From left to right: Thameem Rizvon, Group IT Manager, Kamal Osman Jamjoom Group; Bassem Aboukhater, Regional IT Director, ReSources Middle East and Africa; Ahmad Almulla, Vice-President, IT, Dubai Aluminium Company Limited; and Ramesh Cidambi, Director, IT and Logistics, Dubai Duty Free Image Credit: Francois Nel/Gulf News

Gone are the days when IT departments were considered mere admin components of companies. Growth, efficiency, and ultimately competitiveness increasingly depend on technological solutions. IT operations are now the very nervous system of modern organisations, and industries in the Middle East are working to effectively adapt to this new tech-landscape.

The UAE in particular finds itself in a unique position. As a high-growth market with a formidable corporate presence, there is a pressing need to bridge the gap with international IT standards. Any transition period, however, carries impediments. To facilitate the said progression, local management circles must embrace the information age. But for that to happen, firms in the country need bigger shoulders to stand on — benchmarks for corporate and IT performance KPIs, best practices and a framework for the dissemination of such guidelines. Expediting a full transition is thus hindered by the existence of a cycle of bottlenecks that is difficult to break.

SAP and Oracle as a result, despite a strong commercial interest in this region, are less effective when faced with such obstacles. That is not to discount the fair few UAE companies that have a contemporary IT mindset. The CIOs of a handful of such organisations have banded together to create the CIO Arabia Club that is to be launched this week at Gitex. This new association is the region's first independent platform for senior IT professionals, enabling them to network effectively; endowing the industry with a unified voice with which to approach and channel service providers and regulatory authorities. The core team of the CIO Arabia Club sat down with GN Focus at the Gulf News office recently to discuss the reasons behind the club's formation and the state of the regional industry.

Chairman: Ahmad Almulla, Vice-President, IT, Dubai Aluminium Company Limited

Vice Chairman: Bassem Aboukhater, Regional IT Director, ReSources Middle East and Africa

General Secretary: Thameem Rizvon, Group IT Manager, Kamal Osman Jamjoom Group LLC

Member: Ramesh Cidambi, Director, IT and Logistics, Dubai Duty Free


Q What prompted the establishment of the CIO Arabia Club? What are some of the obstacles that need to be tackled?

 Ahmad Almulla: The purpose is to have a network of CIOs to share our concerns, experiences and ideas; something to help us address the future. No such organisation exists in the Middle East. If you go somewhere like the US, India, or Europe, they have plenty of such clubs. The members are senior IT professionals who are end users. The members have to be totally independent of any vendors.

 Bassem Aboukhater: The intention was to truly have a vendor-independent entity. You hear of a lot of clubs, but most of them or all of them are vendor-driven and therefore not as objective. This is what we wanted to move away from.

 Ramesh Cidambi: In the past couple of years we have established an opportunity for senior IT professionals to meet in a completely neutral fashion, which is not to be underestimated. It provides an opportunity to talk to your peers — those who have a sincere interest in helping you with issues, and to provide an informal exchange of views which we thought was very important. The formal structure that we have now allows us to have these discussions with vendors. I should emphasise that the word vendor is not a bad word. The idea here is not to take an antagonistic or aggressive position with vendors.

The idea is to have a group of like-minded peers who can represent concerns to the vendor community and also provide them with a forum or avenue to approach the IT community. If Oracle wants to speak to senior IT professionals in the region they have no formal mechanism. Here we can say to them, we have a group with a legal status and meticulous membership criteria. We can then disseminate the discussion to a wider audience. It's a fellowship of senior people. In terms of issues, if you have a serious issue or problem then we can communicate that.

 Thameem Rizvon: I want to emphasise that we are very Middle East-centric. Today if someone learns of a new technology and wants more information, he is rarely going to get some new case study or best practice guide for this region. It's not that such things do not exist, but that there is no platform for exposure. We're trying to learn from each other. In terms of what we have done specifically, Ramesh here is my peer in the industry. I have gone to his office a couple of times, primarily to learn what he has done. He's a friend of mine through the common platform, so he isn't going to try and sell me anything; he's going to tell me the facts. Today if I go to a vendor I am in for marketing talk. If I go to a systems integrator he's going to tell me, ‘tie up with me'. What we're offering today is an unbiased opinion about IT issues.

 Q How do you measure IT performance then? What kind of metrics do you use considering that there is a lack of regional benchmarks?

Ahmad Almulla: I think that's a good question. If you ask each one of us we would address it in different ways. If you ask me specifically about Dubai, I'll measure my key performance indicators of IT, availability of systems, incidents, delivery of projects on time.

Looking at technology, performance of infrastructure is one side; performance of project delivery and stability is another. However, everybody measures differently. If you talk about the cost side, what is a good investment in IT? Do you determine that as a percentage of revenue, etc? How do you really determine if you are spending too much on technology or not? We don't really have these answers, so we think this forum will help us.

Bassem Aboukhater: It'll definitely give us tools to go and sell internally to the company's management. If you tell them you need a certain amount of money for this product or service for whatever reason, and you don't have any background information they will likely say no. Conversely, if you can show them a benchmark in the Middle East and compare success then it will definitely resonate better. The other important thing is for us to talk to each other. We have all visited each other's offices and have shared experiences regarding technical, non-technical, and management issues. When you spend a lot of time dealing with technology vendors you end up forming your own idea about certain, key players, about what is the best in this region, and relationship with the vendors. All these things play an important role.

Q Is there a general trend of migration to the cloud in the region?

Bassem Aboukhater: That depends on your business model and on your needs. What is cloud computing for you? Is it email hosted at Google, etc, or is it your entire ERP function sitting outside? Some businesses are internet-based — they have a lot of servers on the backend supporting that website. In that case yes migrating to cloud makes sense.

 Thameem Rizvon: Cloud computing is successful globally because the first thing theyhave is a unified service-level agreement (SLA). Today if I put something on the cloud I have to depend on multiple vendors. Who is supposed to give me the final SLA? This is a challenge specific to the Middle East.

 Ahmad Almulla: I would say the more mature your business is, the more difficult it is to move. If I have internet applications integrated with my email then it is harder to move to the cloud. However it is still the way to go. Businesses that are more mature will have more planning to do. For new companies it makes a lot of sense because it isn't as big a headache either.

Ramesh Cidambi: It's a bit like what Arthur C. Clark suggested about the future — the future is already here, but it's like it's on an island. We don't see cloud computing as something in the future. It's being implemented by bits and pieces already.

In Dubai Duty Free for example, this month we are starting a project on work force management. The application, its delivery, everything is in the cloud. It's a new application so we can do that.

In contrast, on the ERP side we have an extremely mature, established infrastructure that is critical to our business and we are managing it well. We're talking to a vendor about cloud computing, but it is a harder challenge to take something that you are doing well and put it in the cloud.

When a vendor says we will take care of your headaches, etc, we say we are managing at a relatively low cost and already have an established and mature process for looking after the infrastructure. I think it will happen, but it will happen in bits and pieces.

Q How do you ensure that investments in IT translate into business value?

Ahmad Almulla: A difficulty most CIOs face is showing the ‘bottom-line' value of IT. If a CIO goes to the CEO of the company and says that he needs Dh10 million for an investment in ERP or CRM, the first question most CEOs will ask is about return on investment of payback period. It is difficult to express the value of IT solutions in that way. These aren't like conventional projects, so over a period of time CEOs might have trouble seeing their value. Other technological products or services might be easy because they're more tangible. Maintenance is also expensive for solutions. On the other hand, if a CRM solution is implemented and the sales department does better, the credit goes to that department. We in IT are enablers and we need to educate management about the value of certain IT solutions.

Bassem Aboukhater: You need to talk management with the management people and you need to talk finance with the finance people. You have to know how to number crunch and show IT value in numbers. We've got tonnes of controls to ensure we meet Sarbanes-Oxley and other such compliance guidelines. You can't put a figure on that even though it's a core business requirement. Even if you have the best financial systems in place, from a compliance point of view, if your IT infrastructure is not solid, and you fail your IT audit for example, one can't really trust the figures the company is generating. For a multinational organisation this is something they put a lot of weight on. If your audit is bad, then they disregard all your figures, and your management's bonuses will be affected. So in that sense it should be an easy sell.

Q To sum up, what are the biggest challenges in the UAE when it comes to elevating the IT industry to the next level?

Ahmad Almulla: The biggest challenge is the balance between getting the technology out there, the cost of that technology and the business benefits you can deploy as a result. Each CEO has a different way of defining whether the IT department is efficient or not. In the UAE we have access to all the technologies, and all provider companies are present here. The level of IT maturity in the UAE is quite high, if not the highest in the region. I have colleagues elsewhere in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and they are nowhere close. The growth that has happened in this region has posed more challenges.

IT departments should be seen as having a business role rather than just a technology role. I sit on the board and there is a big difference now as before I didn't sit as part of the executive committee. Now I am in the loop with a business perspective, so we talk about IT in business terms.

Thameem Rizvon: From my perspective, business alignment with IT is a significant challenge. In the UAE and the wider region you have very mature businesses, but sometimes you have individuals driving technology in a different way. As a CIO if you start talking too technically to business managers they don't understand or participate, and that is a recipe for failure. So the challenge is to align technology at every single step with business.

The business segment does not worry what technology we're on, as long as we provide results.So as long as we are agile and we align IT with business we will be successful. There are businesses with different levels of maturity. What we need to do today is learn from others. If someone has done it well here, there's no need to change it. That's why we need this platform.

Bassem Aboukhater: The UAE should benchmark against the world rather than the region. This could be an opportunity to jump-start the economy. We keep going back to bandwidth and infrastructure provided by telcos and the government. Why are we so much more expensive than Scandinavia, Singapore, Japan, US, and Canada? Why can't we compete with those countries rather than competing with Qatar and SaudiArabia, etc? This is an opportunity to step back and look at the bigger picture. Maybe local telcos might not make as much money, but think about how many businesses you can enable if you start being competitive on a global scale. We need to be and be seen as Chief Innovation Officers as opposed to just Chief Information Officers.

Ramesh Cidambi: I support what Bassem says in terms ofthose significant costs. For a group like us, the challenge is to lift the discourse and try and get a seat at the table in a management sense and not be seen only as technical people. So it's a soft challenge, not a technology issue as such. How do people looking after this particular function come to be considered management professionals? That's a challenge we need to address and be true CIOs in that sense. It is mixed in Dubai — some are on the board some aren't. Abu Dhabi is not even at that level yet. I sat on the executive committee but it isn't common. The CFO traditionally has a seat on the board, marketing and sales have seat on the board, HR has a seat on the board. We need to get senior IT professionals in there.