SEDA’s Thenjiwe Dlamini sees IT as a strategic partner in her organisation

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She believes that IT should have a say in decision-making.

SEDA’s chief strategy and information officer, Thenjiwe Ntuli-Dlamini, describes her position as a hybrid one. This is because Thenjiwe is in charge of both the organisation’s strategy: monitoring and evaluation (M&E), and ICT and business information: infrastructure, applications, and desktop support for users.

“My position was essentially twofold,” she explains. “These two functions were created to, on one hand, support the overall strategic plan of the organisation, and on the other, to elevate and position ICT as a strategic partner within the organisation. This is due to the fact that ICT is often regarded as a service provider – responsible for acquiring hardware such as computers, but hardly involved in decision-making.”

Thenjiwe is an early riser who prefers to start her day on a positive and active note. She goes to the gym at least four times a week, and on weekends, enjoys cycling with her two sons, aged 27 and 22.

However, one of her greatest passions outside of work is her community service. “I do speaking engagements where I encourage women, youth (particularly boys), and orphans. “As a result of this, I decided to establish my own foundation dedicated to these three groups of people,” she says.

“The boy child has a special place in my heart. If I had to reflect, I could easily say that I have raised more boys than girls: my brothers and their sons, as well as my own.”

According to Thenjiwe, SEDA is a small organisation with 700 employees and 54 branches spread across all nine provinces. And each of those provinces has its own IT specialist. She is based in Pretoria at the national office, which reports to the Department of Small Business Development. “The role can be quite challenging at times,” she admits. “This is because we are a small team in comparison to what is required of us; as technology changes and demand increases, we struggle with capacity and getting the people required with the appropriate skills.”

This became clear when the organisation was hacked in 2021, forcing Thenjiwe and her team to reinstall the system, a process that revealed vulnerabilities in their ICT security, and a shortage in engineers and database administrators..

Her background is in finance, with a focus on taxation, and she has spent many years working in that field, primarily with SARS. She was mainly involved in SARS ICT projects, where she played an instrumental role in the modernisation agendas at SARS in the early 2000s.

After completing her MBA, Thenjiwe moved to SEDA; at this point, she felt she had done everything she could in the finance space and was looking for a new challenge. “I had completed my bid in finance and taxation and now wanted to concentrate on strategy and information technology.”

As a result, she explains, “I shared some of the strategies I used during my time with SARS, which led me to this position of acting chief strategy and information officer.” I may not have a traditional IT qualification, but I believe my greatest strengths are in strategy and how it can change an organisation.”

According to Thenjiwe, SEDA is currently undergoing a merger that will combine three entities and may result in the separation of the two roles she currently holds. “The separation is critical because there is a lot of compliance with National Treasury on the strategy side alone, but also deals with ICT – a demanding role in itself,” she says.

The decision of separating the two roles has not been finalised yet, which means that Thenjiwe retains the option of wearing both hats. She does admit, however, that during her transition from finance to strategy and ICT, she developed a strong affinity for IT. “I fell in love with IT because I’ve been around it for a while now. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that my business language is more focused on IT than strategy,” she says.

“I’m even thinking about specialising in ICT governance and security, as well as investigating the issue of digitisation as we move into 4IR and 5IR.”

If Thenjiwe had to choose between finance and IT, she would go with IT, because it’s so dynamic, she says, whereas in finance, no matter how much changes, many things remain the same. “Debits will always be debits, and credits will always be credits, but IT is a constantly changing environment that keeps me on my toes. This means that I must always be aware of what is going on, or else the organisation will fall behind.”

According to Thenjiwe, a CIO in the twenty-first century must have skills beyond traditional IT, such as strategic and business acumen, resilience, and proficiency in research and the use of big data for decision-making.

She also emphasises the value of having a mentor, and for her, these are people who have reinforced her passion for IT, particularly professors she met while furthering her studies in IT. “I often refer to my mentor, a professor, as a godsend. I did feel overwhelmed at one point,” she says. “I was struggling with some of the IT jargon, and my mentor helped me get through it: he gave me the reassurance I needed at the time, and also stressed that this thing was doable; all I needed to do was surround myself with the right people and learn from them.”

“Mentors play an important role in one’s life and career; they help you overcome your fears, which are sometimes unfounded. A mentor, in my opinion, is that support structure (other than your family) that everyone needs.”

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