Don’t talk tech, talk business, says GWK’s head of IT Berdine Viljoen

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Berdine Viljoen has a three-step process to ensure each division has the support it needs.

By Jane Steinacker

Berdine Viljoen, head of IT at GWK, pioneers in the agriculture and food value chain, says the industry is diverse and goes beyond services for farms to include financing, mechanisation, trading, retail store services, insurance and professional agricultural services.

To ensure that each division has the support from technology that it needs to reach its objectives, Berdine uses a three-step process – one that consistently delivers good results. “First you need to understand the business’ strategy, then the operational processes and only then do you find the technology to support that,” she said.

“I don’t walk in talking technology, I walk in talking business,” she says. She has come a long way from her beginnings at Siemens when she was in her 20s, but even then the determined, passionate and talented IT practitioner’s skills were recognised.

In her team Berdine has hired business engineers who have the knowledge, insight and expertise to create successful technology solutions that align with the business.

This is a different approach from the vendor-led strategies that have historically been the approach to IT. Berdine favours these “postmodern” types of enterprise resource planning (ERP) solutions. “I prefer the best-of-breed technology that can be used on one platform,” she says.

“If you use the approach of aligning technology solutions with business models and processes, you won’t fail,” says Berdine.

The philosophy of ripping out and replacing entire systems is not to be found at GWK. “We seek out technology that is fit-for-purpose and is able to scale in alignment with the growth of the business,” she says.

“Creating a partnership with the business means that you only change and replace modules in the system that aren’t delivering results. When you take this approach then upgrading or using a new piece of technology in the business is not seen as a cost, but rather an investment.”

Berdine adds that IT is one of the resources for the cost of doing business. But that doesn’t mean she’s not conservative when it comes to expenditure. She is adept at negotiating IT contracts: what she refers to as “unique legal documents”. She is able to negotiate stronger service agreements, fine-tune any service level agreements and reduce costs without compromising the business units she serves.

Berdine is fastidious in adhering to governance frameworks, which she says is yet another complexity that many don’t understand. She is also able to provide the scalable business solutions that offer efficiencies and profit opportunities for business from the comfort of her home in Douglas in the Northern Cape.

After years in Johannesburg working for companies like Sasfin, JD Group (part of the Pepkor Group) and Gartner, she and her husband moved to the very spot where the Orange and Vaal rivers meet in a lush oasis that defies the notion of the dry province. This comes as no surprise because Berdine has always defied the norms, knowing that the decisions she makes have always yielded positive results, be they for a business or for her life.

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