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Zohdi El-Saadi

Zohdi El-Saadi: Pioneering Innovation, Bridging Generations, and Transforming Businesses

Enthusiastically Captivated by Technology from its Nascent Stages!

Ever heard the saying that we’re living in the age of convenience? Well, guess what? We totally are!

Do you remember when going to the bank used to be a dreaded task? The long lines, the never-ending forms, and the painful wait for our turn? And who can forget the trouble of searching through a big, dusty dictionary just to find the meaning of one word? But hey, times have changed, haven’t they? Since everything became digital, we’ve gotten access to all kinds of conveniences, some of which we hadn’t even imagined before. Technology enthusiasts, with their passion and dedication to technology, made all of this possible, making our lives easier and less stressful.

Zohdi El-Saadi, the Chief Information Officer at IKK Group, is one such visionary. With a career defined by a boundless passion for technology, he has not only witnessed the evolution of digital landscapes but has been an active participant in shaping them.

Zohdi’s journey began in the early days of personal computing, when IBM PCs and Apple Macintosh devices were in their nascent stages. It was during this time that his fascination with technology was ignited. From the very outset, he was captivated by the world of application coding, design, databases, and the intricate exchange of information between various technologies. What started as a passion soon evolved into an academic pursuit and a thriving professional career.

The allure of technology’s constant evolution, the challenge of staying at the forefront of innovation, and the prospect of integrating these cutting-edge technologies into daily life and business practices all played pivotal roles in Zohdi’s journey. For him, the dynamism of the tech world was not a deterrent but a magnetic force drawing him in.

In his current role, Zohdi-El-Saadi is steering the corporate centralized IT department through a digital odyssey. IKK Group, with its diverse portfolio and international presence, requires a visionary and devoted CIO who can harness technology’s transformative power.

Below are the highlights of the interview:

The IKK Group’s History and Vision

The Isam Khairi Kabbani Group, a prominent leader in the Saudi Business and Construction Sector for over five decades, building a remarkable success story and an enduring legacy. With a history spanning back to 1968, this distinguished conglomerate, comprising over 40 companies in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the MENA region, has continually evolved and thrived. The founder, Sheikh Isam Alkabbani, embarked on this remarkable journey after a career in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the OPEC organization. In 1969, he made the pivotal move to Jeddah, laying the foundation for the group’s inaugural company in 1970.

The Founder’s Philosophy for the Next Generation espouses the principles of vision, transparency, and unwavering hard work as the cornerstones of success, transcending professional boundaries. This philosophy has shaped the group’s rich history of innovation, consistently delivering top-tier products and solutions that adhere to both local and international quality standards, thereby enhancing the construction industry and beyond. Their reach extends to over 20 countries worldwide.

Under the steadfast guidance of Chairman Mr. Hassan Al Kabbani, the driving force and primary advocate, the centralized IT department was established over 15 years ago. His visionary initiative and unwavering support have ushered in a new era of cutting-edge technology, epitomized by a state-of-the-art modern data center and the delivery of IT services that adhere to international standards, benefiting a workforce of more than 4500 employees and 14000 workers within the group. This significant achievement was further bolstered by the resolute backing of Group CEO Mr. Amr Alkabbani. His continued support and sponsorship, coupled with a commitment to empowerment and the facilitation of automation and cybersecurity solutions, have further solidified the group’s impressive success story.

Challenges in Managing IT for Jeddah Municipality

Zohdi encountered a formidable challenge in the realm of change management, with the added complexity of quelling resistance to change within the constraints of swift project delivery and stringent timeframes. This challenge was further amplified by the imperative to concurrently initiate numerous projects and deploy an array of new services. The intricacies were compounded by the necessity to collaborate seamlessly with external agencies and stakeholders while ensuring meticulous task synchronization.

To overcome these hurdles, a multifaceted array of techniques and solutions was adeptly employed. Foremost among these was the implementation of comprehensive training and awareness programs, engaging all pertinent stakeholders in each project. This approach aimed to foster a shared comprehension of project objectives and the associated advantages, with a particular focus on enhancing overall productivity through the automation of processes. The ultimate goal was to bring about a positive transformation in the organization’s human capital, empowering existing staff to elevate their knowledge and capabilities for optimal utilization of novel solutions.

Strategies for Effective Team Management

Zohdi emphasized that effective collaboration in any team relies on having the right individuals in the appropriate roles. This fosters collaboration and team spirit and supports personal achievements. Furthermore, selecting capable and qualified partners and technology vendors is crucial. They should be able to align with the team’s mission and vision, working together as one entity to enhance IT services and successfully deliver projects. Implementing a professional organizational chart for the sub-IT units or departments within the centralized IT department helps segregate authorities and responsibilities. This ensures that the right resources are allocated to each project or task. However, it is essential to maintain highly efficient and fully orchestrated communication and collaboration between these entities at all times. By integrating these subunits and departments, teamwork becomes a natural outcome rather than just a requirement when delivering a specific service or project.

Driving Technology Initiatives

As a CIO, Zohdi’s primary responsibility is to actively seek and promote ideas and projects that contribute to business growth and facilitate daily operations. Additionally, he occasionally proposes new technologies that may open up new opportunities for existing business units. The organizational chart of their profession-based structure ensures that each unit or sub-department has the necessary resources and autonomy to propose and test new initiatives that address business needs or improve existing processes, in collaboration with business owners. Numerous examples of such initiatives include the implementation of consolidated data dashboards and reports, which provide comprehensive insights into various operational aspects such as sales, inventory, project status, leads, and collection. Furthermore, integrated systems have been introduced to enhance existing processes, such as the ERP cash van sales and warehouse management system. All of these initiatives are carefully tailored to the specific requirements and demands of the business, taking into account both local and global economic factors as well as the latest technological trends.

A major driving force behind these initiatives is the IKK Group’s vision and mission, which are fully aligned with the ambitious Vision 2030 of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This vision aims to lead the country towards a future of technological advancement, wherein all government processes and communications, whether with individuals or businesses, are fully automated. This necessitates continuous integration projects with the extensive backend infrastructure that governs the entire data and technology systems of the kingdom.

Ensuring Quality IT Services & Cybersecurity

Zohdi, while discussing the key factors that contribute to successful service delivery and customer service in the IT industry, emphasized the importance of managing, maintaining, and supporting services according to standards and best practices. As an IT services provider for a diverse group of companies, the centralized IT department has implemented the ITIL framework across all offered IT services. This includes service planning, deployment, and support for all users within the group. Users can access a service catalog through an internal web address, and these services are closely monitored for availability and continuity.

Periodic reports are generated to track the status of service level agreements (SLAs) for requests and incidents, as well as surveys and service status reports that help improve and maintain service quality. To further demonstrate their commitment to operational excellence, the department has achieved ISO 20000 accreditation. The IT services management unit conducts regular internal reviews and collaborates with third-party audit firms to ensure compliance controls are maintained and to perform the annual periodic audit process for renewal. In addition, the centralized IT department undergoes a bi-annual third-party cybersecurity audit, covering major information security controls aligned with international standards, and is accredited and certified by Saudi ARAMCO CCC (Cybersecurity Compliance Certifications).

Navigating Challenges in the IT Industry

The IKK Group faces a significant challenge daily, which involves the users’ adaptation to new technologies and the corresponding measurements and risks associated with them. One of the key concerns is the increasing cybersecurity and information security risks that arise every second. The department is dedicated to promoting user awareness and implementing stricter measures for accessing and operating IT services while ensuring that these solutions do not overly complicate users’ daily operations. The department places a strong emphasis on educating and informing all users about new technologies and the associated risks through targeted campaigns, workshops, and public events. To further this effort, an important initiative took place in February 2023, where the department collaborated with local chapters/teams of Microsoft, VEAM, and Palo Alto Networks to organize a unique event in the kingdom. This event, known as CEAK 2023 (Cybersecurity Event for Awareness and Knowledge), brought together internal and external executive invitees to highlight the significance of collaboration among entities in the fields of technology and cybersecurity awareness.

Implementing Technology for Efficiency and Productivity

Zohdi mentioned that the centralized IT department has undertaken numerous initiatives and projects, particularly focused on process automation. The ERP and applications consultants, as well as the support unit and development unit, conduct thorough analysis and design of both existing and new processes. This is done to align enterprise applications or create tailored solutions that enhance overall business operations. Moreover, the department implements system integrations for specific trading and manufacturing business lines within the organization, incorporating vertical and specialized solutions. Additionally, various services are introduced to enhance productivity through the utilization of cloud-based business tools, hosting services, and modern communication solutions.

Facilitating Collaboration

The centralized IT department within the IKK group of companies consists of collaborative sub-departments and units that work together to provide comprehensive IT services and solutions for all companies and departments within the group. The IT customer support department, known as the front-end department, is the main point of contact for all daily technical and IT-related needs across the group. Users are assisted through an automated service desk that offers full visibility into each support ticket. This service desk is closely monitored through automated SLA triggers and reports, along with a unified call center. The IT procurement unit is responsible for managing all IT systems, hardware, and software purchases. They work in close coordination with various finance departments within the group to effectively manage the department’s budget and financial operations. Their ERP/Applications Consultants Unit provides functional and technical consultation, as well as implementation and support for core business systems and applications used by the group’s companies in various business lines, such as trading, manufacturing, and specialized contracting. Additionally, their development unit handles all necessary customizations for these applications and develops customized reports and dashboards tailored to each company’s needs, as well as consolidated reports for the entire group.

The HR/MIS unit supports all internal information systems, including the main HR system, and ensures seamless integration with other internal information systems. The back-end infrastructure and cybersecurity department oversees the operations and management of the group’s data center hardware and services. They work diligently to configure and secure the required platform for all operations, prioritizing the safety, continuity, and confidentiality of their IT services.

These specialized internal departments and units operate cohesively, much like a well-organized beehive, to ensure the safe and continuous delivery of all IT services with the utmost confidentiality.

Career Advice

Zohdi suggests that a key piece of advice is to focus on self-development to stay up-to-date with beneficial and business-oriented technological trends. By staying informed about new technological innovations, businesses can improve their operations and achieve their objectives more efficiently. As responsibilities and work scope increase, it becomes important to enhance conceptual and emotional skills alongside technical skills to have a broader understanding of the business and its components. Leadership should not be limited to technical team leadership but should also involve being a role model and influencer for the team, helping them discover their talents and utilize them to achieve desired business outcomes. Ultimately, IT serves as a major enabler for any type of business.