by Heath Muchena

Tech tools and tips from African IT leaders facing a post-crisis world

May 13, 2020
Business ContinuityCollaboration SoftwareDigital Transformation

The global pandemic is changing the way people buy, sell, and interact, and African tech executives are adjusting their business continuity and digital transformation plans accordingly.

As countries start to ease lockdown restrictions and gradually introduce phased return-to-work policies, CIOs are increasingly looking beyond the COVID-19 crisis with a view to implementing revamped digital transformation and business continuity plans.

Whether it’s an increased deployment of collaborative tools to handle staff teleworking from home, or undertaking significant changes in the way technology and services are procured and deployed, navigating the coronavirus crisis — and the post-pandemic world — requires a rethinking of IT strategy.

To get more insight about how business and IT strategy is changing, we talked to tech leaders on the African continent about business continuity planning and how to implement better practices to increase business resilience and spur organisational growth in a negative global economic environment.

Crisis puts emphasis on business continuity

COVID-19 has disrupted operations and impacted business continuity. New ways of working are expected to be seen in the foreseeable future. IT executives in many organisations are responding to the crisis by putting forward plans to bolster business resilience in the case of a coronavirus resurgence.

“IT investment and digital transformation in companies is often prioritised around the revenue generation functions; however, in times of crisis it becomes a matter of survival to ensure that there’s continuity in key operational functions or the Critical Value Chain (CVC) activities of an organisation,” said Nirshan Harryparshad, interim CIO of South Africa-based financial services provider Ithala SOC Limited.

“Our focus has been rerouted to automation of the CVCs across the organisation,” Harryparshad said. “It’s a thought process that challenges the traditional focus on a return on investment, but speaks to sustainability and resilience. In addition to automation of operational processes, we’ll see a further migration to digital platforms around core products and customer touch points moving forward.”

Within companies, IT leaders continue to evaluate digital collaboration tools to enable employees to work remotely. “We are responding to the crisis by reviewing our digital business strategies and continuing to prioritise and fund digital initiatives with a view to achieving a 100-percent digital workplace,” said Tarik El Khamlichi, a senior IT director at Accenture, based in Morocco. “The pandemic is changing the way people work and collaborate.”

Collaboration tools support remote work

People should be at the heart of digital transformation strategies, with their way of working supported by technology platforms including hyperscale services such as Google Cloud and Amazon Web Services, El Khamlichi said. “Utilising [collaboration] tools such as Slack, Trello, and Jira or using open source tools such as Zenoss and Nagios is also making a huge difference.”

Key challenges for CIOs include ensuring security controls while providing tools for business resilience and agility.

“The digital workplace strategy has now become a high priority at Ithala SOC. We are utilising Microsoft Teams to drive internal and external collaboration across the business,” said Harryparshad, adding that over the next nine months, the company plans to deploy the Microsoft Office 365 stack with Microsoft Power Platform and tools. “The strategy to move to cloud and the Microsoft technology stack will ensure that we operate within a controlled and secure ecosystem.”

IT leadership priorities seem reflect changing times, but tech executivess shouldn’t rush to change their digital transformation goals, said Yoav Tchelet, CTO of Amrod, a supplier of corporate-branded clothes and promotional items. “Yes, organisations will be forced to adapt to changing environments and cash constraints but the long-term strategy should not change,” Tchelet said.

Adapting digital strategy for customers

IT leaders also should choose tools appropriate to their organisational needs in order to successfully engage not only employees, but customers and partners, tech executives said. 

The crisis has made a priority of successful deployment of appropriate IT infrastructure to support the underlying trend for increased digital communications and services for company customers and business partners.

“With the move to Microsoft Teams, our external engagements (be it to service providers or clients) can now be conducted remotely. We are also enhancing our online banking platform and USSD [mobile protocol for texting] platform with increased functionality to empower our clients,” said Harryparshad. “With Ithala SOC having a presence in rural Kwa-Zulu Natal, a high percentage of our clients are not technologically advanced. Their preference is face-to-face engagements at our branches.”

To support customer preferences, Ithala is looking to further re-engineer processes at a branch level to ensure that clients can be serviced in the shortest possible time, Harryparshad said. Ithala is also offering financial services through so-called spaza shops – informal, often home-based convenience stores and supermarkets in rural KZN.

“We have deployed self-service devices across the province in support of our clients. This growing footprint will decrease customer travel time to obtain cash,” Harryparshad explained.

Ensuring that digital strategy implementation caters to both employees and customers is key to creating the cohesion necessary for seamless operations in a digital world. “Internally, we are constantly looking at the latest technologies and using them to evolve how we enable our customers. We offer various digital support channels including our chatbot,” said Michelle Bisset, vice president, customer success, for business applications vendor Sage Africa & Middle East.

“Within our own business, we use collaboration technologies to drive agility and rapid innovation and we utilise best-in-class VOC [voice of customer] tools to understand our customers better and respond faster to their needs. We’re also exploring how we can enable our customers to use AI to further streamline their businesses,” Bisset said.

Resellers focus on SME tech needs

In Africa, where SMEs face a cost and knowledge barrier to tech adoption, some tech vendors are now working indirectly through various channels — including partners and resellers — to deliver technology products and services that help local enterprises run better. “We are more familiar with the tech and how it can grow a business’s bottom line, so when we engage in our sales process, we aim to empower our resellers to communicate this value to the end customer,” said Elaine Wang, cloud and software solutions director at Rectron South Africa, which offers software, networking and data centre products and services.

“Through the cloud solutions that we offer, we assist SMEs in collaborating better and being more productive, all the while ensuring that their software is secure. Our SaaS solutions bring big business functionality at SME price points,” Wang said.

There are also a variety of off-the-shelf products for connecting employees to customers, IT support personnel point out.

“Tools I’ve identified that will help automate employee’s tasks, like customer onboarding and follow-up on our chatbot for customer service, include Zapier and Flow by Microsoft. For team collaboration tools, we use Slack for communication, Zoom for virtual meetings, Asana for project management,” said Okeke Innocent Ebere, IT support engineer at Nowtech.

Ultimately, there is common agreement that, while long-term goals of digital transformation strategies may not necessarily change, IT leaders need to adjust to a new reality.

“Rightfully, there should be considerations around the need for additional transformation requirements to accommodate employee enablement with respect to remote work and additional automation for businesses,” Amrod’s Tchelet said.