiled machine or, in a more modern context, like an integrated system, with everyone working together for a common goal. There is synergy of ideas, actions and solutions when people come together.

Making a positive impact is something that I embrace and encourage in my staff. With IT’s role evolving from mere support to an integral business enabler, organisations like ADB are relying more and more on technology and people’s synergy to improve productivity and efficiency.

If you were to share one piece of advice that you learned in 2019, what would it be?

Strike a balance between the things that matter the most. This means nurturing both personal and professional relationships.

I take my commitments very seriously. My values keep me grounded when there’s so much going on. My commitment to my family, especially to my children who are growing up fast, is balanced with my commitment to deliver programmes at work. The quality time I spend with my family has the same intensity as when I work on projects to satisfy ADB’s clients and stakeholders.

For work, my advice is to invest in staff with the same intensity as you invest in technology. This is critical for building trust and promoting extreme teamwork.

What tool or technique particularly interests you for 2020?

As part of ADB’s Digital Innovation Sandbox Programme, we piloted in 2019 an artificial intelligence (AI)-powered intelligent concept paper to assist in the preparation of problem trees. ADB already has a wealth of experience and knowledge in the development landscape and this is the first time that we have combined people with AI to scan project history, country plans, media reports and other data to identify the problems in ADB’s developing member countries.

Harnessing AI to auto-generate parts of the project concept papers and coupling that with staff and on-the-ground inputs means the quality of the problem trees will be better, and with time, we will discover the true long-term impact of the projects being seeded. The project was launched in one of our regional departments. We’re looking forward to scaling this up in 2020.

We have also launched an HR bot for enhanced recruitment and application processes—a first among multilateral development banks—and put in place the first platform for crowdsourcing solutions or generating breakthrough ideas to help ADB solve development and institutional challenges.

To further strengthen the digital skills of ADB staff, we are also putting in place a Digital Fitness and Learning programme that will give staff access to e-learning tools and resources.

What are your priorities for 2020?

Our team has achieved a lot in modernising ADB’s IT systems and infrastructure in the past four years. In 2020, we will manage close to 35 IT projects. Among these projects, three are extremely complex and need to be closely monitored: (i) delivery of a modern, user-friendly platform for loan, grant, and technical assistance disbursement that replaces the 40+year-old mainframe systems; (ii) delivery of the remaining digital products for an integrated end-to-end solution for non-sovereign operations; and (iii) development of a modern sovereign operations platform. We will also continue to support and maintain IT systems and infrastructure at the headquarters and in field offices to ensure existing IT systems are aligned with bank-wide policies, reforms, and processes.

What is one challenge you would like to take on in 2020?

We are taking on several IT projects in 2020 that will benefit the entire bank and its member developing countries. The challenge will be in delivering these projects, an effort which will more than double our current workload, and doing so with limited resources.

Thankfully, extreme teamwork is entrenched in our department culture. We are making full use of our available talent and resources to achieve these ambitious and complex goals. We are proud that IT is at the forefront of driving efficiency, collaboration, innovation, and knowledge sharing within ADB.

What has been your fondest memory from the past year?

For work, gaining the trust and continuous support of the Bank’s President and Management for ADB’s digital transformation journey drives me to do more in striving to meet clients’ and stakeholders’ high expectations and in accelerating change in information and digital technology.

On the personal side, seeing my two children grow, maturing emotionally and becoming more independent through the years gives me joy and a sense of pride. When I look back at the many adjustments and sacrifices my husband and children have made so that I can thrive at work, I am humbled and very much thankful for their support. It was not easy for the family to uproot ourselves each time we had to relocate for my work, initially from Singapore to New York when I took on a position with the United Nations Development Programme, and subsequently from New York to Manila (where the ADB headquarters is located).

It was difficult for my children, who were barely in their teens, to leave their friends in the US after having lived there for more than a decade, and to start on a totally new programme and curriculum at school in the Philippines. Relocating across borders and especially hemispheres, is never an easy decision.

There were initial setbacks. However, in the context of a smaller and more connected world, we have all learnt to adapt. With technology, we have been able to strengthen the ties with old friends while building new social circles in our host country. Indeed, this willingness and ability to adapt and thrive may be one of the most meaningful competencies a parent could give a child.