BY DONOVAN JACKSON, (WWW.THEMARGIN.CO.ZA)
Squeezing blood from a stone is arguably an easier task than getting a handle on the state of transformation in the channel, with key players from distributors to resellers and even the Black IT Forum universally coy in their willingness to share opinions or statistics. However, those who do hold views tend to find that transformation isn’t exactly a roaring success – and that’s perhaps why spokespeople and executives are ‘too busy’ to chat about their perceptions.
Over thirty companies and individuals across the channel were contacted for information or opinion to include in this article (for the purposes of disclosure, these requests were made in November and December 2013). Of the ‘major players’ only Gijima provided complete answers to the questions submitted; AxizWorkgroup provided some statistics, and Tarsus Technologies did give some input to specific responses.
The public relations representative of one of the non-responding companies contacted provides, perhaps, the most telling insight: “Maybe that [unwillingness to comment] in itself is the story. Because, to be honest, I don’t think there is much transformation in the channel. Bar the resellers, the disties don’t seem to be all that transformed. And then on the reseller front it is more the large systems integrators who seem to have big attractive businesses that attract big government contracts that seem to be the honey to the BEE investors.
“People don’t want to comment on things or areas where they feel they aren’t succeeding.”
What of the Black IT Forum, an entity tasked (ostensibly) with advancement of transformation? Perhaps the greatest disappointment of all, representatives from both the Gauteng and national levels were contacted, but no responses to numerous e-mails or telephone calls were received.
One individual who was prepared to share his views is Garth Francis, MD of Cape-based IT business Xepa Consulting. “The channel is aware of transformation, but transformation is not happening fast enough. It’s not top of the list and it’s merely ticking a box to comply. The channel is still dominated by white males,” he says. Is transformation actually taking place? “
Apart from well-connected and well-resourced, top-tier systems integrators, such as Gijima, Dimension Data and Business Connexion, life is tough for the aspirant black technology reseller or channel account manager.
“Black-owned companies are still stuck in survival mode and not growing fast enough. I believe it’s not only about B-BBEE, but more about relationships and who you know in the right places,” says Francis. “I still see the business development manager positions dominated by white males.”
From a vendor perspective, Jacques van Wyk, GM of indirect operations at Ricoh SA, says real black empowered businesses do exist. “Not [just] the window dressing black empowerment but black-owned and run; we have two fully fledged black empowered dealers. It is definitely happening but it’s not happening fast enough.”
So, the question remains: why not? “The major cause is a lack of suitably skilled people in technical roles and IT sales and services. We struggle to find suitable candidates who were previously disadvantaged with the requisite skills to fill the roles that we need,” he says.
Van Wyk says transformation in a complex industry like IT just isn’t as easy as flipping a switch. “It takes a great deal to transform. [For example] we have learnership programmes in place because there are too few external tools that adequately prepare people for our industry; we have between 10 and 20 people start the programme each time yet we only get two or three qualifying at the end.”
He puts this low completion rate down to a couple of main factors: lack of ability to grasp the subject matter, but most often a lack of desire to gain the full qualification, once a few basic skills are gained.
Moreover, van Wyk doesn’t see ‘industry organisations’ doing much to address transformation. “In our industry we would benefit from a gentleman’s agreement between the various companies providing learnerships and development programmes, but that doesn’t exist. It’s supposed to exist in some form through the Sector Education and Training Authority (SETA), yet SETA is ineffective to the point where they’re largely ignored by both companies and current and potential employees. It would be hugely beneficial if government could play a leading role in this instance, but that just isn’t happening at this stage.”
As with the BITF, repeated attempts to get comment from ISETT SETA for this feature achieved no results.
The one company which was willing and able to respond comprehensively to questions that most other organisations shied away from, provides further insight into the slow pace of transformation in the channel. With a BEE scorecard rating of AAA Level 2, Gijima CEO Eileen Wilton isn’t shy about the fact that transformation isn’t happening fast enough across the channel. “Although significant progress has been made, the pace is not ideal.”
She says factors at play include ‘tough economic challenges’ and human resource challenges (‘the scarcity of previously disadvantaged individuals (PDIs) with critical skills and competencies’).
Wilton has some views on what can be done to improve transformation: “Firstly, all empowerment bodies need to ensure that charters are in place, properly understood by all and the measurement against performance is consistent.
“Secondly, empowerment bodies should form more partnerships with private sector organisations and make more financial resources available from the skills levies paid.
“Thirdly, closer collaboration between educational institutions and industry with the view of alignment of educational programmes to industry needs aimed at equipping learners with skills, competencies and knowledge required by industry,” she says.
While the lack of responses received to our enquiries could be perceived to indicate organisations contacted for this feature aren’t transforming as successfully as they would like, The Margin is not suggesting channel players are actively seeking to avoid employing African staff. Quite the contrary; in fact, The Margin is very much aware of internship programmes run by the likes of Gijima and EOH, which give hundreds of young PDIs the chance to get real work experience and skills. And, with the prevailing political climate and the advantages that can flow from having black faces in the company picture, qualified, capable African staff are in demand.
However, black-owned companies are struggling with the same issues in finding and nurturing sufficiently skilled people, says Ricoh’s van Wyk. “It’s sad when you have black-owned business with only one or two black people, the owners, and they must employ skilled white labour to fill the majority of roles in the business. I know of a dealer in our industry that is black-owned but has to do just that because they can’t find black people with the right skills. These are not ‘tenderpeneur’ businesses, they are real black empowerment business and even though we have seen more black businesses appearing in our industry their transformation is extremely slow because they struggle with the skills issue like we do.”
While skills is certainly a major factor, the slow pace of channel transformation should probably be considered in simple economic terms, the overriding question of which is this: ‘Does it add value?’. Economics tends to be colourblind; when the answer is ‘yes’, all else will follow.