by Heath Muchena

CIOs in Africa: Rapid tech adoption means the CIO role is changing

Aug 23, 2019
CareersCIODigital Transformation

The CIO role in Africa is moving from IT administration to focus on transformational change

world map / Africa
Credit: Maxger / Getty Images

Different markets, geographies, times and circumstances call for different leadership skills and approaches. In Africa, the chief information officer (CIO) role is emerging as one of the most dynamic executive positions in enterprises, as CIOs are increasingly expected to bring innovation to their organisations.

Historically, the CIO role in Africa tended to command a focus on database, networking, web and systems administration. However, that perspective is shifting as CIOs need to become more dynamic and flexible in order to evolve in tandem with the fast pace of technological adoption, particularly in countries like South Africa, while keeping up with global best practices and operational standards.

“The role of CIO has changed drastically. You become a chief investment officer, a chief technology officer, a business strategist, a transformation manager and a technology risk manager. As such, as a leader, I surround myself with the right skills to support these multiple functions and ensure that I utilise IT and digital governance frameworks to maximise business engagement and alignment,” said Tshifhiwa Ramuthaga, chief digital officer at Barloworld Automotive and Logistics.

Prior to her current position Ramuthaga was CIO at Barloworld, and she has over 15 years of experience as a CIO and ICT professional at companies including Telkom, the South Africa’s Financial Services Board and Standard Bank.

CIO Leadership skills are a priority

As internal technology strategists, CIOs operating particularly in sub-Saharan economies seem to acknowledge that technical and functional expertise matter, but are nearly not as important as developing leadership skills and ensuring one has a strong grasp of business fundamentals.

When looking at CIO job listings in the region and their respective job descriptions, it is apparent that the ability to convincingly communicate the benefits of relevant technologies for improving internal efficiencies for business development, finance, operational and management teams are increasingly being sought after.

As digital transformation continues to reshape the global economy, CIOs across Africa are embracing the importance of driving meaningful innovation that keeps pace with continuously changing customer expectations.

Half of the Africa-based CIOs who responded Gartner’s latest annual CIO survey declared that their companies have either changed or are in the process of changing their business models, and that CIOs will have a pivotal role to play in this transformation journey.

In the fast-changing and growing African economies, it’s no surprise that there is a notable emphasis on the ability of CIOs to create business models that adapt to the transforming landscape.

According to AppCentrix, a South African-based ICT services company offering locally developed solutions, CIOs spend just 16 percent of their budgets on exploiting new technology, compared with 57 percent on operations, even though they regard innovation as more important.

The research, however, also revealed that the majority of CIOs surveyed feel that their power and influence are increasing, with more CIOs looked upon as trusted allies and partners of the CEOs. This shows how the CIO role in Africa is especially key to the development of operational IT mechanisms that can deliver efficiencies for businesses.

Are African CIOs playing catch-up?

Despite their evolving role, African CIOs are still considered by some market researchers to be behind their global peers in their journey to drive digital transformation.

“African CIOs are still catching up on their digital business efforts compared with their CIO peers globally,” according to Tomas Nielsen, research director at Gartner.

But it is only fair to consider the unique challenges – such as poor infrastucture – that CIOs operating in developing countries face. In addition, it is important to note that the gap is probably not as wide as sometimes implied, a sentiment that Barloworld’s  Ramuthaga echoes. “I have engaged CIOs beyond our borders and some Gartner analysts and I have come to the conclusion that our challenges are the same, regardless of the geography,” she noted.

While in some organisations the CIO title is seen as interchangeable with that of head of IT or IT director, the role today is generally seen globally as encompassing a wider range of responsibilities beyond back office operations. This is also true for those IT professionals taking on CIO roles within companies operating in Africa.

Even though the majority of CIOs come from traditional IT backgrounds, a large proportion are also picking up business experience on their route to the role. Expectations are mounting for CIOs to be adept at operating as strategic business partners and revenue creators, rather than simply cost centre managers.

Tips for a successful digital transformation journey

Gartner recommends African CIOs to focus on three elements of their digital transformation journey to make it successful:

  • Securing customer centricity
  • Leading resourced product management
  • Introducing business-enabling technologies

To a large extent, most organisations in Africa have already made significant milestones in their transformation journeys. Barloworld’s Ramuthaga has developed an approach to managing innovation and disruption based on design thinking and agile methodologies. The basic phases for adoption of technologies important for the growth of the business are, according to Ramuthaga:

  • Discovery – shaping the digital agenda and ambition;
  • Experimentation – reimagining digital capabilities and experiences; and
  • Scale up – scaling the transformation across the customer base as quickly as possible, thus spreading transformation initiatives and associated market-defining change.

“Embracing failure is built into each phase to ensure that we learn fast, making it relatively cheaper than traditional models,” Ramuthaga elaborated.

It appears that, globally and across Africa, CIOs today are increasingly viewing their positions more as strategic business roles compared to their predominantly technology focused predecessors. Particularly for those ICT professionals operating in developing and emerging economies across Africa, this means that the characteristics traditionally seen as important for CIOs are evolving.

(Additional reporting by Cristina Lago.)