If You Cannot Change The Culture, You Will Not Succeed 

Interview with Faisal Ali (ECDC)

“You need to go down to the grassroots and address the people — they need to understand the value of the data, and the data they generate drives the company. Once you’ve got that, you’ve got that change coming in,” says Faisal Ali, Group Chief Information Officer, Gargash Group.

With over 23 years of extensive technical and business expertise and knowledge to lead and align strategic objectives and operations, Ali has successfully led the digital transformation journey across the Gargash Group of Companies. Ali talks about the challenges that large enterprises face during digital transformation and how they can encourage their workforce to be data-driven and imbibe innovation.

Excerpts from the interview:

What are your thoughts on blockchain technology? Which industries do you see being most impactful?

Recently, I have been changing my opinion about this particular technology. When blockchain first started a few years ago, everybody was looking into it, and I was one of the sceptics who always said that blockchain is a solution to a problem that doesn’t quite exist yet.

I think the world since then has changed tremendously. Blockchain has proven quite a bit of value in many different areas. Obviously, the supply chain is one of them.

The most fashionable one is cryptocurrencies, the buzzword of the day being NFTs, all different implementations of a technology that we couldn’t perceive. But moving forward, as we look into the future and delve deeper into the metaverse, blockchain technologies will become all the more important to differentiate between the real and deep fake content — whether it’s real NFT, whether it’s NFTs that are protecting real copyright material or not. So, blockchain has an important role in the near end and long-term.

What are the two main challenges that large enterprises face during digital transformation?

The biggest challenge or hurdle that most organisations come across, and unfortunately, many fail to realise, is the change of culture required to become a digital organisation truly. Digital is not just simply bringing a system in. It is a way of thinking. It is an understanding of doing things.

This is not my first time doing digital transformation. I’ve successfully done it a couple of times before. And what works well is that one should understand that today’s digital is not the same as standard information technology. They need to move at two very different paces.

Digital needs to move very fast, in a very agile way. It needs to be customer-centric — UI and UX are the buzzwords. You need to understand how the market moves; how everybody’s communicating. Is it TikTok? Is it WhatsApp? Or is it just a mobile app? You need to move quickly between those channels and serve your customers 24/7 from anywhere in the world today.

There is no excuse for not being able to serve a customer today. You can’t say, “Hey, you got to come to my branch., or come into my office to conduct your business.” That’s just simply not acceptable. However, if you look at the backend of technology, this is where you’ve got your traditional systems.

A large line of business applications, be it a strong point of sale system, a dealer management system, a securities brokerage system, or your ERP or CRM, any of those types of applications, or your identity management, your communication, and collaboration platforms, you cannot afford to change those on a daily, regular basis.

You’ve got to take your time. You’ve got to do your due diligence, and you’ve got to bring in the right solutions that protect your organisation and fulfil those internal functions and requirements that allow you to serve your customers.

How can companies deal with the skill gap?

Two and a half, three years ago, there was quite a bit of a shortage of workforce on the ground. We lacked skills. We needed to bring in skills from around the world. Now, the skill gap is irrelevant. No matter what part of the world you sit in, I can now contract, coordinate, communicate with you, and get delivery out of you. We have meetings across the globe. Those business hours, those working hours, have truly gone away. I get emails at 11 PM and 4 AM, and we’ve got meetings at all sorts of hours. And it’s true for everybody. Whether somebody is sitting in China or the US, Brazil, or any other part of the world, it doesn’t matter anymore. If there’s talent out there, you get it.

How can companies encourage their workforce to be data-driven and imbibe innovation in the organisational culture?

It’s a tricky question. This reminds me of one of my mentors; a few years ago, I was having a conversation with him along those similar lines — data-driven organisations, organisation culture, and he said, ‘Remember one thing, culture eats strategy for breakfast.

It’s as simple as that. If you cannot change the culture, no matter how good, no matter how logical or strong your strategy is, you will not succeed. So you need to be able to bring that change. You need to go down to the grassroots and address the people — they need to understand the value of the data, and the data they generate actually drives the company.

Once you’ve got that, you’ve got that change coming in.

I’ll give you a simple example of a change I’m driving within my organisation. I recently worked with our training department and within the IT department, making Python language mandatory for everyone. I don’t care if you are in the call centre receiving calls on the service desk, or a coder, or in networks and security, or a server administrator, or any other role; everybody must take and complete their lesson.

The logic behind it was not that I wanted to force everyone to code. No, it is because we come specifically in our part of the world from many different cultures, from many different regions. And while most of us speak English as a second language, the context and the cultural background that we have is very different.

It’s not the same. So when I say something in English, while you understand English just as well as me, your inference may vary. So to bring everybody closer is the current language of logic. So I said, let’s get everybody on a platform where everybody speaks logically to everybody.

And while you’re learning the language, you help each other out. So we built camaraderie, but then I went one step further and said, as we journey through this, I wanted each employee to bring one use case: how does technology help you alleviate a pain point in your day-to-day work?

And I was flabbergasted by the response I got. Some came from a data analysis perspective, some from a data generation perspective, some just from a simple UI — document recognition and data input perspective. The number of use cases I’ve now built and deployed is what everybody does every day.

And before you know it, the AI culture has organically spread across the entire organisation like a wildfire. So it’s at the grassroots where you need to address these issues, not from the top.

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