The top 10 IT managers of the year: Part 1

ACN unveils its top 10 IT managers of the year. Described as the region's information technology elite, they have pulled off big projects and innovative solutions.

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By  Greg Wilson Published  January 10, 2002

Introduction|~||~||~|According to Bloor Research, a survey in the UK asked the question “whom would you not want to sit next to at the seasonal company party.” Unfortunately, topping the list was the “anyone from IT,” category.

Although the survey respondent’s perception of IT staff is most likely clouded with computer nerd stereotypes and their own limited interaction with IT staff their view is indicative of the misconception of information technology, the people that use it and its value to the business.

More serious research from Meta Group indicates that 70% of IT organisations are still perceived as cost centres by their business counterparts, rather than as value centres. Such overwhelming numbers indicate a serious misunderstanding — firstly with those on the business side not realising the competitive edge that effective use of IT can deliver, and secondly with the IT department, failing to make any obvious impact on the business.

However, the general user population and the IT department can no longer remain divided if organisation sare to survive in the cutthroat knowledge economy.
IT departments can no longer afford to run around and ‘put out fires’ that are the result of incremental and ad-hoc growth of IT systems. There must now be a strategy in place to strive for overall business value in everything that IT department is involved in.

“For the IT organisation of the future, there is no such thing as an IT project,” says Dale Kutnick, CEO, Meta Group. “There are only business projects with IT components.”

Greater synergy between the business objectives and the use of information technology is going to require the correct alignment of people, processes and technology. Organisations that get the mix of the three elements right will be able to increase operational efficiency cost effectively and ultimately deliver real business value. However, information technology can only ever energise an organisation by working closely with the business.

To navigate the business/technology minefield brought about by the rapidly changing competitive landscape, the IT manager must assume a new role and tackle a new set of challenges. To step into the shoes of the chief information officer (CIO) means taking up the task of marrying business and technology projects and practices to ensure tangible business benefits.

Within the Middle East, the role of CIO largely remains more myth than reality. In many organisations a centralised ‘corridors & closed doors’ management style still prevails, which perpetuates the IT-centric nature of many projects.

Commonly, the only role of senior management is to sign off the budget cheques. The inability to factor in other elements results in a high failure rate.

According to PwC, as many 70% of projects fail in some form or another. Gartner Group research puts this figure at around 80-and-90%.

Historically, the centralised management structure of many local organisations has hampered the emergence of the CIO role. Without a flexible management structure the necessary melding of business objectives and technology deliverables has not happened. Such rigid structures have prevented existing IT resources from developing their own organisational skills and moving up the business structure.

Since we last drew up ACN’s list of top Middle East IT sites and their personnel, the global IT economy has gone into recession. For the most part the Middle East, has up until now, remained isolated and IT investment has continued at pace for many organisations.

Although much of the attention of the local technology market — both from the vendors and the media — has focused on the government sector, the vast majority of interesting and challenging project work has yet to be delivered. As H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai and the UAE Defence Minister says, what has been achieved so far is only the beginning. Consequently, out of the top sites listed here none refer to ‘e-government’ projects.

During the last year, many organisations have continued to lay the foundations for their IT environments — either buying in hardware, rolling out client/server environments or deploying high-speed data networks. Certainly, nearly all-large organisations in the region are addressing issues of data integrity, visibility and availability, through primarily the standardisation on certain business applications and databases. This trend is being increasingly reflected in the small-to-medium business segment as they attempt to find workable and affordable Internet strategies.

A key differentiator from this year, as opposed to 2000, has been the willingness of organisations to pursue internal development projects in order to meet very particular business needs. Many of these organisations are showing early adopter tendencies to take on unproven technology and invest extensively in research & development — even if it results in little or no immediate business benefit.

All the sites that we have chosen have been spoken to and covered during 2001 by the editorial team of ACN. All of the projects are of a different nature, some focusing on classic ERP, and others involve wireless enablement and one even focuses on management practice. However, the overriding factor that they have in common is the strong relationship between business objectives and the deployment of information technology.

This article is written with the intention — as is all our coverage throughout the year — to educate and illustrate how technology is being used and deployed in the region, what the local challenges are and how the solutions that the IT managers have address those issues.

In the absence of comprehensive market data we hope that the sites profiled here will provide the reader with an insight into the state of the local market development.

||**||Data Transparency|~||~||~| Information availability has been the ruling mantra Abu Dhabi Water & Electricity’s (ADWEA) IT department for the past two years. Since the enactment of Law No. 2 of 1998 plunged ADWEA headlong into a privatisation drive — which has seen the attraction of foreign investment and the downsizing of the workforce from 15,000 to 9000 — the IT department has been constructing an IT infrastructure capable of supporting a modern business. “Deregulation has been pushing the utility business worldwide to enhance the business of energy delivery, to increase customer satisfaction and to reduce costs. The Internet and market forces are further pressing the IT environment,” comments ADWEA’s IT director, Dr. Mohamed Baka.

“We’re moving towards a digital utility… we’re moving towards integrated processes and deploying technologies to connect us with our customers,” he adds.

When privatised, ADWEA had approximately 50 PCs, no networks and no backend business applications to speak of. Six months later, at the beginning of 1999, the IT team had managed to rollout Oracle Financials 10.7 on time and on budget. Over the space of the following two years, the IT department has deployed a 2000-user network based on ATM and fibre optic, that connects ADWEA’s nine separate business units.

“One of the major challenges we’re facing — like any other business — is a pressure to provide the right information, at the right time… all of this is putting pressure on us to [meet the] strategic information management challenge,” explains Dr. Baka.

“We were moving from zero information to almost full visibility. This has changed the culture of the business, because information was almost non-existent,” he adds.
To change the business culture, Dr. Baka and colleagues went to the senior management within the organisation and won their support for certain enterprise application deployments.

Throughout 2001, ADWEA has obtained greater information visibility with an upgrade to Oracle 11i, including the deployment of Human Resource Management System (HRMS). The utility has also brought greater management control to its business through the massive implementation of Maximo maintenance & materials management system (CMMS) from US-based vendor PSDI. The package, which has been closely integrated with the Oracle applications, handles enterprise-wide asset management issues for all of ADWEA’s business units. “Maximo was needed to control our stores, which were without any automation,” says Dr. Baka. “The stores are large and contain some high value items. Maximo addresses areas of inventory and materials management,” he adds.

A core element of the Maximo rollout has been the compilation of the common, group-wide materials catalogue. The catalogue consists of XML-tagged data on every material item and maintenance component used within ADWEA Group. With approximately 200,000 items, the catalogue is going to be play an important role as ADWEA looks increasingly to take advantage of e-procurement opportunities.

Oracle’s HRMS went live in the last weeks of 2001, adding greater data transparency. All of ADWEA’s 3000-strong user community is being encouraged to take greater responsibility for their relationship with the utility company through use of the packages’ self-service functionality. “With Oracle 11i we’re taking more information from the backend systems, and delivering more data availability,” says Dr. Baka.

||**||Business Tools|~||~||~| Regardless of the enthusiasm of the big name vendors, the majority of businesses in the Middle East aren’t ready to buy into the greatly hyped wireless world. For the most part, the heartland of wireless technologies remains in the industrial environments of the region’s cargo terminals, and PDAs (personal digital assistants) in all their different form-factors remain the preserve of executives rather than effective front line business tools.

However, Pfizer International’s Middle East office has been putting Compaq’s iPaq through its paces as part of a four month long pilot project. Pfizer has equipped 25 of its medical sales reps in Egypt with the PDAs to enable them to download sales & marketing information and send updated sales information back to the Cairo-based head office.

The pilot test, which is the second phase of a broader project to automate the business processes of the pharmaceutical manufacturer, is currently drawing to a successful conclusion reports Pfizer’s regional IT manager, Rabie Nasser.

“The 25 medical reps from all round the country have all been using iPaqs in their everyday business and uploading information back to the ETMS [electronic territory management system].”

During the pilot, the users reported “very encouraging” performance, says Nasser. By using the iPaqs the medical sales reps are able to download customer information, marketing promotions and sales history, from Pfizer’s Oracle-based ETMS.

Currently, the medical reps both in Egypt and in the other countries that the local office is responsible for, fill out forms on each visit that they complete. This information is then sent back to head office where it is manually entered into ETMS.
Once the information has been gathered it is studied using Oracle Sales Analyser and marketing strategies are formed. However, the manual system was proving both time consuming and fraught with data quality issues.

“The sales reps have their marketing plan constantly updated, which means that their performance is more efficient than the staff that don’t have iPaqs,” says Nasser. “The other sales reps are still submitting hardcopy reports.”

Plans to move the other 400 sales reps in Egypt onto to iPaqs are already moving ahead rapidly. As this issue goes to press, Pfizer’s local operation is already ordering the additional hardware and software licenses to fully equip its sales force with PDAs.

“The investment in hardware is around 60% of the total cost of the project… that is why we decided to run an extensive pilot before deciding to move ahead. Only when we felt comfortable that the system was working correctly, did we feel that we could increase the investment,” says Nasser.

“Our plan is that over the next few months that all 400 plus medical reps will be using iPaqs,” Nasser adds.

Each iPaq is loaded with Oracle Lite, which acts like the client operating system enabling the medical rep’s PDA to talk to the backend Oracle database. Local development house, Trends also produced a small application interface that resides on top of Oracle Lite. The processing work is done in the backend and is then pushed down to the iPaq client.

Prior to the iPaq pilot test, Pfizer had been assessing the possibility of deploying notebooks to its sales team. But after a prolonged study the decision to go with PDAs was taken for a number of reasons. During an average working day it is likely that a medical rep will be on the go for up to eight hours.

“However, the battery life of a notebook is on average around three hours, and that is not enough to assist him,” he adds. “The work of a medical rep is on the street and there a notebook is [no] good,” says Nasser.

Other considerations including the size and weight of notebooks also came into consideration. However, the clinching vote for the iPaq was its ease-of-use. The medical reps with Pfizer aren’t particularly computer literate. Consequently, the pharmaceutical company wanted a solution that was very intuitive and easy to learn.

“The technical capabilities of the medical sales rep isn’t high — they are experts in medicine and not IT… but you don’t have to be highly technical to run Oracle Lite or use the PDA,” Nasser explains.

To answer any of the training issues that Pfizer’s medical reps have, the company is planning a two-day training session before it distributes the iPaqs. Although training has yet to begin, the course has already been designed.

One drawback of the solution is the lack of Arabic support provided for Windows CE devices. Pfizer’s current application does use some Arabic fields, but says Nasser, the vast majority of the application is in English.

Nasser’s work for the Middle East office hasn’t gone unnoticed in Pfizer’s US headquarters. Since presenting the proposed solution at a company conference early last year, he has been back several times since to speak again.

The mobile capabilities of Pfizer’s local sales team are going to be enhanced as the Middle East office goes forward. The IT team is already assessing the possibilities of adding Compaq’s GSM/SIM card jacket to the PDA there by turning them into mobile phones as well in order to connect to the server wherever the sales rep is.

The scope of applications and data that the medical reps will be able to access is also likely to increase as the ETMS is tightly integrated with tools, such as Oracle Sales Analyser.

||**||Future Development|~||~||~| Large enterprise scale technology deployments are nothing new to Emirates Group. During much of 1999 and into 2000 Mercator, the group’s IT shop, rolled out one of the largest Windows NT projects in the region. Running in parallel, Mercator also embarked on numerous large application development initiatives designed to enhance the group’s own internal efficiency and improve customer service.

While Mercator handles the operational IT services for the group, a smaller business and technology ‘think-tank’ was formed towards the end of 2000 to develop a coherent Internet strategy for the group.

The small team of business and technical consultants that make up the recently re-named E-Ventures Group have spent the last 12 months identifying opportunities, building proof-of-concept IT pilots, designing business processes, outlining project plans and coping with the change management issues that the Web can bring an organisation the size of Emirates Group.

Providing the digital foundations underneath the group’s initial 12-months of operation, has been the idea of the ‘business web,’ which relies on the formation of partnerships with both existing collaborators and competitors in order to enrich the user experience. “We would love a central portal,” said the E-Ventures Group manager, Simon Lewis, earlier in the year. “But if you look into the future, you cannot always rely on one URL. You’ve got to find various ways of developing partnerships with possible competitors or collaborators, which can enable you to have greater accessibility to customers,” he explained.

At the beginning of December 2001, the E-Ventures Group delivered the initial component of the business web in the form of the Emirates Travel Channel. The transport and tourism channel is hosted on the recently launched MSNArabia.

Although the site is only in its soft launch phase, the project, which was delivered in just four and a half months, has already turned heads within Emirates Group. “One of the things that has been a surprise to the group has been the speed at which the Travel Channel was put together,” says Lewis. “What we have done is to enable tour operators and travel agents that are participating to suddenly realise that they can generate a [holiday] package and get it published within a day,” he adds.

As well as providing a flexible and rapid response customer channel, the site is also providing customer information to multiple business units within the Emirates Group.
Detailed data breakdown can now be used by the participating tourism organisations to tailor services to customers. “There is a nervous system behind [the travel] channel that will have far reaching effects, in terms of the distribution of customer data,” comments Lewis.

The site also provides a working model of co-opetition — a combination of competition and co-operation — between different business units of Emirate Group. For example, although both Emirates Holidays and DNATA have joined up to deliver services to the travel channel, each organisation actual sells competing services.

Further, potentially competing organisations will join as the site evolves, the idea being to merely to enrich the content and choice for the customer.

As well as showcasing the business process changes and challenges to the rest of the organisation, the travel channel highlights the development work behind the site. The platform was developed entirely from scratch using beta versions of Visual.Studio.NET.

As part of ongoing proof-of-concept the E-Ventures Group has built an entire object orientated component framework that will enable it to rapidly add functionality to the site.

“Now that we have a framework based on .NET we could mobile-enable the web site in a week,” says David Robertson, emerging technologies manager with the E-Ventures Group.

Although bolting-on the mobile element to the web site would be easy, such a move has to be driven from the business perspective, adds Robertson. “The technology foundations are there to do it, but it is about driving it from the business perspective.”
In the meantime, the technical team is refining the functionality and then assessing further opportunities for the technology within Emirates Group.

Much of the current development work has actually been done remotely, working on servers in Egypt — where MSNArabia’s franchise holders, LinkDOT.Net Egypt are based — or on the servers in the US.

“With the advent of Windows XP and Terminal Services we have been able to develop remotely on systems that are sitting in Egypt and in Denver,” says Robertson.
For the E-Venture group, which currently operates outside the Emirate Group’s IT environment, due to its work with .NET, the ability to host and development work elsewhere has been vital.

“It has been totally stable, very flexible and very easy to manage. For any point we don’t have to move our source code about, it’s central, it’s being backed-up, it’s been developed in real-time and we can look at it from our machines here,” comments Robertson.

Further enhancements to the travel channel are due early in the new year, however, neither Lewis or Robertson were willing to shed light on what could be coming. But with the Emirates Travel Channel operation, the E-Ventures Group plans to leverage its success for further business process reengineering and technical development in 2002.

||**||Vendor Independent |~||~||~| Internal research & development work is seen as inefficient, time consuming, costly and even risky. According to conventional wisdom, packaged solutions are the way forward, even if some companies find themselves having to compromise on functionality or integrate a third party application.

Habib Bank AG Zurich (HBZ), on the other hand, has stuck to its internal development track, delivering solutions both internally to its user base and externally to customers, and eventually reaching a unique status of vendor independence. Currently, HBZ’s backend consists of a large Sun Solaris machine that acts as the Sybase database server, and a series of Red Hat Linux application servers, delivering the group’s Java-based business applications to the user community. “Many other banks have multiple vendor dependencies… when they want to make changes to their environments they have to be careful not to disrupt other systems,” says Syam Pillai, vice president, information technology, HBZ.

“This is one of the major differences here — by having everything developed in Java we are not dependant on any vendor… any machine can run the [core banking applications],” Pillai explains.

Admittedly, the internal development path isn’t necessarily the smoothest route. The bank spends a ‘substantial amount’ in R&D every year, as it evolves its IT environment.

Currently, the 15-man IT team is split roughly into two sections — one half continues the Java development, while the other takes that development work, integrates it into the current application framework and maintains the environment.

Regardless of the resources thrown into the bank’s R&D work not all of the investment results in workable solutions. “It’s the price you have to pay to maintain the environment… we have to invest in research or we won’t be able to evolve,” says Pillai. “R&D is continuous… [we] have to spend a lot of money and conduct a lot of experiments.”

However, whatever the bank invests in evolving its IT environment, it is able to regain through its adherence to open source software. Most recently, the bank began a project to deploy Linux to the desktop for its 400 users in the UAE. By the end of 2001, the corporate bank had migrated approximately 300 users to the open source operating system.

Although HBZ intends to migrate the rest of the users to Linux in the coming months there is no firm timetable to do so, due to the limited nature of IT resources available to conduct the migration.

The bank’s plan to migrate its user community to Linux is aided by the limited use of Microsoft software. Pillai estimates that approximately 10% of the user community are actually using Microsoft technology. The rest of the users just accesses HBZ’s Java-based core banking applications, via thin client machines.

“We’re just replacing Windows on the client machines with Linux… There is no change in the application — that remains the same. Very few of [the users] are using other applications, such as spreadsheets. For that purpose users run either Sun Office or K-Office, which is part of the Linux distribution,” says Pillai.

HBZ’s Dubai-based IT-shop is already investigating the possibility of rolling out Linux to the other eight countries that it’s responsible for. However, the work to convert users will depend on how quickly they can be convinced to give up their Windows applications.

The extensive use of Linux, initially at the server level and now increasingly at the client level, has helped HBZ to significantly reduce its hardware expenditure. Until last year, the corporate bank was still using 286 machines to access its core banking applications. The antique boxes where only replaced when Windows demanded more powerful machines. The same fat Intel machines are now using Linux, which says Pillai, delivers enhanced performance. “We have found that Java under Linux runs better than Java under Windows,” he says.

Core to Habib Bank’s whole platform independent ethos has been the extensive Java development that has been ongoing since 1996. Since that time the bank has developed a massive 18-module suite of banking applications — internally described as the banking enterprise.

From the outset the bank realised the ‘freedom’ that Java could offer them.

“We saw a language that was going to be supported by the industry. We saw the capability that Java gave us to accelerate development time and help simplify the architecture,” comments Pillai.

With the accelerated development time provided by Java, the bank shrugs off suggestions that internal development is both time consuming and expensive. In October 2000 Habib Bank delivered Internet, SMS and WAP banking. More recently, HBZ became the first bank to offer online letters of credit. According to Pillai, the timely delivery of such services proves that the in-house development track works and that the application infrastructure is both flexible and scalable.

||**||Classic ERP|~||~||~| Growing local knowledge and increasing numbers of competing systems integrators have combined to ease a lot of the early pain that was associated with enterprise resource planning (ERP) projects in the region. Still, many of the Middle East’s largest organisations — particularly those in Saudi — are in the midst of extensive ‘building block’ ERP projects. Saudi-based Al Faisaliah Group is no exception and has been rolling out SAP R/3 across its diverse business organisation for the last two years.

The project, which has already connected 700 users and plans to connect another 200 by Q1 2002 “has run on time and under budget,” says Salem Al Fares, group IT director, Al Faisaliah Group.

Initially, Al Faisaliah embarked on its R/3 implementation with a ‘big bang’ approach in January 2000. In the early stages of the project, the group rolled out distribution and sales & marketing modules to its Al Safi dairy business. The yearlong phase also included the roll out of SAP to Al Faisaliah’s corporate head office.

“This wasn’t just implementing SAP — we were building the infrastructure to support [SAP],” says Al Fares. “The project included bringing in new servers [from HP], building a data network, cabling the majority of the group’s offices and [connecting] them to the network,” he adds.

To accelerate the deployment of SAP throughout the group, the decision was taken early on in the project to embrace many of the native business processes within R/3.

Although business process engineering was kept at a minimum, the group still faced significant change management issues within the organisation. During the first phase of the project, Al Faisaliah brought in a consultant from Ernst & Young to specifically help in the ‘operational change management.’ “Managing the implementation of R/3 across diverse businesses was an enormous challenge,” comments Al Fares.

To ensure that the user population was ready for the changes being brought by the SAP application meant constant communication and training. “We made sure that we communicated to all areas of the business, at all different user levels within the organisation,” says Al Fares.

With the initial phase of the deployment coming to a close at the end of 2000, the group accelerated into the second half of the implementation, which would connect the remaining business units to SAP. Throughout 2001, the implementation team has hit its deadlines adding more organisations to the overarching company ‘blueprint.’

On September 1st the group’s medical business group — which consists of four separate companies — and its primarily Sony-centric consumer electronics business went live. The final four companies including the group’s IT division are due to switch on the system at the end of this month.

While not all the business units have come online, Al Faisaliah Group is already reaping the benefits of having a common business blueprint based around R/3.

With the business units sharing common processes for such things as financial reporting, senior management has a greater degree of cross-group information visibility and control.

Although the group hasn’t spent time quantifying the benefits it’s achieved so far, the deployment of consolidated financials has already resulted in “significant improvements,” in the time and expense of compiling a financial position report.

“There is a significant improvement in the reporting structure and the ability to implement [business] processes,” says Al Fares.

“In 2002 we’re expecting bigger improvements when everybody has gone through a learning curve and is used to the system,” he adds.

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