DPE’s Norbit Williams believes that agility allows you to do more with less

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IT leaders need to think strategically, according to the CIO, and plan for 10 years from now.

Norbit Williams is the CIO at the Department of Public Enterprise. He recently joined the department after spending the last eight years with the Department of Small Business Development (DSBD), and a prior five years at the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI).

CIO South Africa’s managing editor, Reabetswe Rabaji, caught up with Norbit while he was on leave – right from the golf course through a virtual call. “Playing golf actually allows me to get some much-needed time out,” Norbit says. “I use golf as an opportunity to have a little bit of introspection and be outdoors. It’s also a good chance to smack a ball around to relieve some stress,” he laughs.

Norbit has worked in public service for 13 years now, and in the IT space for more than 25. Williams’ appointment at the Department of Public Enterprises has created an opportunity for him with large state-owned enterprises and he will transfer his prior learning and experience into the organisation ensuring that they create a platform for transition to digitisation in a more coordinated manner.

“Before I joined public service, I spent quite a bit of time in the ICT training industry,” he says, “training software developers, web developers, and the like. My last role before I joined public service was as an executive director for a performance management systems company, and for a company that specialised in advertising management software.”

IT anywhere, anytime, and any device

Norbit had been with the DSBD since its inception in 2014. In fact, he wrote the department’s initial IT strategy based on the concept of IT anywhere, anytime, and on any device. “The idea with that was to ensure that the end-user base could work anywhere with any device that they chose,” he explains.

He highlights one of his biggest achievements as being one of the few departments across the national government that had not had a single ICT audit finding from the Auditor-General of South Africa. His department also attained the highest score (Level 4) in terms of MPAT rating for ICT during his tenure.

During the Covid-19 lockdown, Norbit managed to get his department to work off-premises in just two days. This was because their entire infrastructure and design was based on working from anywhere.

However, Norbit does admit that moving from the private sector to the public sector is not an easy transition. “It’s a hectic change,” he says. “In the private sector, a decision is a decision, and you can move hastily, but in the public sector, you have red tape coming out of your ears.”

He did, although, maintain some of his corporate mentality of being able to expedite certain decisions, especially when he joined the Department of Small Business Development. “Working in corporate and working with a number of different organisations – of different sizes – gave me some insight into how these businesses operate,” Norbit explains.

Having this insight is quite important, he says, because IT heads have always been perceived as “box droppers and cable pluggers. As soon as you start to dig in and ask the critical questions, you start to get funny looks – almost as if you shouldn’t be asking those questions, because you’re just the IT guy.

“It’s important for the CIO to understand the business completely,” he says. “We as IT professionals have always maintained that IT should become the strategic enabler of the business, but if you don’t understand your business, how do you become that business enabler?”

According to Norbit, the function of CIO in the private sector versus one in the public sector has two different impact levels. “As public service we are governed by the corporate governance of ICT framework, which clearly states that the CIO should be part of exco, but not all of the departments have adopted that process yet.

“With that said, the role of the CIO has changed significantly from what it was five or 10 years ago. If you look back, the rationale was that if I didn’t have a data centre on premises with numerous physical servers or an IT staff complement of at least 20 to 30 people, then technically I’d have lost IT, and that’s where I believe the biggest challenges lie, particularly in the public sector.”

He goes on to say that when it comes to digital transformation or cloud migration, there is a certain level of reluctance, but also some concern that says that if one does not have a data centre in the environment any longer, it diminishes the level of responsibility for the head of IT. Norbit says this is simply a perception that is created, and doesn’t necessarily hold water.

When reflecting on his time with the Department of Small Business Development, he says that he managed to achieve a lot with a relatively small team.

“We managed to do a lot with a limited IT unit compared to bigger departments with larger units. We were a lot more agile and could achieve more and in a quicker time frame,” he says. “This is where I believe the biggest change in IT comes – the strategic thinking – thinking with at least a 10-year plan in mind, and that’s always been my approach.

“I believe that the role of IT or head of IT, should be one that provides vision to the organisation, and be akin with what is happening in the industry itself: being able to look at the technology, and put yourself in that trajectory of applying that technology,” he concludes.

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