CIO Day’s Brain GAIN: Talking talent and skills in the age of AI

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IT executives identify the three big skills for leadership in a world of exponential change, where tech has become democratised.

On 6 July, IT's formidable minds gathered at The Leonardo, one of the tallest buildings in Africa, for a quintessential learning and networking experience for top executives. This was CIO South Africa’s first-ever CIO Day, and the theme was Brain GAIN! The ultimate dialogue about talent and skills in times of AI.

The day also covered the topic of nurturing digital skills among young South Africans in order to develop a digital powerhouse of workplaces. In addition, CIO Day explored how to develop a cybersecurity-aware culture and analyse the IT talent landscape across Africa.

Attendees kicked off the event by participating in brainstorming sessions that focused on people, skills, issues, solutions, as well as retention methods and establishing AI-ready IT teams.

Following the brainstorming sessions, leading CIOs Faith Burn of Eskom, Shabhana Thaver of Investec, Kevin Wilson from Stefanutti Stocks and Sun International’s Pragasen Pather offered their perspectives during a panel discussion.

“To deal with the skills shortage, look beyond the educational pipeline and IT teams. We have a pool of people available in our organisations, like business people who can learn tech skills, because tech has been democratised,” said Shabhana.

Pragasen noted that participants in the brainstorm session which he was part of discussed the migration of skills. He explained that some companies were losing out to tech hubs in Holland, for example. However, the jury was out as to whether this was due to a skills issue or more of a broader SA Inc. issue. “It’s beyond us to fix from a political point of view, but these are hard truths. Africa also has the youngest population; we should be breeding talent at a younger age, and try to influence the curriculum at primary school,” he added.

The demand for digital skills
The next panel discussion saw Nicola Galombik, executive director at Yellowwoods, Mteto Nyati, executive chairperson at BSG, Vukani Mngxati, CEO of Accenture Africa, and Ziaad Suleman, EOH's CCO taking to the stage to air their views on how to bolster SA's most in demand digital skills tenfold.

Mteto explained that South Africans needed to start operating at a higher level to beat the current national crises. “We have to operate at a higher level to get the best leverage we need to collaborate. We can do all the training we want, but if we don’t give young people the opportunity to learn on the job, we won't move. As this community we need to look at how we will integrate people being trained,” he said.

Vukani brought in a different perspective on the matter, when he said that leaders are operating from a scarcity and not an abundance mindset.

“We need to amend our thinking to lead the skills development journey because you look at countries like India, who essentially operate from an abundance mindset and they are not struggling with critical skills development,” he explained.

Some grim statistics were mentioned during the discussion, like there are 450 vacancies for Java developers in the country. Despite this rather concerning scenario, the speakers agreed that there is a need for quality to outweigh quantity when it comes to developing digital talent.

With all that food for thought, attendees were able to network and catch up with their peers over a delectable three-course lunch at Aurum, one of Johannesburg's finest restaurants.

Synthesising exponential change
The second half of CIO Day saw keynote speaker Jos Dirkx, an author and World Economic Forum IT pioneer, take to the stage. She investigated some of the reasons why brilliant ideas perish and presented a complete how-to guide for what she referred to as 21st century innovation.

Jos is a strong advocate for diversity of thought and collective intelligence. She encouraged attendees to explore what they could learn from one another. Jos also made the observation that executives spend a lot of time in their heads and not making actual decisions. “As leaders, we often get in the way of our own ideas and those of our teams. Yet innovative leadership for CIOs goes far deeper than what it’s traditionally believed to be,” she said.

Referring to the disruption caused by AI, Jos added, “We’re in the middle of a massive crash, and for CIOs today, this is not an easy time to be doing what you’re doing. You’re synthesising across a variety of exponential changes in technology and trying to make sense of them and pulling them together for your businesses.”

The keynote was followed by executive roundtable sessions. Glen Krynauw, CIO programme leader and partner at Deloitte, gave suggestions on how to place skills at the forefront of your organisation during the executive round table.

She explored HR trends and personnel retention methods like stay interviews, which were highly beneficial at Deloitte. She also encouraged people attending the roundtable to hire based on talent, rather than job title - and adjust roles to the skills required.

Simple, practical, relatable
It is said that being proactive rather than reactive is the one the best ways to secure an organisation. The group discussion, with disruptor Colin Iles, Tiger Brands CISO Ritasha Kalidas and Eskom Information Security head Sithembile Songo, on creating a cyber-aware culture shed light on exactly how to go about it.

Colin noted, “With the speed of tech breaches magnifying by 10x over the next decade and now the factor of AI, cyber security is increasingly challenging.Culture is key, in SA there is still no cybersecurity degree, so education is lagging while the threat is increasing.”

Ritasha added that a good cyber security officer must be a good story teller, particularly when relaying the information to the C-suite. “When I talk to board execs, it's about sharing the implications of cyber security, and making it very simple, practical, relatable and emphasising the importance of speed of response,” she said.

Sithembile added that cyber security awareness requires changing human behaviour, which is hard. “As a leader you need a clear vision in mind, and to be able to articulate the type of behaviour change you want and move cybersecurity from being a tick-box and compliance driven to more active,” he said.

While AI is very fashionable at the moment, not all technologies are worth the code that they are written on – you have to have a business use case for them. That’s exactly what Sasol’s Lungile Mginqi and Bramley Maetsa did, using the chemical company as a case study on a strategic approach to generative AI.

Lungile noted that the organisation opted for a zero-investment, try-before-you-buy approach. He added that, as Group CIO, his eyes were open to the risks.

“We wanted to scale quickly, but after using demos we realised we needed to wait for a clear policy. We’re under no illusion we’ll solve all the problems that come with AI; we can only mitigate them,” he said.

Three big skills
After a very informative executive roundtable, the CIOs returned to the plenary for some key takeaways, which was facilitated by Nicola Tyler, an expert in the field of lateral thinking.

She drew - literally, drew - conclusions from the discussions of the day. Her iPad sketches were projected live onto screens, showing the highlights and adding observations and ideas of her own.

“So I think if we are to get the skills conundrum right as leaders you need three big skills - the ability to think differently and to identify possibility, the confidence in decision making and this only comes through intuition and experience. Final one is courage, I would say have the courage to act or lead with certainty on the basis that the future is uncertain,” she said.

The day concluded on a high note - again, literally - as South Africa’s leading CIOs took an elevator to the rooftop to Alto24, Africa's tallest urban bar, where they were able to reflect on the day, converse with their peers and brainstorm a little bit more.

This exclusive day was supported by CIO South Africa’s Principal partners EOH, Makwa IT and Liquid Intelligent Technologies. Executive partners were BCX and Workday, and Associate partners were Communication Genetics, OneConnect, iiDENTIFii, Perpetuuiti, and SAS.

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