We are celebrating a significant anniversary: Mr. Robin McLaren, Director of Know Edge Ltd. (Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom) started his activity in Hungary twenty years ago, in September 1992 within the framework of the PHARE Aid Programme of the European Union. His firm won the tender announced for the technical assistance of the multi-annual computerisation programme of the Hungarian land registration network. It consisted of many component projects and involved significant elements of organisational and business change. The beneficiary of this most expensive and complex programme was the supervising authority, Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.
Robin celebrated the anniversary with the former Hungarian colleagues in Budapest over dinner on the Danube. Ms. Maria Toth worked as the project assistant in those years, and she interviewed him on this occasion.
The beginning of the Computerisation
of the Hungarian land office network
1. Dear Robin, please tell us how the unusual name of your firm was created and what its meaning is.
In 1986 I left my job in Toronto, Canada as the product manager of a state of the art GIS solution and sailed back to Scotland on a Polish ship to start a new life. The voyage lasted six days and I had plenty of time to contemplate starting and naming a new GIS consulting company. The idea for the unusual name came to me over the mid-Atlantic ridge. I didn’t want to name the company with any terms such as ‘geo’, ‘mapping’ or ‘GIS’. I wanted something different that people would remember; and it has certainly worked. As for its meaning – that is entirely up to the interpreter! However, I have thought about forming a ski touring company called ‘Off the Edge’ and a landscape architects company ‘Know Hedge’.
2. Please introduce your firm, its past and present. In 1992, you were the director of a six-year old small Scottish consulting company that was unknown in Hungary when you started to organise the task of computerising the land registration network. The success of this project was of vital importance for the Hungarians, considering the requirements of the new compensation law. Unfortunately, the traditional paper based registration system was not suitable for facing the challenges.
Prior to starting Know Edge Ltd, I was a software engineer and designed and developed GIS solutions in Scotland, Switzerland and Canada – this included land registration and cadastral solutions. In fact I helped to develop the world’s first Land Information System that was installed in Basel, Switzerland and Munich, Germany. Armed with this leading edge technical knowledge I decided to form an independent consulting company in the UK – the company was the first of its type in the UK. It was an exciting time as this was brand new technology and its introduction within organisations raised difficult, but stimulating challenges. Initial customers included utility companies, local government, financial services and land and property agencies. Although unknown in Hungary, my company had established a reputation and pedigree for being independent, for successfully implementing GIS solutions in complex organisations and delivering significant benefits. Although successful in the UK market, I was aware that the UK economy was about to dip into a serious recession in the early 1990s and strategically needed to identify markets outside of the UK to spread the risk. The Hungarian project was ideal and also perfect timing.
The company is now 27 years old and my enthusiasm for consulting projects hasn’t diminished. I am trying to slow down a bit, but I have failed – the projects just get more interesting. This past year I have helped the Iraq government create a National Land Policy, supported the World Bank to improve state land management in Kuwait, launched an initiative to use crowdsourcing to capture land rights and supported the Canadian government in visioning their Geomatics sector in 2020.
3. Why did you apply for this job in Hungary? Apart from business viewpoints, did you have any other reason?
In the late 1980s Prof. Peter Dale had introduced me to international consulting in the land administration sector – I was part of a UN-FAO mission to North Yemen to improve their land registration and cadastral systems. I loved the challenge of these initiatives and to help citizens around the world achieve greater security of tenure. So when the opportunity arose in Hungary, I was enthusiastic to pursue the contract through the EU PHARE programme. I am also an explorer at heart and get excited by new adventures.
4. What kind of expectations did you have when arriving in Hungary? How much did you know of the country, the people and the language?
I had briefly experienced Eastern Europe in 1968. As a Boy Scout I had travelled to Poland and Czechoslovakia to climb in the Tatra Mountains. We narrowly missed the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia by a day. This started my fascination with Eastern Europe and established my desire to travel and experience new cultures. Therefore, when the opportunity arose to visit and work in Hungary and help the Hungarians transition from communism to a market economy, I was very enthusiastic. A key supporter in pursuing the opportunity was Prof Peter Dale, who has been a great mentor over the years.
Although I had a Hungarian professor at the University of New Brunswick during my studies and worked with several Hungarians in Toronto, I knew very little about the country, the culture and the language. However, I knew I liked Hungarians very much; a proud race and full of life. I wasn’t disappointed when I arrived.
5. Which were your first impressions when entering the Ministry to discuss the start?
It was like entering a time machine and going back in time 40 years; both in the austere surroundings and the mentality of the Ministry after so many years under communist rule. I knew that our land reform project was going to be a real challenge. However, the project luckily had Hungarian members who understood and were enthusiastic about the changes required. I knew, even at this early stage, that we were going to be successful.
There was one lasting memory of the first days on the project: the ‘paternoster’ lift in the Ministry (I still haven’t been over the top).
6. How did you start the project? Did you have to face difficulties?
The initial task was to create a project team capable of responding to this significant challenge. I had to find Hungarian counterparts that could not only communicate and gain trust with the Ministry and Land Offices, but could also understand and work well with the Know Edge Ltd consultants (not always easy!). I was very fortunate to engage Mária Tóth as project assistant and PA, Ádám Podolcsák as counterpart project manager and Marta Jenei as project technical support. I also managed to persuade Richard Baldwin to leave his academic position in the UK to be the project manager. Top level support was provided by Aladár Zichy within the EU Office and his support proved invaluable for the success of the project. Without this great team the project would have failed in the first few months.
The other major difficulty the project faced was its relationship with the EU Delegation in Budapest. The EU Delegation was a difficult and sometimes hostile stakeholder to deal with. This relationship never improved over the lifecycle of the project and in the end the EU Delegation brought Know Edge Ltd’s involvement in the project to an end in a very unprofessional and unfair way.
However, my lasting memory of the start of the project was my first visit to the Budapest County Land Office located in a small house in the suburbs. When we arrived citizens were lined up for about 600 metres around the block and there were TV camera crews interviewing the citizens. I knew then that we had a serious problem to solve and we had to solve it quickly!
7. What is your opinion of the Hungarian partners in your project?
The project was fortunate to have a set of Hungarian partners that not only intimately knew the current approach to land registration and cadastre in Hungary, but embraced the significant level of change, both technical and cultural, required in the Ministry and the Land Office network. They were also good communicators and were very influential in selling the proposed changes to their colleagues. László Niklasz, András Osskó and Piroska Zalaba were key success factors in this complex change management programme.
8. How was the project activity terminated?
This was one of the very few bad experiences on the project. Know Edge Ltd tendered and won two contracts with a total duration of four years. This continuity of the consulting team and the associated consistent strategic approach was instrumental in allowing this complex programme of work to succeed. However, despite obtaining confirmation from the EU Delegation that Know Edge Ltd could bid for a third contract, the EU Delegation cancelled the third contract once Know Edge Ltd had won the tender. No explanation for the cancellation was provided by the EU Delegation and their hostile tactics forced Know Edge Ltd to abandon support of the project; a sad ending to one of my most enjoyable and successful projects.
9. Which are the results, the success on your side?
The success of the project is reflected in the vibrant Budapest I visited at the end of 2012. Citizens have been able to secure their land and property rights, obtain mortgages and invest in their buildings. There is a robust and efficient land registration and cadastral system that citizens trust and this has led to a vibrant land market – the ultimate aim of the project.
Throughout the project I was determined to ensure that we transferred our skills and knowledge to effectively capacity build in Hungary. What we started has continued and Hungary now has some very talented Land Professionals who are not only changing Hungary, but other parts of the world. This is the best legacy.
10. Which are the lessons you learned from working in Hungary?
I am continually learning from projects and the Hungarian experience was no exception. Some of the lessons learned included:
Although the project was labelled as a ‘computerisation’ project, the technology aspect was the least important. The major challenge was the associated cultural and behavioural changes needed to take advantage of the technology – a change in mind-set. For many Hungarians this change was difficult because under the previous regime they were not taught to think outside of their box or even contemplate and propose change. Don’t ever under-estimate the time and energy required in change management.
Although the majority of the change associated with the project impacted the operational staff, it is really important to spend time with senior management to ensure they understand and are comfortable with the proposed changes. The move to a service oriented organisation is a big one.
Projects only succeed if the politicians and the funders of these initiatives understand the benefits of their investments. A different set of terminology and language has to be used in this on-going engagement strategy. Projects succeed if they have a senior, high profile champion supporting them.
Most ICT projects assume that solutions should be provided by major international technology suppliers. However, if there is local capacity then much more sustainable software solutions can be achieved using local suppliers, especially using open source solutions.
Ensure that there is a common vision established and agreed across the stakeholder communities before starting implementation. In Hungary’s case, the ‘Takaros’ vision was very successful in communicating this vision.
11. Could you use the experience you gained in Hungary somewhere else in the world?
I constantly use my Hungarian experience and have used it in projects as far afield as Mongolia, Philippines, Iraq, Kuwait, Kenya and Scotland. The Hungarian success has not just touched and improved my projects, but has been used as an exemplar in how to modernise land registration and cadastral systems across many regions of the world. It is a project that Hungary can be very proud of.
Robin celebrated the anniversary with the former Hungarian colleagues in Budapest over dinner on the Danube on August 29, 2012.