Analysis, Features

Why UAE CIOs value data more than employees

CIOs in the Middle East can be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed at the pressures they face in 2017. The same old challenges endure – doing more with less, marrying business and IT objectives and ‘keeping the lights on’. What’s more, the sweeping hype around cloud and digital transformation now pose additional headaches, with business stakeholders and customers demanding technology that can offer all-new experiences. But is this anxiety justified, and is technology adoption in the UAE moving as fast as it seems?

Yousuf Khan, CIO, Pure Storage

As an aside from his day-to-day work as Pure Storage’s CIO, Yousuf Khan has spearheaded a research team that has investigated some of the most important perceptions, spending habits and anxieties around enterprise technology in the UAE. The Evolution: The Data Economy report surveyed 9,000 IT leaders across the North America, Asia-Pacific and Europe, Middle East and Africa regions, with 300 of those respondents coming from the UAE.

Khan says that his research work is partly driven by a desire to expand his own capabilities as a CIO. “It’s an incredibly exciting time to be a CIO, with unprecedented levels of innovation and all-new value propositions making the role an increasingly important partner to the business,” he says. “I think it’s important to be open to building out innovation and change ways of thinking through the use of research. One of my key objectives is to network with my peers, and I know that it’s important to be thoughtful of each marketplace. It also helps me to be a better CIO.”

While few CIOs would disagree that data is one of an organisation’s most valuable assets, Data Economy’s findings around information and its importance to an organisation are perhaps the report’s most striking elements. An eye-catching 66 percent of respondents in the UAE believe that the data their company holds is more valuable than the people they employ, while 75 percent of respondents believe its importance was so great that it should be shown as an asset on a company’s balance sheet. Khan attributes this finding to the increasing realisation of the invaluable insight that effective data can provide. “Data is what enables CIOs to be a strategic part of a business,” Khan says. “It can influence and drive a business, and the UAE’s environment is so competitive. Big Data is now akin to big intelligence. Organisations recognise the importance of being informed in terms of product development, and this is a key reason why they believe data should be on the balance sheet. It’s a central, underlying piece of digital transformation, which is at the heart of conversations and is used as a communications currency.”

While many technologists – vendors and end-users alike – across the world believe that cloud will be the overriding and dominant means for housing data and applications in years to come, the figures – for the near future at least – suggest that this vision is a work in progress. The research shows that that 43 percent of UAE CIOs – compared to an average of 34 percent in the EMEA region – want to increase their investments in on-premise storage solutions in the next 18-24 months, suggesting that legacy technologies won’t die out just yet. “Workloads will be spread across public and private clouds, as well as on-premise models,” Khan says. “There’s a bit of differentiation across markets, but largely speaking, this will be the case.”

This finding is in keeping with another in the report – 77 percent of IT leaders in the UAE think that cloud and on-premise solutions should complement one another, rather than compete. The UAE can take heart from the figure, with more developed European markets Spain (82 percent), the United Kingdom (72 percent) and France (68 percent) recording similar levels of expectation. “As we’ve seen in the last few years, the market has adopted a narrative of public cloud versus traditional on-premise,” Khan says. “Anecdotally, we know that that’s an oversimplification – something that came out strongly in the research. The ideal scenario for businesses in the UAE is one where solutions can co-exist, giving them greater choice and control, driving the data advantage they are looking for.”

An average of 39 percent of storage currently runs in a traditional on-premise environment in the UAE, with 25 percent in the public cloud and 23 percent in a private cloud. Storage is seen to be slowing down digital transformation progress in 69 percent of businesses, and is regarded as an after-thought in the rush to innovate and bring new solutions to market for 76 percent of businesses in the UAE. “When networks don’t grow with data, that’s a huge problem,” Khan says.

This finding could prove to be problematic. The ability to deliver a quicker organisational response through the use of data has shot up the list of priorities for the survey’s participants. Almost three quarters (74 percent) of respondents see more demand in their business for real-time analytics and interactive simulations compared to a year ago. In terms of budgets, however, this demand has seen an encouraging response; IT budgets are increasing in various areas over the next financial year, including business applications and analytics (58 percent) and cloud applications (56 percent). Cloud infrastructure spend, meanwhile, is set to increase for 49 percent of participants, compared to an average of 50 percent for the EMEA region. “The ability to respond quicker is now a tremendous game-changer from digital transformation perspective,” Khan says.

However, while CIOs may harbour ambitions to implement various technologies that can benefit their organisations, the reality for many is one of inhibitors. Technical complexity (51 percent) is the biggest barrier to converting to digital solutions, followed by competing priorities (47 percent), which was considered a much bigger issue in the UAE than the EMEA and Russian average of 29 percent. Could this suggest that UAE CIOs are under excessive pressure to deliver on an overload of objectives? “I believe that simplifying the infrastructure side of things will allow CIOs to drive change across the board,” Khan says. “This will allow them to shift their focus to work on high performance solutions. They need to be focused on solutions and platforms that can help them to make the most of their data.” Other key issues also played a part; a reliance on IT to deliver strategies (39 percent) and a lack of digital skills (38 percent) were the next biggest factors in the UAE.

End goals for the vast majority of organisations centre around one overarching objective: putting customers first. The Data Economy report revealed that the most used digital platforms are: the digital management of customer records and purchase history (86 percent); digital platforms for internal communications (84 percent); digital platforms for customer support (79 percent) and digital communication with customers (79 percent). The key factors driving the adoption of digital solutions in the UAE are new business models (54 percent), competition (48 percent), customer demand (48 percent) and to create cost savings (46 percent).

“In my own experience as a CIO, I’ve been a customer of different types of digital solutions,” Khan says. “I’ve had very similar experiences as the CIOs I’ve spoken to in the UAE; the customer experience is becoming increasingly important. Solutions that can support this aim will inevitably gain traction in the near future.”

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