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How Middle East CIOs can steer business strategy

The perception of the role of CIO at organisations in the Middle East is gradually shifting from back-end support to business enabler

As regional economic pressures increase, leading enterprises in the Middle East to look for cost reductions, CIOs are more commonly being seen as change agents that organisations cannot afford be without.

Until recently, however, the influence of CIOs on their C-level peers had been limited in Middle East organisations.

When Mario Foster joined Dubai-based Al Naboodah Group Enterprises as CIO over a year ago, he was taking on his third CIO role in the Middle East.

During one of his earlier CIO stints in Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, recalled Foster, a senior colleague reminded him on numerous occasions that the CIO was just another IT manager.

His anecdotal experience speaks volumes about how far organisations in the Middle East have come in their pursuit to align IT and overall business goals.

Many businesses, however, particularly the family-owned conglomerates in the region, haven’t changed their view of the IT department in the past 15 years.

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For these organisations operating on a local level, technology is an expensive central service that nobody in the organisation really understands. In fact, most view the role of IT as primarily to ensure the availability of PCs, servers and emails coming through, preferably without malicious viruses or malware.

“In most local companies in the Middle East, the role of CIO has not been high on the agenda,” said Foster.

Foster’s experience isn’t unique – it is common across the Middle East.

Changing role of CIO

According to analyst company Gartner, senior IT executives have traditionally focused on maintaining business applications and IT infrastructure, rather than examining how IT can help in transforming the business. The IT department in most corporates remains largely process driven and, for the most part, doesn’t have a voice in what is happening in the business.

Gartner research director Biswajeet Mahapatra said CIOs in the Middle East have not had much influence on the C-suite: “In this region, they have been considered as back-office managers of emails and applications. They have been considered a necessary function, but not strategic.”

But the role of today’s corporate CIO in the Middle East is about to undergo a rapid period of change and, with it, transform expectations of what the IT department can contribute to an organisation’s business objectives.

The proliferation of bring your own device (BYOD) policies has put technology in the hands of even the most technophobic business executives. Consequently, this has driven awareness of the potential of IT to unshackle, reinvent and challenge Middle East businesses.

According to Alexious Mulemba, director of IT at Qatar-based car importer Abdullah Abdulghani & Bros (AAB), the explosive growth of mobile computing is just one technological trend that is challenging traditional perceptions of the IT department.

Technology can transform business

IT’s entry into mainstream business culture has, in turn, raised awareness of emerging technologies and their potential to transform business, said Mulemba.

“For example, we have designed policies that allow staff to bring their own devices like smartphones, tablets and smartwatches to connect to the company’s network as part of the wider BYOD strategy,” he said. “Mobile devices belonging to employees are already allowed in our IT environment, as we believe these devices enable effective communication and alerts for any pending workflows, especially for senior executives when they are in meetings,” he said.

“We are also seeing this in the broader context of being innovative and having a positive influence on the business. In our line of business, if you do not innovate, you miss opportunities and stand still.”

With the realisation of technology’s importance in business, Gartner’s Mahapatra said the perception of IT was slowly changing across the region – from being seen as an enabler of business, to being an essential “wrapper” for business.

“More enterprises are aware of the critical role a CIO can play,” said Al Naboodah Group’s Foster. “For CIOs, this is a plus, because businesses realise that, to be successful, they have to consider the role of technology in business.”

Focus on ideas and opportunities

Just as depressed oil prices and tough economic conditions drove a wave of IT adoption throughout the energy industry in the 1970s, the current prevailing market conditions in the Middle East are once again pushing organisations to search for smarter ways to work and flexible cost models.

But commercial pressures alone won’t be enough to transform the role of the IT department and CIO. To bring about the much-needed change and successfully bring IT into the heart of the organisation, there has to be a fundamental change in mindset of the business, the CIO and the IT organisation.

The starting point for this shift requires the CIO to stop focusing on the IT infrastructure and systems, and instead explore ways technology can contribute to the business.

Jassim Haji, director of IT at Gulf Air, said the biggest mistake CIOs make is focusing their time, energy and effort on non-business-centric initiatives, while taking a back seat in their company’s boardroom. “Such passive conduct by CIOs instils the negative belief that they are only concerned with back-end support activities,”  he said

Haji added that CIOs must use innovative ideas to create and facilitate business opportunities for their organisations through technology deployment, especially by mapping cutting-edge and latest technology trends to direct business benefits and achieve their customers’ outcomes.

It’s one thing for CIOs to claim they are focusing on business issues, but it is another thing entirely to deliver on the commitment. To be effective, a CIO must have a profound understanding of the business and its challenges, and then suggest where IT can make a positive impact.

According to Mahapatra at Gartner, CIOs will only be successful in the digitisation drive if they are proactive, take the driver’s seat, propose new business solutions, enable them and help drive the entire initiative. “If they again become order takers, just doing as the business says, they will be pushed further down,” he warned.

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