Ellen YountWelcome to ISPI’s Organizational Spotlight! This column focuses on our members-some you may know, some you may not. Each month, we will explore what brought them to ISPI, how they use the principles of human performance technology (HPT), and their insights into the value of membership. This month our interview is with Ellen Yount, Vice President, John Haecker, CPT, Director, Management Systems International.

Management Systems International (MSI) was founded in 1981 with the goal of improving public management and fostering entrepreneurship in the United States and around the world. As a firm and as individuals, we strive to promote and embody an unflagging commitment to excellence, transparency, and personal responsibility, and to leave a world better than the one we inherited.John Haecker

Does MSI work locally? Nationally? Internationally? Globally? How does your organization approach human performance technology in each of these landscapes? Is it different? How so?

MSI is a trusted international development consulting firm working in partnership with USAID, multi-lateral donors, foundations, NGOs and governments. Started 30 years ago, today MSI employs over 700 people, with a corporate presence in a variety of countries and manages long-term projects in 25 countries, including in some of the most complex environments in the world such as Sudan, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Given the range of countries in which we work, our approach to human performance technology differs widely from country to country and client to client. For instance, in Iraq, where we have spent the last 6 years implementing the largest USAID-funded public administration reform in over 4 decades, we felt that a train the trainers approach coupled with systems reengineering was the right thing to do for sustainability. Ultimately, this was a successful model, leading to more than 106,000 public officials enrolling and benefiting from training and best practices. Core public management systems were changed in 11 of the country’s key line Ministries.

Ultimately, we hope to build local capacity and invest in people, systems and processes that will be sustained long after MSI’s work is completed. We take a rigorous approach to understanding client needs and the environments in which they work, and then use tailored interventions that are appropriate to the particular client organization.

How does MSI adapt to performance improvement needs for the today’s variety of generational workforces?

We try to stay on top of the latest IT and social marketing trends, recognizing that today’s younger workforce does not communicate in the same way as staff in the 30+ age range. For our projects, that also means incorporating Facebook and Twitter, as well as podcasts and YouTube, into the way we communicate.

For others, the approach may be more traditional.

Because MSI is a very flat organization, we strive to make sure that a regular dialogue is undertaken between all levels of our staff – from the most senior technical director to a newly hired project manager. We encourage collaboration but also an independent work style.

How do you use social media in your work? As a resource? As a solution?

We use social media in a corporate sense to market out work, reach out to new audiences and engage in dialogue about important foreign aid reform and foreign policy topics. Social media has become part of our overall communications offering, allowing employees to engage with us but also allowing new audiences to hear about, see and absorb the value of our work. MSI is actively engaged with Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube. Increasingly, we see the value of telling the development story using video, given that YouTube is the fastest growing social media medium.

At the project level, we are launching efforts to incorporate social media into our outreach to “stakeholders.” For instance, in Ghana, where we are implementing a local government project, we have just developed a Facebook page to reach out to audiences to tell them about the project and reforms underway. And in Egypt, we have instituted a dynamic, web-based exchange giving voice to, and summarizing in newsletter format, the hopes and aspirations of Egyptian youth.

Our main client, USAID, has just started an aggressive social media effort in the last 1-2 years and we are trying to stay in step with them.

What is your favorite CPT-HPT story?

In Iraq, we are proud of the work we have done in partnership with USAID under the Tatweer project, a massive public administration reform project (the largest the agency has undertaken since the 1960’s). When the project began, we encountered an enormous body of under-skilled workers who had been cut off from international best practices for two decades. Civil service legislation was 50 years old with over 600 conflicting amendments to the law. No plan existed in the government to prioritize the nation’s rebuilding efforts.

Our work has helped to bring about a significantly different approach to public administration and the quality of civil service personnel – ultimately building key capacity.

We worked with 11 key government ministries and 5 executive agencies to upgrade the skills of a broad range of employees nationwide in core public administration areas. We also provided 120 scholarships to government and private sector candidates to receive master’s degrees in public administration at esteemed universities in the Middle East. We trained over 1,600 trainers through a nationwide train-the-trainers program and developed courses certified by the U.S. National Academy of Public Administration.

As important to long-term sustainability, we helped the government (as a result of skills acquired and systems installed) effectively execute 80% of its budget in 2009 – a dramatic improvement from the 44% level in 2006.

What excites you about ISPI’s work?

At its essence, the work we do is about helping organizations build capacity and ensuring long-term sustainability. That can mean training personnel in critical skill areas, designing organizational strategies, improving business processes, developing leaders, helping manage change and transition, or a host of other PI interventions.

When we can help organizations with important social missions move from their modest, often-precarious beginnings to long-term sustainability, we know we’ve had real impact. That’s exciting! ISPI serves as a focal point for those of us committed to this work.

What types of learning/performance improvement opportunities does MSI offer its employees? Its clients?

MSI nurtures a culture of learning. There are several ways in which we try to expand learning; at a most basic level by encouraging internal and external training opportunities. Several years ago, we also started an annual event called the MSI Institute. Held every January, our key technical staff holds “courses” on their work, as a way to introduce it or provide a refresher to other technical staff with whom they might not come into daily contact.

In addition, we hold a regular, monthly brown bag series which typically features our work out in the field when staff returns or passes through Washington, D.C. This is a way to hear “first hand” accounts of the important development work MSI is implementing. Increasingly, we are conducting similar activities in webinar format.

MSI is organized around a number of practice areas such as Economic Growth, Natural Resource Management, and Democracy and Governance. We come together on a regular basis to look at opportunities, staffing needs, and broader, more strategic decisions.

In addition, as part of a worldwide network under the Coffey International Development umbrella, we share our resources, technical knowledge both informally and formally with our colleagues in the UK, Australia, the Middle East and Africa.

We also take part in many international development organizations which discuss key issues, advocate for foreign aid reforms and funding and seek to better articulate the important role of the private sector in bringing innovation and American ingenuity to development.

For our main client, MSI has become a trusted training partner on a number of topics. Any given month, you can expect MSI trainers to be working intensively with the Democracy and Governance Staff, USAID communicators around the world or training new entrants on project design, management and evaluation.

How has MSI’s approach(es) to performance improvement changed over time?

We apply the same overall principles and use some of the same tools as when we started 30 years ago. Just as level of sophistication in the application and the use of technology has increased, our efforts have deepened enormously. We have also benefitted greatly from the tailoring made possible by work in more than 500 organizations in 60 countries during the last 3 decades.

We’ve always tried to take a systems perspective to solving problems. But one of the biggest differences is that we’ve grown, as have our clients, so that we’re often working at a much larger scale and with broader global reach. The problems have become more complex and diverse.

Finally, as the institutional capacity and human resource base have improved in many of the countries where MSI works, we have developed new forms of partnership and new business models to make fullest use of these resources and to maximize our contribution to building local capacity.

What has your organization learned from the recent economic slowdown?

Fortunately, the pace of international development work has not seen the same decline over the last few years. However, we expect our industry to be affected in coming months by severe cuts to the foreign aid budget; this will certainly impact the work that we do with USAID. However, we will continue to seek out new federal government clients, as well as offer our services directly to governments worldwide.

Our philosophy will continue to be one of providing value to our clients and helping them to manage change.

What interesting things does MSI do to manage and develop its human capital?

From the early years of the company, the founders of MSI operated it as a professional collegium. That means our professional staff have a great deal of independence and know they are very much respected for their technical expertise. It’s a very flat organization that emphasizes individual initiative. This gives the company a distinct culture in which many thrive, although we also recognize that people who desire highly-structured work environments may not do well here.

The respect we share amongst our senior technical staff also extends to our younger staff, many of whom go on to illustrious careers with the Foreign Service and other international organizations. In the last few years, several employees were accepted at MIT, Yale and the U.S. government’s Presidential Management Fellowship program, as well as the U.S. foreign service.

Within the international development community, MSI is known not only for its quality technical work, but also as a great place to work. We are equally committed to our work and to our families. Several home office employees work remotely from other states and countries. Long ago, we created a week-long costume party, recognizing that serious work should lend way to serious play. Our softball, basketball and soccer teams are legendary.

Our floating offices are a unique aspect of MSI life. Our D.C.-based staff is housed on sixteen houseboats docked at the Southwest Waterfront, near Nationals Stadium.

Our employees represent a wide spectrum of languages, cultures and countries; we are a small United Nations. Our senior staff illustrates the commitment men and women make to MSI – collectively, they have worked here for over 240 years and a third of all employees have been with MSI for more than 15 years. Women comprise more than half of our senior staff.

How does human performance technology add value to MSI? How do you measure it’s worth and value?

We see the value added of human performance technology through our success with our clients. HPT is part of our value proposition to help organizations improve what they do and how they do it. We also think it’s an important part of preaching what we practice.

Performance technology is also an important part of MSI’s client offerings. MSI has a well-established practice in Strategic Management and Performance Improvement, helping clients improve their plans, their operations and their systems for measuring and reporting on progress. Since most of our clients are public- and non-profit organizations, value and worth are typically measured by increases in productivity, improvements in effectiveness, and program achievements, rather than a bottom line; and stakeholders include legislators and taxpayers as well as program implementers and beneficiaries.