The grill: Ken Murdoch

In crisis situations, this CIO helps deliver services to children, squeezing value out of every donation

Ken Murdoch's colleagues at the Save the Children Federation venture where few corporate workers go: war-torn countries, poverty-stricken regions and areas devastated by natural disasters. Yet this CIO's 30-member IT team must provide the same technologies that businesspeople in posh office buildings expect. Consider, for example, that Save the Children was one of the first nongovernmental organizations to have its networks restored and running following the catastrophic 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Murdoch's IT team made Skype operational again in less than 24 hours, allowing Save the Children officials to appear on news shows to provide information and appeal for aid, while the organization's remaining IT infrastructure was up in less than 72 hours. Murdoch credits his team for such successes. Here he discusses other aspects of leading Save the Children's IT operations.

Ken Murdoch

What do you do in your spare time? I try to spend as much time at home as possible. [Murdoch has been married for 29 years and has two grown children.]

Do you have any hobbies? Coaching baseball (summer semi-pro baseball at the college level) and football (at a private high school).

What's the best business book you've read? It's Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy, by Capt. D. Michael Abrashoff.

If you weren't in technology, what would you want to do for a career? This might sound kind of corny, but I'm doing it now. I'm working for good; I'm working for a cause.

How does IT support the overall mission of your organization? Our IT team is very much an integral part of the overall mission of our agency. Our main focus here is to make sure that we give our business divisions the ability to cut down the time it takes to do things, have faster responses in emergencies, and do everything we can do to support the agency's goal of creating change for children.

Save the Children works in areas where many global companies won't operate. What are the challenges you face in serving the IT needs of your colleagues in such areas? The biggest challenge is [usually when] we walk into a situation where there's very little connectivity and limited commercial power. I was in Ethiopia a year ago visiting a school at one of our education programs, and in the classroom, you're working on daylight. There are few power sources, so there's limited computation capabilities, and that's just in the regular day-to-day and not even in the emergency response mode.

What are the challenges of moving into areas following traumatic events? What are the key technologies that you rely on? In most cases, when the immediate infrastructure is disabled, we'll rely on satellite phones and BGAN units -- that's satellite communications for voice and data -- and Skype to enable the nimble and immediate communications we need. If I were to compare the situation in Japan to the one in Haiti [following the earthquakes in those countries], the approach was very different in each one. With Japan being such a technology-leading country, there were better and more available technologies to set up a quick response. But in Haiti, the infrastructure was a lot less mature, and we were forced to do more with satellite phones and satellite communications.

What can IT departments at for-profit organizations learn from your experiences? Having come from that sector -- I spent 30 years in for-profit companies -- a lot of the disaster recovery and disaster-recovery planning really focuses on servers being down, systems being unavailable -- and not on natural disasters. So what I think they can learn from us is [to] be prepared for a natural disaster, have that as part of your planning. And that it comes down to people who are trained and willing and able to execute the plans. A trained and committed response team is key.

Which of the past decade's technology advances have made the most difference in supporting Save the Children's work? I would have to say the Internet. The Web, social media tools and SMS text have helped us to make the most difference in supporting what our organization does. The Web has enabled us to provide and receive the communication we need with our donors and sponsors, and the use of text messaging to donate via SMS has helped extend our reach demographically.

Looking ahead, what technologies hold significant promise for your organization? I see the continued use of social networking tools -- the Web, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and Skype. They're places where you can reach vast numbers of donors. The other things are mobile devices, cell-powered devices and the ability to take photos and upload information as quickly as possible using those devices. The bottom line is that all these technologies help us build credibility. These technologies and the ability to appeal to broader constituencies help us to be a trusted agency. It's important because it helps us with fundraising and the ability to give credible information to donors and sponsors as to where our dollars are going.

Nonprofits are often judged on the amount of each dollar that goes toward its mission versus its overhead and operations. How does that influence your decisions as CIO and the IT department's objectives and operations? The percentage of revenue and ROI calculations are different. And there's a different way of managing IT. We make every effort to establish partnerships with the vendors to put the game-changing technologies in place and to reduce our implementation costs and provide us with reasonable and low-cost operator goals for ongoing run costs. People always forget the ongoing maintenance and run costs, the total cost of ownership behind it once it is live. We're appealing really to the technology vendors for the sense of utilizing technology for good. The bottom line is: How do we provide technologies better, faster and cheaper, so we can maintain a low-cost approach and deliver on every dollar given to us?

Interview by Computerworld contributing writer Mary K. Pratt (

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Mary K. Pratt

Computerworld (US)
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