From cost centre to innovation enabler

The image that IT functions have in popular culture, including evil hackers in many Hollywood movies, suggests IT may have an image issue. How can this be overcome?

In an increasingly connected and globalized world that is overwhelmingly dependent on internet technology (IT), how can IT functions within organisations establish a reputation for excellence and an awareness of the value they add, both internally and externally? First, we should acknowledge that IT has an image issue. Without that, progress will be tough and slow. If, however, we can accept that there is an issue, it should quickly become obvious that IT – internal or external, in-house or outsourced – is the most critical function in nearly every organisation in the region.

Just think back to the last time your email didn’t work and it is blindingly obvious that, without IT, we would all need to find a new way to work. (okay, so a world without IT may occasionally seem very attractive!) Every day, IT – and the people and (increasingly) the artificial intelligence that power that IT – comes up with new solutions to problems and issues that we may never have realised we had. In travel, we have seen an inexorable rise in electric vehicles and self-driving cars. In communication, we are seeing the growth of voice command controls like Alexa into smart homes. In finance, we are constantly bombarded with media updates on NFC payments and mobile wallets. These are innovations enabled by – and dependent – IT.

With Bahrain about to become one of the first countries in the world to offer a nationwide 5G service, what does this seemingly unstoppable flood of innovation mean for us, the ordinary man or woman in the street? It means we are seeing science fiction become reality every day. Blockchain, the internet of things (IoT), cloud and wireless energy transfer – just years ago – were pie in the sky, unattainable fantasies. These are now real – and impacting each one of us in a myriad of ways. This generation of school-leavers has experienced more change than their counterparts even 50 years ago could have dreamed possible. On a national level in Bahrain, the Economic Development Board has identified the opportunities that innovation offers, pushing (as an example) the public sector to invest in cloud solutions. For some governmental organisations, this has simply meant upgrades to websites. For others, it has meant the adoption of new digital solutions and wholesale changes to processes and procedures that were written twenty years ago and last looked at ten years ago.

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We have seen the establishment and ongoing success of Bahrain FinTech Bay, with its impressive expansion plans. Leading financial establishments – both conventional and Islamic – are changing their focus from what has worked in the past to trying to predict the applications (and the ways of life) that we are more likely to use as we move towards a post-industrial economy. And we have seen new legislation, such as Bahrain’s personal data protection law which comes into effect on 1 August this year.
The PDPL is an important change to Bahrain’s business infrastructure – and a useful warning to key decision makers that – with the introduction of new digital solutions – the regulatory environment is changing. The PDPL envisages new roles for sector-specific regulators, such as the Telecoms Regulatory Authority for the telecoms industry and the CBB for the financial services sector. The Central Bank of Bahrain has been updating its Rule Book to address the issues and challenges that cyber-crime brings.

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Fundamentally, these are IT issues that are only going to be manageable with the sustained and tenacious application of IT solutions. How are we going to deal with the threats that come with the growth of artificial intelligence, big data and compliance? By using artificial intelligence and big data! So – how can IT move from being a cost-center – a fathomless black hole into which countless dinars are sunk year after year in a never-ending attempt to at least catch up with what other companies are promising – into an innovation enabler? Simple – believe! The 2000s saw article after article in business magazines telling readers that it was the era of the CFO. If that was ever true, there is a strong argument that it isn’t anymore. Future trends include the shift of virtual reality from your son’s (or daughter’s) VR game to an indispensable, indistinguishable day to- day tool, growing human/computer interfaces, the ongoing, accelerating replacement of human effort by robot labour and the emergence of AI-based predictive cybersecurity solutions. Now truly is IT’s time to shine.

Srikant Ranganathan is a senior director and the head of IT consulting at Keypoint, a leading professional services firm in Bahrain. The views expressed in this article are his own

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