Leading change

'Visionary' Tshabalala joins Unisa as Chief Information Officer

Chief Information Officer (CIO) and Vice-Principal of Information and Communication Technology Poppy Tshabalala is excited about becoming a Unisan and humbled by the opportunity. “I’m hard at work with the team transforming ICT to the ‘service provider of choice’, characterised by the best and always available services.”

She joins Unisa from Vodacom, where she was Executive Head of Business Development and of Strategy Execution and Business Support in its Public Enterprise unit, and, latterly, Special Project Manager of the National Treasury Transversal in the telecoms company.

With a stellar career in ICT and leadership behind her, Tshabalala has come a long way from the little girl growing up in rural Mpumalanga whose dream was to pass matric and be either a police officer or a prison warder. “I could imagine myself in their uniform,” she says, wistfully. “I still wish I get a chance to wear it one day.”

After matriculating, she was a student teacher at a local high school for a year, teaching maths and science to grade 11 and 12 learners, before being awarded a bursary to study towards a Computer Science degree at the University of Cape Town. This was later followed by an Eskom-sponsored opportunity to complete an MSc in Engineering Business Management at Warwick University in the UK.

What her background has taught Tshabalala is respect, not only for seniority, but for individuals as children of God. “My success has been through building teams and developing team members. My focus is on an individual’s wellbeing and creating a conducive working environment for the team. This has proven results of happy, motivated teams and improved service delivery.”

Her objectives are to look for ways to improve things, to make them faster and more efficient. Whether it is people, technology, or business processes, she wants to make them work smarter, with lower costs and greater returns being the result.

Named by the previous Vice-Principal of ICT at Unisa, Geoffrey Letsoalo, as an ICT visionary and one of his five most inspiring people, she confirms her prescient approach. She plans by painting a picture of the end result or product, which gets everyone excited and looking forward to the launch date. “This is then followed by a strategy stipulating steps on the journey to the date with pit stops, celebrating milestones on the way.”

It’s a creative yet practical approach that saw Tshabalala named as a finalist in the “ICT Visionary Award” by the Computer Society of South Africa in 2008. “This was the result of the strategic initiatives I introduced when I was CIO of the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), which led to cost savings and improved services directed to economic development in the country.”

“As a CIO at the DTI, I developed strategies that improved ICT performance and governance. The department was recognised by the State Information Technology Agency and by the Auditor General as the best governed department in the sector of ICT compared to all national, provincial and local departments. I elevated the role of the CIO in the department to board level, where I contributed to strategies that led to clean audits, both in ICT and business operations.”

Also within the DTI, Tshabalala was instrumental in the turnaround of the agency CIPRO, which had serious technical problems, to the current smooth running Companies and Intellectual Property Commission (CIPC). “I even received an award in recognition for driving the successful conversion of CIPRO to the CIPC.”

Her objectives are to look for ways to improve things, to make them faster and more efficient. Whether it is people, technology, or business processes, she wants to make them work smarter, with lower costs and greater returns being the result.

With Tshabalala at the helm, Unisans are looking forward to the transformation of ICT at the university.

*By Sharon Farrell