Reflecting on Eight Years of Community Investment Worldwide

Reflecting on Eight Years of Community Investment Worldwide

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As Microsoft approaches the eighth anniversary of its Community Technology Skills Program (CTSP), I have been taking some time to reflect on the opportunities imagined and realized, the amazing things we’ve learned about running a global community investment program, and how all of that will guide our work in the years ahead.

Since CTSP was founded in September 2003, the program has touched the lives of more than 200 million people. In Colombia, we have seen former combatants in the country’s long-running civil conflict sitting side-by-side in free computer classes that offer them new hope for employability and economic opportunity. In Portugal, where the once-thriving textile industry is in decline, thousands of displaced workers have attended computer skills classes as a way to prepare for new careers. Even in regions where few jobs exist—such as the poverty-stricken Eastlands of Nairobi, Kenya—technology training is giving young people the skills they need to establish their own small businesses.

Over the years, Microsoft has invested more than $400 million in CTSP cash and software grants with over 1,500 community partners offering technology-related job skills training. During that time, Microsoft’s approach to CTSP has evolved as we have learned what works (and sometimes doesn’t work). But our focus has remained consistent: providing technology skills training to empower individuals and create economic opportunities that can help transform underserved communities.

Over the coming weeks, I’ll post a series of blogs reflecting on the insights we’ve gained and how our community investments have matured since the CTSP program began. My hope is to stimulate a conversation about the role that multinational corporations can and should play in local communities, and the most effective ways to accomplish that.

For example, the initial CTSP plan envisioned grants being used to provide ICT access and basic skills training for a range of purposes—from teaching the elderly how to use the Internet to helping reduce social ills such as human trafficking. As the program expanded and more people attained basic ICT skills, we saw that the most successful local community efforts were focused specifically on providing ICT skills for employment and livelihood.

In Sri Lanka, for instance, rural farmers began using newly acquired computer skills to get quick diagnoses of crop diseases. And in India, computer training and access enabled fishermen to get up-to-date information on the location of local fish stocks.

Over time, Microsoft has sharpened the focus of CTSP to deliver workplace skills training that will have a lasting, measurable impact. For example, we have learned that NGOs with a well-defined social mission and focus on providing people with skills relevant to their local economy are the most successful partners. We know that strong community leaders with a vision and deep local roots can greatly influence the participation level and effectiveness of community programs. We’ve seen that it’s possible to run a global program with a unifying vision while enabling decision making at the local level. And we are closer than ever to aligning our community investments with our core business and competencies.

I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished. At the same time, I’m cognizant that the world has changed since we started CTSP, as has the technology landscape and the role of technology in society and in peoples’ lives. To keep pace, our community investments will continue to advance as well—building on what we’ve learned and on the evolving needs of local communities and governments.

We will continue to explore ways to sharpen the program’s focus, both in term of helping underserved populations access technology and helping those who have access but lack the opportunity to apply those skills to their own growth and development. We will continue to draw on the many lessons learned—through our experiences on the ground, in partnerships with NGOs and intergovernmental organizations, and through insights gleaned from academic research on the program and its impact.

In the next post later this week, I’ll discuss what we learned about the importance of identifying partnerships that meet local needs.

 

Note: This is the first in a series of blog posts reflecting on the evolution and impact of Microsoft’s Community Technology Skills Program.

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  • The Technology & Social Change group at the University of Washington has worked closely with Community Affairs over five years to expand knowledge about the role and impact of ICT training, to provide guidance that Microsoft could use to improve CTSP, and to create public awareness about program results.

    As a longtime observer, reading about how Microsoft "sharpened its focus" on workplace skills sounds simple. However, treating this strategic shift as a simple choice obfuscates the difficult logistics and logic that preceded this focus. Microsoft picked grantees working in complicated development settings where challenges defy simple solutions and impacts are difficult to isolate and measure.  They learned along with their grantees what worked and didn’t work.  And they faced trade-offs. Companies may think that a PR bump from philanthropic activities is easy. Microsoft's experience tells a different story—that community investment and relationship building can make a real impact in the lives of people who need it most, but that it is not simple or easy.

    Akhtar's willingness to share his stories is testament to the “learning organization” approach they’ve followed with CTSP. Looking forward to the entire series!

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