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15 May 2011

Nation-building is About Creating Human Capital

By Mhamed Biygautane
The challenges posed by the financial crisis have necessitated the adoption of different strategies for human capital development. Recognising these challenges and their long-term impact on the performance of the UAE's public and private sectors, the Federal Authority for Government Human Resources (FAHR) invited experts from throughout the world to the First International Human Resource Conference under the theme ‘Human resources: The sustainable capital for the new era' to discuss the challenges, opportunities and threats now facing the UAE's human resources. More precisely, the conference tackled ways of managing talent and HR under the light of the UAE's 2021 strategic goals.
I had the chance to be a speaker at that conference, which FAHR organised in collaboration with the Dubai School of Government earlier this year, and want to both reflect on the experience itself and share a perspective on the way forward in addressing the challenges raised by the conference.
While the conference impressed me by attracting big names in public management and administration, mostly from American universities, I found it quite disappointing that not a single Emirati from a local university was on the list of speakers. Is not this the same vicious circle we have been revolving around for long? To discuss and solve national problems, we bring in foreign speakers, forgetting about the local ones who are more aware of the subject and could contribute more effectively to the discussion. Ironically, this subject was raised in the conference by one speaker who complained that foreign experts and academics are more valued than the local ones, despite the latter, sometimes, having more experience and local knowledge.
Skills departure
The unprecedented wave of skills departure brought about by the financial crisis has reconfigured the HR requirements of GCC countries in two key areas: the formation of local capacities that can replace those of expatriates, and the establishment of effective mechanisms that can document the expatriates' knowledge and experience, and teach it to the national workforce. The conference touched considerably on these issues, but mainly from a technical perspective. After reading, researching, writing and thinking about numerous topics related to public sector reform, the role of HR in empowering human capital, and especially knowledge management, I have reached two main conclusions.
The first conclusion concerns the overriding importance of education. To enhance public and private sectors' performance and strengthen knowledge sharing, we should not focus only on creating knowledge management leaders who follow a "stick and carrot" principle, nor bring in consultants to implement complicated automated processes, nor even focus on the holistic strength of the organization. All of these are external factors.
Effective, lasting change must be generated internally — inside the individual, inside the organisation and inside the country. The focal point should not be to fill the minds of employees with technical terms and expect them then to magically change overnight.
The issue is much broader than this. I believe that effective change is contingent on reforming the educational systems in the region — beginning in primary school — to train individuals to think critically, to accept criticism, to welcome change, and to appreciate the values of collaborative and cooperative work. These skills do not develop in a year or two. Rather, they require years of educational training before they become reflected in the behaviour and performance of employees.
Second, we should adopt relevant models that fit with the region's cultural, religious and societal norms. Applying models that are developed in a different setting, designed for employees with different backgrounds, is like trying to plant a banana tree in a desert or an orange tree in Alaska. Then we are surprised when they do not grow and produce fruit. It is not the tree that we should blame. It is not the soil that we should blame. It is we ourselves that we should blame. We did not choose the right environment to allow the trees to grow and prosper.
For example, to incentivise and teach employees in the Arab world the values and importance of sharing knowledge, the best approach might not necessarily be to implement vague processes and technical tools to teach them that or provide financial incentives, but to remind them about the importance of sharing knowledge in Islam. The Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) emphasised the significance of sharing knowledge by saying, "The most superior among you are those who learn the Quran and teach it to others." This is not solely limited to the Quran; indeed, interpretations of this Hadith reveal that it is applicable to other fields of knowledge and not solely to the Quran.
Teaching Muslim employees this Hadith may help to inspire an ethical and moral duty to share knowledge more effectively than a choice that is contingent on financial incentives. The lesson here is that certain religious teachings, societal norms and cultural aspects can motivate employees to adopt desired behaviours more effectively than borrowed models that are neither applicable nor coherent in the context of the Arab world.
What I aspire to see in next year's conference is more participation and valuable contribution by local Emirati academics, and more emphasis on reforming educational systems to reflect the skills and needs that will significantly contribute to the achievements of 2021 Strategic goals of the UAE. Moreover, the reform models designed and implemented in the region should mirror its cultural, religious and societal aspects to bring the desired outcomes.
Mhamed Biygautane is a Research Associate at the Dubai School of Government.
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