CIO East Africa (Nairobi)

20 December 2012

East Africa: The Year That Was - Mental Excursions, Self Enhancing Thoughts and Inspired Rumination of Our Abilities

One of the darkest moments in European history goes back to the dark ages when many a people lost their lives because of the incessant misuse and manipulation of information to achieve absolute control over an ignorant and uneducated populace.

In retrospect the wars, pogroms, witch hunts and the pestilence that dominated that era was man expressing himself, trying to explain the un-explainable, I think he lacked at that time the means to be human, to think, and find solutions to problems, because his mind was curtailed, his thoughts were primal in nature.

During that era, books were hand written and knowledge was very expensive to come by, at times at the cost of human lives, the only written text available to the masses was found chained to monasteries in the form of a bible, and its translation to the illiterate folk was based on the proclivity of the resident monk. Thus by all means, the Gutenberg printing press was the single most effective tool to have brought man back to his purpose, while allowing him to transcend the animal state he had descended into; he was able again to express his thoughts with some level of enlightenment.

You may ask yourself, "what does this rummaging through history mean to me, I am intelligent, educated, forward thinking and alive in a time in history, when technology seems to be reinventing itself at the speed of light". My assertion to you is exactly that, if you were sitting on a beam of light and I launched your from the sun with a direct trajectory to the other end of our galaxy and asked you to collect relevant information along the way. You would probably move so fast that the information overload you experience will deter your mind from perceiving anything throughout the length of the journey.

The message here is that we need to make sure that we are not getting into another digital dark age, where we think we know about everything, but actually know about nothing of relevance, to our existence.

In this piece, I will take you through the year 2012, in brief, allowing you to see using the focal lens of our good magazine CIO East Africa and how we covered and looked at different technologies and thought leadership that ideally would empower CIOs in our region.

An Analysis of the CIO Role:

So what has been keeping you busy lately as a CIO? Have you been managing an IT crisis or two, have you been negotiating with IT vendors or are you in the middle of your latest drive to control IT costs? If so I have two statements that you need to write in indelible ink and recite to yourself every time you have an opportunity. They are "build influence" and "make a difference"

For you to build influence you have to empower the team under you, delegate more IT operational work to your trusted lieutenants. Inspire them to want to see themselves as corporate citizens with a mandate on "how make a difference". Train them well so that they display competence and are able to partner effectively with business stakeholders and allow them to build and improve relationships with the said stakeholders. And on your own volition make sure you are engaged with the thoughts of the stakeholders, in order change perceptions.

So how do you make a difference? Look at ways to improve end user workforce productivity, are there areas where you see bottlenecks in the current system, or have there been voices of dissent about how inefficient a process is whether manual or automated. Look at it and improve it.

Have you had a look at your core business processes? Are you happy with them, or do you think the turnaround time for some of the systems can be enhanced? Do something about it; re-engineer the process while you are at it.

While you are at it, look at the quality of the products and services that the business is bringing out, and see how you can enhance the quality or bring quality assurance to them.

Finally find ways to lower the company's overall operating costs, while gaining efficiencies and make sure you quantify and communicate this aspect with impact and clarity for all to see; in the end you stand to gain.

In essence the aim is to move your department from being viewed as a cost centre, to you being treated as a business partner, a business peer and in certain instances a business game changer, which can only be done, if you have a more strategic role in the business.

I would imagine that you want to see the next three years of your tenure as the CIO being linked to business innovation, developing and refining the business strategy and you being part of the team identifying opportunities for competitive differentiation for the business you are in.

Where does the data take us?

It's now a well known fact that part of President Obama's recent re-election weaponry was driven heavily by data, and Big data to be more precise.

In the last few years companies have been accumulating more and more data, and most of it just sat there and few companies were able to manage, analyze or manipulate it to their advantage.

So what is Big Data? And how does it affect my life; well, one way to look at it, is to use these three terms volume, variety and velocity. Traditional data had a structure, and was based on conventional and relational data sources and was heavily internal.

Big Data, on the other hand is data that comes from a variety of sources that can generate data, this could be social media sites video, audio, text or data , sensor data from chips embedded in devices, logs, or even nuclear warheads sitting in Kazakhstan. Velocity looks at how fast this data is generated and analyzed for business value, which can be mind boggling to say the least, meaning to get any business oriented insight out of this data it has to be processed efficiently and sooner, while Volume talks of the ever growing data that is coming in from various sources which can be quite heavy in any given day.

The million dollar question for any CIO is how that will bring benefit to his organization in East Africa, and the simple answer is this, if you are privy to the fact that there are more than 20 million East Africans on social media who actively engage each other, sharing their aspirations, thoughts, desires, longings, needs and wants and you think that this is not a gold mine in terms of creating customized products and services, that these people can appreciate and acquire, then think again. Big Data has the potential to allow businesses to make more astute business decisions on a timelier manner.

You can now bring your own device to the work place:

I am not sure who was caught napping, but suddenly the sales of Smart phones surpassed those of PCs sometime in Q4 of 2011, according to Canalys, and that drive was mainly instigated by Apple which ended up being the most valuable company in history as of August 2012. Due to this caveat more and more people were using smart devices, and finding that they could actually link up their professional, personal and public domains and profiles on the same device, and these devices were offering a better user experience than the traditional rustic and formal experience that they previously had with the office desktop and the office issued laptop. Therefore as blackberry made a number of missteps and was pushed out of the corporate limelight by Apple, many CIOs were forced to find means and ways to secure the data that was traversing through these smart devices while ensuring a better corporate end user experience.

In the process Mobile Device Management (MDM) solutions came into the picture but failed to offer a comprehensive solution to secure the professional domain, what was being sought out was a solution that would secure the data at rest on the device or in transit, not just email, but also confidential documents. Divergent solutions emerged e.g. Sandboxing where you have a secured section in the device, that is encrypted, or client virtualization where you remotely connect to a client sitting in the cloud or your data centre and perform tasks that you normally perform on your computer, both these are yet to fully mature and offer astute client experience. But watch the space it is a very rapidly maturing sector.

How well do you offer your IT services?

So you think you offer very prompt IT services to your clientele both internal and external? And you probably do measure, their perception of the IT services you offer with the intention of continuously improving the delivery and support of these IT services?

If your answer is yes, then you are on the right track, if not, kindly have a look at Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) as a model framework to adopt as you look at IT Service Management (ITSM) Maturity in your organization.

While you are at it make sure you get adequate support from the executive management and kindly stagger the deployment of the IT Service improvement plans in phases. Also expect resistance to change and manage it effectively. Don't forget the business case needs to be in terms of what the business stakeholders are going to gain from the whole ITSM program.

If done well expect, better cost management, improved efficiency and effectiveness of IT Services across all business functions, enhanced user experiences, and the ability to offer innovative solutions and services to both internal and external clients of the organization.

Two cents on Information Security:

The traditional approach to information security is dead, if you stick to it; you are fighting a losing battle. A few firewalls here, and an antivirus there, is so 90's and you are probably archaic. To counter the plethora of seasoned junk that is being generated from professionally organized cyber crime syndicates in the form of malware and social engineering ventures. You need a strategic approach to Information Risk Management, you also need a tactical information security team (or person depending on the size of your organization) that looks at how to position the firm and institute controls to manage the risks the firm faces, there is also need for the business stakeholders to own and govern this program in the form of an Information Security Management System (ISMS). To achieve this you may go along the lines of complying with ISO 27001 certification, which will define for your organization what to do and how.

Having said that there is need for strategic alignment with what the business strategic goals are, since IT Security is not really a technology issue but a business strategic issue, therefore get the buy in of the relevant stakeholders, and get them involved at governing IT Security at a strategic level.

How many ways can you communicate?

In order to compete effectively, companies must become increasingly agile and they must be able to respond effectively to situations that impact their own and their stakeholders' well being; to respond in this particular instance means being able to communicate and collaborate.

"People have always wanted to communicate thus leading to an environment where we have voice, video, SMS, instant messaging and fax" says Ndung'u Kahindo, Dimension Data's Line Business Manager. This basically lead to the next big light bulb of bringing all these communication means together and the devices just being a front for access, rather than a particular device being restricted to a particular means, thus the birth of Unified communication, where a call that is not received in the office can see the employee receiving it as a voicemail on their smart phone and the employee can then choose to call back the office to listen to their voicemail.

Gartner has been bold enough to state that communication has already unified and is therefore referred to as just communication, leading to the term collaboration and communication replacing unified communication.

Collaboration in this instance refers technologies that facilitate linking of two or more humans to work together, in order to successfully complete a task. According to Gartner the work behaviour facilitated by Collaboration includes leading, analyzing, solving problems and communication.

Collaborative tools are extensive and include Calendaring, Collaborative Authoring (e.g. Google Docs), file shares, Instant messaging, Institutional Repositories, Issue Tracking (e.g. ticketing systems, to-do lists), Knowledge management systems, Photo Sharing and the list is endless.

The goal is to communicate in a business world, such that if your employees are out of the office, they are reachable. As employees are becoming more and more mobile, how do I communicate with these people whenever and wherever they are?" asks Kahindo.

With a younger generation that does not conform to the 8 to 5 rule, and which prefers to work on the go, organizations have been forced to change and allow a generation that is happier to text than make a phone call, communicate, even when the cost of a voice call is not an issue.

While Unified Communication is a good thing to have in an organization; several challenges have to be overcome before you embrace the full set of benefits. Including having adequate bandwidth, classifying your traffic on the network, educating the end users on this solution with the intent of bringing change to people's mindsets and perceptions.

Can you recover your business?

One of the questions we begged to answer in 2012 was one revolving around the continuity of businesses whenever there was a disaster. And this question was birthed mainly due to the various terrorist events that were resurgent earlier in the year.

What would happen if your office network, and data centre collapsed or became unreachable due to a bomb explosion (God forbid!!), a natural disaster, or a major virus attack. What would you do?

If you go back to Sun Tzu, an exceptional ancient military general in China, tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat, while strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. What this simply means to me, is that if I only have an idea of what to do, when a disaster strikes, I will fail. But if I plan and structure my idea out knowing how to act, what to do, who is doing what, and other aspects of business continuity, then I will probably have set myself up for success during such an event, but I will also need to test that my plan is functional to ensure I am well prepared.

And in essence that is the idea behind business continuity and disaster recovery. While it is essential to note that the people and process element is important, we also noted that there is a business continuity standard (BS25999 which is transitioning to ISO 22301 )that can assist you in getting your business continuity planning going to ensure you recover in good time in case of a disaster.

We also noted that with the cloud there are a number of solutions that can ensure your are able to recover your business sooner, prominent mention was made of having a co-location site, that acted as your DR site, or having a managed backup solution implemented where you back up your data to the cloud either on a real time basis or a more convenient time cap.

To go to Cloud or not to that is the question:

With the relentless quest to cut costs, and introduce savings in these tumultuous economic times, it is no wonder when vendors say cost savings = cloud, then everyone jumped onto the band wagon without any inkling of counting the costs involved or what it may mean to your organization.

It is noted that before you decide whether or not to go to cloud, engage yourself in the following process.

1. Learning - discover as much as you can about the different alternatives of cloud models that are available to you locally and internationally, realizing the value, merits and demerits of cloud computing in your organization's industry, also engage others who have adopted cloud and learn from their experiences, then take time to educate the stakeholders in your organization as you learn

2. Organizational assessment - review your current technology needs, structures and capacity utilization and link this to business priorities, Also do a risk assessment of your business finding out the predominant risks that face the business. Perform Data classification with analysis on good and bad candidates for the cloud. Look at the regulatory, legal, compliance and audit directives that have to be met in your industry. And ask how the organization will access, secure and govern information and data in the cloud.

3. Cloud Assessment - Decide which cloud model to take up (Private, community, public or hybrid), determine which applications and data can and cannot be held in each of the cloud deployment models. Understand the true cost of cloud services including Governance, Risk and Compliance elements. Develop policies and procedure around which data/information going to the cloud

4. Cloud roll out Strategy - Develop a Cloud migration strategy. Gain buy-in from the business leaders and other stakeholders. Proactively engage the cloud buyers in the business on the implications. Integrate Cloud into your existing architecture strategies. And then acquire the cloud solution you desire

5. Continuous Improvement - Look at reviewing your deployment consistently with certain factors in mind, like are you getting any return on investment, what are the cost savings and are you meeting strategic objectives etc.

Is Desktop Virtualization here to stay?

This is a loaded question, given that it relies on a number of dependencies to work effectively. Desktop virtualization is a type of client-server computing model that stores a "virtualized" desktop on a centralized server, that may be sitting remotely and not on the physical machine that was traditionally termed as the desktop environment.

The dependencies noted earlier, could be the increase in bandwidth and its constant and sustainable availability. The other element to consider is the mass uptake of Smart phones in the work place which could essentially drive the need to separate one professional domain in these devices from the personal and public domains, which basically means having a logical divide on the same device whatever it is office related or it has a personal orientation.

Given all these factors the cost of desktop virtualization has still not nosedived to the level where it is commonly accepted as a technology to use for cost saving purposes, once this event happens, we do expect better uptake of this technology.

Are you ready to have your business on wheels?

This looked at business mobility and what percentage of your automated business processes you are willing to activate or allow on mobile devices. Do you allow your staff in the field to only use or interact with particular modules of your automated business processes, or do you let them have visibility to the whole enterprise system, and if so how do you achieve it safely and with relevant levels of confidentiality instituted.

Conclusion:

In retrospect, 2012 is the year when many technologies met at a juncture and started making sense to many East African firms, this was the year that CIOs resoundingly concrete steps towards being business enablers and business partners were taken seriously and respected, more is expected in 2013.

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