For CIOs, having a vision is important, but the focus needs to be on solving concrete problems

WCIT 2012: Leadership in action
Somewhere in Orlando, most Canadian CIOs I follow on Twitter were listening to Seth Godin, the popular marketing guru, who was the lunchtime keynote speaker at Gartner Symposium/ITxpo 2012. They were not here in Montreal, where the 18th World Congress on Information Technology is taking place. And it’s easy to understand why.
WCIT’s program is a curious mix of the consumer-focused and government-oriented. There are panels on “Building a Digital Society” along with token sessions on the cloud and big data. There are CIOs on the agenda, but they are all from vendor organizations like Intel, Xerox and AMD, who are cast more in the role of making their employer look like an attractive supplier than speaking to their peers around best practices in IT management.
Sandwiched in the middle of all this was a group of ministers from Canada, Malaysia, Mexico, Nigeria and Tapei, who were supposed to talk about IT leadership programs taking place in their respective countries. It seemed destined to turn into a festival of yawns: public servants talking in vague generalities about the need to invest in ICT and how their country was poised to be an internationally recognized champion, and so on. They all wanted to offer their citizens more broadband. They believe children are the future. They are really hoping to place higher on various global rankings around competitiveness. I seriously thought about walking out.
Then Omobola Johnson, Minister of Communication Technology in Nigeria, took the podium. An engineer by training, Johnson offered what struck me as the most inspired approach to using technology for improving quality of life. It helped that she offered specific examples. Here are a few:
For many years, the government of Nigeria has offered fertilizer subsidies to the small-scale farmers who make up an important part of its economy. The trouble is, they often have difficulty applying for the right fertilizer, getting updates on planting seasons, extension workers and so on. Johnson’s government will be distributing 10 million phones to the farmers over the next year which will include an e-wallet tool that will accelerate their ability to get access to subsidies and the most up-to-date information. A lot more interesting, and useful, than paying for a Starbucks coffee with your iPhone, no?
Pregnant women are being given phones too when they come to a clinic. This allows them more direct access to social program providers and nurses to help make sure they show up for appointments, that the health of their unborn children are monitored and that they have an easy way to get in touch with questions. Another mobile tool will allow users to scan a barcode and make sure medicine is appropriate for the person about to consume it.
Forget about bring-your-own-device; Johnson is more interested in seeing Nigeria build its own brands. Where other governments are cozying up to vendors in the hopes of getting cheap access to laptops and tablets in return for who knows what, Nigeria is working on its own sub-$50 devices that will spur local industry, and no doubt help create more trusted relationships between vendors and customers.
Contrast this with Tapei’s plan, which includes among its metrics the hope that, one day, e-government services will have a 70 per cent satisfaction rate. Hmmm.

The theme of WCIT 2012 is “ONE vision for a global digital society.” I’m not sure we want one vision, but Nigeria’s plans show that what we do want are IT strategies that transform processes that are otherwise difficult, that speed up the things that are painfully slow, that help those that need it. Come to think of it, those aren’t bad over-arching goals for the average CIO, no matter where they are in the world.

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