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Mobilizing Technology for Development

Chapter 3 | Staff Skills and Mindsets for DTT Support


The World Bank Group’s fiscal year 2020–22 Human Resources Strategy presents key insights about the staffing issues that confront the Bank Group. Reflecting the latest thinking in organizational psychology, it recognizes the need to build new staff skills and expertise and foster a growth mindset for continuous learning in the face of rapid technological change.

This evaluation found that the Bank Group has yet to (i) identify the staff skills needed to harness disruptive and transformative technologies (DTT) opportunities and mitigate DTT risks; (ii) ensure that its information systems and databases provide information on its current DTT-relevant skills; and (iii) take action to fill any gaps.

Expertise across institutions and units is not leveraged efficiently, especially in bringing together the DTT expertise of technology staff and the sector knowledge of specialists and task team leaders.

The number of existing staff with DTT-relevant skills is insufficient to meet client demand, especially in areas such as regulatory reform, data privacy, cybersecurity, 5G networks, and artificial intelligence; consequently, staff with these skills are often overstretched. A mindset for continuous learning and adaptation is also lacking in the Bank Group.

DTT-Relevant Staff Skills and Mindsets

Providing DTT support requires specific skills and mindsets. DTT-relevant skills include those that enable Bank Group staff to (i) provide informed advice to clients on technology policy, regulation, and standards; (ii) guide clients about risks such as income inequality, data privacy, or cybersecurity; and (iii) help clients mine large data sets for policy insights. DTT-relevant mindsets include those that ensure that Bank Group staff (i) learn continuously and adapt to technological change; (ii) use innovative solutions to tackle development challenges; and (iii) adopt an entrepreneurial (problem-solving) approach to address new development challenges.

Bank Group Recognition of Key Issues

The Bank Group has recognized the necessity of upgrading staff skills and the need for staff to embrace a growth mindset for continuous learning, given the rapid changes caused by DTT.

The Bank Group’s Mainstreaming paper acknowledges the importance of addressing staff skills in providing DTT support (World Bank 2019h). The paper notes that the Bank Group is using the annual business planning process to plan for the impact of disruptive technologies on the emerging skills it will need.

The Bank Group’s FY20–22 Human Resources Strategy notes that one of the “most pressing challenges” is skills gaps that impede delivery of changing Bank Group priorities, including thought leadership on disruptive technologies. The strategy also mentions the need for staff to embrace a growth mindset for continuous learning. Furthermore, the strategy recognizes that the Bank Group will need to build a pipeline of future leaders possessing skills such as emotional intelligence and resilience, collaboration, problem solving, critical thinking, innovation proactivity, and continuous learning.

The Bank Group recognizes the need for staff who can innovate, given the interconnectedness of DTT and innovation. A 2017 World Bank report notes the importance of having staff with technical expertise and staff with the right mindset or attitude as a prerequisite for innovation, including technological innovation (World Bank 2017c). Drawing on IEG’s Supporting Transformational Change evaluation (World Bank 2016c), the 2017 report emphasizes the importance of staff with an entrepreneurial attitude and a willingness to take risks. The report also flags hiring and retention challenges at the Bank Group that have bearing on the diverse skills needed for innovative work.

The World Bank recognizes that operational involvement in incorporating technology in World Bank–supported projects still tends to be piecemeal. A forthcoming ASA, The Converging Technology Revolution and Human Capital: Potential and Implications for South Asia, notes that although operational involvement in incorporating technology is widespread across many World Bank–supported projects in the South Asia Region, it still tends to be piecemeal and “pilot-focused” (Bashir and others, forthcoming). The ASA explains that technology and innovation are rapidly changing, while the skills mix of staff is largely unchanged, with limited basic knowledge and lack of dedicated funds and technical resources for task team leaders to experiment with innovation. Furthermore, it notes that engagement with local country experts and with global experts is limited by lack of both time and basic knowledge of technology trends and issues.

IEG Findings

  • Based on the IEG-DECDG joint analysis of staff skills for DTT support undertaken for this evaluation, the key findings are that the Bank Group has yet to (i) identify the DTT-relevant skills that it needs; (ii) ensure that its information systems and databases contain the necessary information on its current DTT-relevant skills; and (iii) take action to fill any gaps.

IEG—in collaboration with DECDG—assessed the state of the Bank Group’s current staff skills in providing DTT support. The assessment asked this question: Within the Bank Group, how widespread are the technical skills and experience that are relevant for DTT support across the Regions? The objective was to gain insight into the Bank Group’s current state of preparedness to help clients harness DTT opportunities and mitigate risks and to generate recommendations. IEG and DECDG developed a two-part approach to the assessment (see box 3.1). The approach was impractical, given the findings listed and described in this section.

Box 3.1. IEG and DECDG’s Two-Part Approach to the Staff Skills Assessment

Part One: Defining terms. The Independent Evaluation Group and the Development Economics, Development Data Group investigated whether the Bank Group Human Resources Department had created a taxonomy of skills and competencies using consistent definitions. Such a taxonomy would facilitate an assessment using standard Bank Group–wide definitions and would help avoid definitional confusion. The existence of SkillFinder suggested that such a taxonomy might exist, which would be useful for assessing the current state of skills and competencies relevant for disruptive and transformative technologies (DTT) and for clarifying any recommendations that the assessment might generate.

Part Two: Gathering and analyzing relevant data. The Independent Evaluation Group and the Development Economics, Development Data Group worked jointly to devise a list of proxy data (from SkillFinder, People Profile pages, human resources, and other institutional sources), which, although perhaps not a precise account of the current staff skills and experience relevant for providing DTT support, might at least yield actionable insights. This list included the following:

  • The number (and proportion) of Bank Group staff who have skills and competencies relevant for providing DTT support, and the following information:

How these staff are spread across Regions, Global Practices, grade levels, and geographical locations (headquarters versus country offices)

The number of years of service they have completed in the Bank Group

Their primary, secondary, and tertiary specializations

Their professional, cross-cutting solutions areas (now called Global Themes), and Global Solution Group affiliations

Their current mapping to career streams and job families

Which talent boards or career advisory panels oversee and advise on their career management

The sector and theme codes associated with the projects and advisory services they have led as a task team leader

Previous experience at other organizations relevant to DTT.

  • The Bank Group’s Communities of Practice and Yammer groups. These would conceivably offer an insight into how many staff were sharing their interest or experiences in working on DTT.

Source: Independent Evaluation Group and Development Economics, Development Data Group research.

SkillFinder did not provide reliable information for assessing DTT staff skills and gaps. The SkillFinder mechanism was self-reported and optional. At the time this evaluation was being conducted, only 21 percent of World Bank staff had self-reported their skills and competencies.1 SkillFinder contained about 6,200 individual skill entries, but there was no taxonomy of skills, and no definitions had been assigned to any skills. The skills list was simply an open text field into which staff could enter what they chose. There was no oversight or governance of SkillFinder. Given the small percentage of World Bank staff who had opted in and the fully subjective nature of the skills reported, it was determined that the data would not be useful for this evaluation.

Although there are some improvements, many of the SkillFinder problems persist in the recently updated People Profile pages. The updated People Profile pages software now encourages staff to fill in their profile by showing them how much of their profile is incomplete. All official areas of expertise have been merged into a single attribute, eliminating the need for a staff member to specify primary, secondary, or tertiary specializations. The lack of a skills taxonomy and definitions of skills, incomplete staff profiles, and absence of oversight or a governance mechanism, however, are persistent gaps in the updated People Profile pages. Coursera and LinkedIn provide working examples of skills taxonomies from which the Bank Group could glean relevant ideas.2

The usefulness of much of the other staff data (identified in box 3.1) is contingent on gathering good-quality data on Bank Group staff skills and competency. For example, information on geographic locations, specializations, affiliations, career streams, job families, projects and ASA, and previous occupations is moot if good-quality Bank Group staff skills and competency data are missing.

Obtaining curriculums vitae (CVs) of Bank Group staff is not straightforward since no electronic database compiles all staff CVs using a standard structure and format, and CVs are also self-reported with no oversight. This means that there is the possibility that CVs may under- or overreport academic qualifications and work experience or report them in various ways.

Gathering information on the Bank Group’s Communities of Practice (CoPs) is likewise not straightforward; the only readily available information is an inventory of CoPs but not membership. Moreover, some CoPs are Microsoft email groups and others are Outlook groups, and all manage their membership through nonpublic email distribution lists, for which points of contact are not readily identifiable. Of the few CoP focal points that this initial analysis yielded, some were hesitant to share membership details. Further investigation is necessary to canvass CoP members and CoP focal points, demonstrate to them why these data are necessary for analysis, and obtain listserv information.

An examination of World Bank Yammer groups also does not provide insights into the range of skills relevant to DTT. IEG and DECDG investigated whether a relationship exists between staff membership in World Bank Yammer groups and thematic relevance to DTT. Analysis of World Bank Yammer groups found that these groups are informal and open to all World Bank staff, based on an enrollment ethos that promotes awareness of and engagement with a particular subject. As such, there are no threshold criteria for technical expertise or operational experience to create a group, nor is there a representative number of groups across the World Bank’s thematic areas relevant to DTT work. Although Yammer groups may coalesce around DTT-relevant themes,3 they are not a source of information on the DTT-relevant staff skills of their members.

  • In Bank Group staff interviews conducted for this evaluation, interviewees reported shortages of staff possessing DTT-relevant skills, pointing out that existing staff with these skills were often overstretched. Interviewees also reported that mindsets for continuous learning and adaptation were lacking in the Bank Group.

IEG’s analysis of the interview data using NVivo suggested that the Bank Group has insufficient DTT-relevant skills or mindsets.4 Of the 70 interviewees who talked about staff skills, 52 interviewees (or 74 percent) reported a lack of DTT-relevant skills. Of the 28 interviewees who talked about staffing mindset, 22 interviewees (or 79 percent) reported a lack of a DTT-relevant mindset.

Interviewees generally indicated that too few Bank Group staff have DTT-relevant skills. Although there have been recent initiatives to build DTT-relevant skills (box 3.2), interviewees noted that there are not enough ICT specialists, regulation experts, geospatial specialists, data managers, data scientists, statisticians, and technology lawyers. There being few available DTT-skilled experts means that often those experts are not able to respond to existing client demand in areas such as regulatory reform, data privacy, cybersecurity, 5G networks, intellectual property issues,5 and AI and often become overstretched. The lack of DTT-skilled experts may also mean that Bank Group policy dialogue is weakened, especially when the client is better versed in the latest technologies than Bank Group staff. Bank Group interviewees also mentioned a shortage of technical experts on ID4D. Demand from country clients for ID4D support has grown substantially, even as a billion people globally are still unable to prove their identity and millions more have forms of identity that cannot be reliably verified or authenticated. In a country visit undertaken for this evaluation, country clients noted that the Bank Group often provides generic advice, which may suggest a lack of expert knowledge on specific technologies. Interviewees noted that staff with cutting-edge digital skills can be forced into more generalist roles, potentially making it difficult for them to keep up with relevant developments in the digital world. Furthermore, successful DTT support depends on staff acquiring and using relevant skills and adopting a growth mindset, but interviewees highlighted some caveats regarding this at the Bank Group. In particular, a mindset that favors standard or normal projects over those requiring new learning or techniques constrains skill acquisition and development.

Bank Group interviewees in the Digital Development Global Practice and IFC corroborated a shortage of DTT-skilled staff. Recent IFC hiring has sought to address gaps in DTT-relevant expertise. Interviewees noted that staff dedicated to fintech and digital entrepreneurship generally have the technical capabilities and necessary skills and are often able to reach out to qualified consultants to supplement these skills. Nevertheless, World Bank interviewees working on digital development pointed to insufficient expertise, especially for regulation of technological companies and platform firms, and in data privacy, cybersecurity, and DTT-relevant procurement. Regarding IFC, interviewees noted that staff can respond to much of the demand, but that they could do more if the venture capital and fintech teams had more qualified staff. Furthermore, they noted that IFC has good industry specialists in debt financing who understand the sector and keep up with technological changes, as well as solid investment staff, but it needs more specialists in mezzanine and equity products, which require very different skills than those needed for working on debt. More recently, following IFC’s reorganization and the creation of the Disruptive Technology and Funds and Upstream units in FY20, IFC has begun to increase staff in DTT-relevant areas, including specialists in AI and machine learning. However, it is too early to assess the effectiveness of these measures.

Box 3.2. Recent Initiatives to Build Skills Relevant to Disruptive and Transformative Technologies

A number of recent initiatives in the World Bank are supporting learning for staff with roles related to disruptive and transformative technologies:

  • The World Bank’s Open Learning Campus aims to facilitate online university degrees for staff on artificial intelligence, blockchain, internet of things, cybersecurity, 5G, and regulation.
  • Information and Technology Solutions has a Technology and Innovation Lab whose goal is to “serve as a catalyst, enabler and accelerator for Bank Group staff to learn about and build expertise around emerging technologies’ potential to support the Bank Group development agenda.” It also has an active staff learning program (Learn2Innovate) that partners with Global Practices for learning sessions on topics such as blockchain, artificial intelligence, and other technologies with potential applications to the World Bank’s work. It aims to apply design thinking principles to the projects it explores and prototypes it develops to ensure that the solutions reflect end-user preferences.
  • Sustainable Development has a learning program on the use of technologies for remote preparation and supervision for projects, including remote supervision using virtual reality.

Source: World Bank data.

Interviewees noted insufficient focus on learning and adaptation. The lack of learning inhibits adaptability, which has been called the “new competitive advantage” (Reeves and Deimler 2011). An adaptability quotient has recently been proposed to measure the extent to which individuals and organizations will thrive in the twenty-first century.6 IEG’s second Learning and Results evaluation noted that a learning mindset is hindered at the World Bank by weak handover arrangements between incoming and outgoing task team leaders, poor on-the-job mentoring, insufficient focus on lesson learning by the peer review system, and inadequate rewards for learning and knowledge sharing (World Bank 2015a).

Developing the requisite skills to support DTT for development could come from a combination of new recruitment (of staff, consultants, or both), retraining, secondments, outsourcing, and external partnerships. Bank Group interviewees discussed scenarios in which one or some combination of these might apply. New recruitment would be best in situations where DTT-relevant skills are continuously needed, as in the case of data scientists, for example. Education sector staff noted that the EdTech Fellows program, with 25 fellows—including some newly recruited by the Bank Group—could provide lessons, both positive and negative, on instilling openness to new technologies and enhancing specialized skills for DTT for development. Interviewees identified retraining as an option for staff who already had the technical foundation on which to build. Client interviewees noted that Bank Group advice did not always promote the latest relevant technologies,7 and staff interviewees perceived insufficient investment in training for DTT-relevant skills and poorly targeted training.8 Secondments offer a viable option for growing lines of business, where the Bank Group could consider hiring seconded staff after having tested them during the secondment period. Outsourcing specific DTT functions may be considered for highly specialized or temporary needs. Finally, external partnerships with other development organizations, the private sector, academia, or nongovernmental organizations could also help access missing skills and spur innovation.9 External partnerships could also help the Bank Group increase the scale of projects, for example in education by partnering with companies whose online teacher training platforms are accessed by millions of teachers. A few recent partnerships provide some lessons (appendix G discusses the Famine Action Mechanism and the Bank Group–LinkedIn partnership).

Interviewees noted that for the Bank Group to be at the forefront of DTT for development, Bank Group staff would benefit from opportunities to engage with top-level technology experts. Lokshin and Sajaia (2019) note that to be a trusted adviser, the Bank Group should “support a strong team of top-level development experts integrated into the international tech community.” Furthermore, Bank Group interviewees reported that access to development practitioners in leading technology companies that are taking on development roles would also encourage the flow of knowledge and expertise across technology and development domains, sparking fresh solutions to complex development challenges. A DTT knowledge platform that combines such expertise could contribute to the Bank Group’s DTT thought leadership and enable it to use cutting-edge DTT knowledge in the pursuit of the twin goals.

Bank Group staff and managers pointed to the need to better leverage the DTT expertise of technology staff and the sector knowledge of specialists and task team leaders. A point of convergence in staff and managerial interviews was that the Bank Group needs staff with technological expertise who are familiar with what the institution does and who could be the technological connectors with sector specialists, operational task team leaders, clients, and vendors. Furthermore, the Bank Group needs task team leaders who are open to adopting technological solutions, which can be achieved through targeted training sessions.

IFC interviewees perceived that DTT expertise in the TMT group initially suffered from the realignment of TMT teams that now report to regional infrastructure units (rather than to TMT at headquarters) and from rotating non-DTT staff into DTT positions, which diluted IFC’s ability to maintain thought leadership in DTT. The workforce planning and restructuring in recent years has resulted in losing some middle management and knowledgeable staff. These individuals had been the ones informing senior management and instilling knowledge in younger staff. Recent initiatives, such as training bootcamps, knowledge sharing, and systematic sector mapping have aimed to improve IFC’s thought leadership and expertise. In addition, some IFC teams, such as those working in fintech and venture capital, have maintained and in some cases added to their expertise.

  • Previous research undertaken by the Bank Group had identified a shortage of staff with data science and statistical skills—skills required to generate and analyze granular development data for policy insights.

There is a shortage of staff with data science and statistical skills in the Bank Group. The Development Economics Vice Presidency and Human Resources undertook a snapshot analysis in 2018 using staff job titles, which determined that 84 staff were working on statistics and data issues. Of these, 43 worked in Development Economics, 13 were in Global Practices, and the remainder were in institutional, governance, and administration units (such as ITS and Treasury). IFC also identified a dearth of data scientists and a lack of the mindset and business culture needed to employ these data scientists effectively. At the 2019 Data Day, then Bank Group CEO Kristalina Georgieva noted that there were fewer than 100 operational data scientists and statisticians and that she wanted this number to grow and for these staff to also increase their skills. The newly launched Data Governance body and its supporting Data Governance Steering Committee—set up to provide executive leadership, oversight, and support for data-related matters—is a positive development.

Bank Group data scientists and statisticians have limited institutional visibility, limited opportunities for mobility and advancement, and limited opportunities for career development. The Bank Group is missing an opportunity to benefit from a functioning market of data science and statistical knowledge that could be mobilized to enhance rapid and effective services to internal and external clients. Cutting-edge data science and statistical capability is essential in the Bank Group because such expertise can help in both generating more granular development data and analyzing them in ways that yield more granular policy insights for the twin goals. Collaborative work by the Group Internal Audit (formerly the Internal Audit Department of the Bank Group) and DECDG pointed to the lack of a career stream for data scientists and statisticians and recommended that this be addressed (World Bank 2016d). Bank Group management committed to this as part of the Management Action Record for the Group Internal Audit report. A subsequent 2018 Development Economics study found recruitment of data scientists and statisticians had been ad hoc, with no consistent process to ensure standards of selection, promotion, or skill enhancement to meet institutional needs. This also meant that there were limited opportunities for current data science and statistics staff (de facto) to interact, share knowledge, or move into appropriate positions. A 2019 analysis by the Group Internal Audit pointed to analogous findings (World Bank 2019j). In a positive development, discussions continue concerning possible next steps for the creation of a Bank Group career stream for data scientists and statisticians.

  1. SkillFinder covered only World Bank staff, but the People Profile page has been released Bank Group–wide.
  2. Coursera is focusing on skill development in three subject areas, given that these domains cover skills that will increasingly become crucial to the future of work. Two of these subject areas are technology and data science (the third is business). Coursera has developed a taxonomy of over 40,000 skills in these three areas and has developed competencies and skill levels. See Coursera’s Global Skills Index:
  3. At the time this evaluation was being conducted, the following Yammer groups were examined: Digital Transformation Collection—World Bank Group; Digital Transformation of Energy; Digital Financial Services in Africa; Digital Agriculture and Food; Digital Development Community of Practice; Digital Governance GOV Global Practice Community of Practice; Information and Technology Solutions Technology and Innovation Lab—Tech Community; MNA Tech Community of Practice; and GovTech Leadership Group—World Bank Group.
  4. The phrase “lacks sufficient DTT-relevant skills or mindsets” refers to either an insufficient number of staff with DTT-relevant skills or insufficient DTT-relevant skills or mindsets in staff.
  5. For example, equitable and appropriate technology partnerships with the private sector may require new business and legal skills, as well as leveraging the World Intellectual Property Organization relationship, where relevant.
  6. See Natalie Fratto’s TED Talk, May 2019:
  7. Client interviews noted that Bank Group advice on climate change, agriculture, and education did not necessarily promote the latest relevant technologies such as the digital tracking of water leakages, artificial intelligence for crop monitoring, or smart classrooms.
  8. Interviewees cautioned that trainers need to be carefully selected and noted that the Bank Group could reshape its retraining programs to incorporate lessons learned in Silicon Valley. They also noted that it would not be efficient to use the most highly skilled data scientists to provide basic DTT training to generalist task team leaders. They suggested that basic training in DTT could be mandatory for most staff and that more specialized, higher-level training (for example, in artificial intelligence, 5G networks, or blockchain) could also be provided for a smaller group of relevant staff.
  9. Engaging in the budding movement of public interest technology on college campuses can be helpful to capture cutting-edge knowledge and harvest fresh ideas.