Friday, April 18, 2014

The challenge of scaling digitally

(this piece was originally posted on the Stanford Social Innovation Review website on April 18, 2014)

Organizations like BRAC are built on the philosophy that development happens when people sit together. Though we work in a variety of sectors—including agriculture, health, education, and microfinance—community organization is a pillar of our model. And across our 12 countries of operation, including Bangladesh where we have our global headquarters, more than 95 percent of our staff members are based in the field.
Consequently, like many community-based organizations in Bangladesh, BRAC is deeply skeptical about emerging technologies: They seem to lack the critical human dimension of grassroots interaction that has proven instrumental for decades. If we move to dispersing loans and stipends via mobile money, for example, will staff and clients still have the same quality of rapport that weekly home visits and community meetings foster? Could algorithms and data-driven decisions replace field smarts and experience? At our second-annual Frugal Innovation Forum last month in Savar, Bangladesh, we tackled this issue head on by asking: Is it possible to “go digital”—to incorporate more technology, digital finance, and data-driven decision making into service delivery—without losing strong relationships with clients and communities? Building on last year’s forum, our constant emphasis on scale—whether digital tools would enable us to better serve our millions of clients or not—is implied in the question. We invited practitioners, including many from South Asia and East Africa who were utilizing or considering utilizing technology, digital financial services, or data in innovative ways, to share their experiences with us. We also shared some of our early experiences on these themes from BRAC. Here are some of our takeaways: