Sorina I. Crisan, PhD
Innovation and Digital Transformation in the Humanitarian Field: Interview with Françoise Lamotte
What does it look like to work in the fields of digital transformation and innovation within the humanitarian sector? If you aspire towards a career in the humanitarian field and are curious to learn from the experiences of someone who chooses this honorable and crucial life path, then the work and personal story of Françoise Lamotte will greatly inspire you. Lamotte is leading the Digital, Data, Innovation, and ICT strategy and transformation efforts at Terre des hommes (Tdh), in Switzerland. She is also teaching university-level classes on the topics of innovation and management. In this interview you will learn about Lamotte’s: rationale for choosing to work with Tdh, the leading Swiss NGO in child protection; tasks linked to designing Tdh’s current Digital, Innovation, Data, and ICT strategy; insights about the overall work that organizations and companies need to accomplish in order to align with the United Nations 2030 ESG goals; personal lessons learned from having an international career path; views on how one may conduct humanitarian work while also staying engaged in academia; and much more. The article concludes with the interviewee’s valuable career related advice to junior professionals who are interested in following a similar line of work and profession as the one discussed in this interview.
Interview by Sorina I. Crisan, PhD
Françoise Lamotte leads the Digital, Data, Innovation, and ICT strategy and transformation efforts at Terre des hommes, in Switzerland, and teaches university-level classes on innovation management.
Q1. Thank you for taking part in the Persuasive Discourse interview series. As we start our conversation, could you please briefly describe: What attracted you to Terre des hommes and convinced you to work with them?
A new job is always placed at the intersection between a personal desire and a professional opportunity.
After spending a long international career working at the senior level, within various global corporations, I reached the point when I realized I wanted to make a different type of career choice, one that would allow me to use both my work experiences and expertise to serve the greater good. And, after having spent six years in Dubai, I was eager to come back home to Europe, to be closer to my roots and to live and work in an environment which best fits my core values and current desired lifestyle. While I was researching new opportunities in Switzerland, I noticed that Terre des hommes (Tdh), the leading Swiss NGO in child protection, put digitization and innovation at the heart of its strategy and that they were opening a director-level position to help with this new endeavor. I seized this wonderful opportunity and, as such, I was able to enter a brand-new world, at the juncture of humanitarian and development work, and that of nonprofit organizations.
Q2. What does it look like to work at the director-level with Tdh, and focus on the fields of Digital, Data, Innovation, and Information and Communications Technology (ICT) strategy?
When I took on this role, the position was new. As a result, I have had the chance to design Tdh’s current Digital, Innovation, Data, and ICT strategy.
Within the nonprofit sector, resources are scarce, and my first task was to build a strong foundation, by focusing on establishing processes and policies, developing systems for the support functions, and training staff to ensure a minimum level of cybersecurity and data protection. In terms of innovation, we are working towards strengthening the organizational culture by relying on a global network of champions (i.e., internal staff members who are appointed to foster a culture of innovation) and by supporting key projects through our own innovation fund. And, when it comes to digitalization, we are using technologies to develop solutions such as mobile apps and digital diagnostic tools, so that social workers or beneficiaries can be better equipped to handle their work and solve critical situations. For example, in April 2023, I visited a primary health center in Guinea where we train midwives to use the software Tdh developed for tablets to conduct prenatal consultations (please see the photo at the start of this article).
Q3. When and why did you become interested in working at the intersection of innovation, digital transformation, and the humanitarian field? And how do you apply these interests today in your work with Tdh?
Throughout my career, I have always been acting as a change agent to help foster better efficiency and customer experiences. I have accomplished this by leveraging technology and designing new solutions (for products, services, customer experiences, etc.) Today, there is no question that the same can and should be applied to the humanitarian field.
For example, at Tdh, when we innovate and deploy digital solutions: we can better control the quality of the services we provide, we can track and improve users’ performance, and we can increase efficiency when it comes to reaching more people. Furthermore, by using the vast amount of data we collect, we can build algorithms and machine learning models to detect trends and be able to further develop our activities. There is so much potential to do more and better work within the humanitarian sector.
Q4. In your professional experience, when looking at the field of innovation, do you notice that there is generally a specific common aspect that businesses and organizations should try to focus on to be sustainable and align with ESG responsibilities?
Successful innovation should always start with a deep understanding of the customer. The better we understand a customer’s needs and motivations, the more relevant our solutions can be.
Today, innovation must become even more a core objective of any organization. This is because we live in a rapidly changing environment. As such, there is an urgent need for businesses to be sustainable and adapt to any climate changes. Furthermore, given the large scope of the UN 2030 ESG goals, innovation can no longer be the remit of a few team members who are working within the research and development (R&D) departments. We need to call on our collective intelligence and lead a continuous effort in order to rethink our business models. Value creation should no longer be disconnected from achieving ESG objectives. And, beyond creating innovative products or services, organizations need to become more innovative when it comes to their performance goals. Plus, organizations need to take into consideration all their stakeholders and pay more attention to their employees, suppliers, communities, and the broader environment.
Q5. It is impressing and inspiring to observe that over the years, you have built a diverse international career path, and that you have worked not only in several European countries but also in Japan, the United States, and the U.A.E. Besides the career interests mentioned above, you hold leadership positions in large organization but also managed start-ups. It would be interesting to know: Why did you decide to start teaching at university-level? And what are some examples of classes that you enjoy teaching today?
As a young adult, I studied and worked hard to advance in my career. I developed initiatives and seized opportunities whenever possible. At the same time, I was fortunate to meet leaders who believed in my ideas. Every step of my professional life has been a mix of challenging and rewarding experiences. Further, being exposed to various cultures and different types of organizations has made me a global professional with a very curious and open mind.
My current career chapter is centered around sharing my expertise with others and giving back to society. Teaching university-level students is an exciting opportunity as it represents a way to transmit and influence young minds, tomorrow’s leaders. In my teachings, I focus particularly on raising awareness about the hard choices that managers must make and the fact that one needs to think about sustainability in everything that they do. I particularly enjoy teaching “innovation management,” the backbone of my professional life, and demonstrating to students that successful innovation needs structure and discipline.
Q6. Is there a professional choice that you made in the past, which you believe has helped shape your career for the better?
After completing my MBA at the MIT Sloan School of Management, I joined Boston Consulting Group (BCG), in Boston, U.S.A. In hindsight, the time I spent working at BCG has been one of the most valuable professional experiences I have had thus far, in terms of personal learning and development growth. There is no single day that I do not get the opportunity to put into practice the lessons I learned during that period in my life. I would recommend to anyone to work for a global consulting firm such as the BCG, because while working there one can develop skills which are thereafter useful and applicable to almost any circumstances.
Q7. Are there any other projects that you are currently pursuing which are passion-driven and feel highly valuable to you?
Another purpose-driven path I am currently pursuing is to be an independent board member for companies. This option provides me with the ability and platform needed to provide my experience and expertise to those organizations that are looking to embrace digitalization and innovation as key levers for value creation, competitive advantage, and sustainability. The challenges are numerous in this area, but the opportunities are even greater.
Q8. Would you like to share any remarks and/or suggestions for young professionals interested in following a similar line of work and profession such as yours?
There are four overall thoughts that I would like to share with young professionals.
During the first years of your career, choose to work in an environment where you can learn a lot and you can stretch yourself. Do not choose to specialize too quickly, so you may cultivate the skill of flexibility. Like this, you will be able to learn skills that will be useful to you for the rest of your life.
Always trust your gut and choose to work in a place where you can strive for the better and be happy.
The most important element in a job is the manager. A bad manager can make your life miserable. A great manager will help you succeed
Find a mentor who will help you make the hard decisions.
Thank you for reading.
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Director Digital, Innovation & ICT
Terre des homme| Switzerland
Adjunct Professor of Management & Innovation
Illustrations by: The photos in this article were made available by Françoise Lamotte.
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