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The Gulf Paradox: Skilled People, in the Wrong Jobs

Published on: July 2009​
Genre: Governance/Public Sector Management​ Category: Op eds​
There has been much debate in recent months about the role of human capital resources (knowledge-skill-ability) in the performance of government, private industry and society at large. This debate is dominated by three familiar arguments: the claim of a deficit in those resources, the need for more investment in talent and leadership development programmes, and the call for workforce nationalisation.

Poor performance is often blamed on the shortage of qualified and motivated nationals to fill a wide range of jobs in both public and private sectors, and to perform them well. The accepted solution has been an increase in the number of management, leadership and skill-development programmes for nationals, and scholarships to study abroad. The assumption is that improvements in performance will come automatically from investment in education, training and technical innovation. Another, more difficult, fix is to promote nationalisation of the workforce, which coincides with growing concerns about national identity.

However, there has been a low return on investment in education and training throughout the region in the past three decades. Studies continue to show that there has been no significant effect, especially in the public sector. This is a puzzle: why is all this investment in human capital development failing to bring the desired outcome? Many blame the quality of education and training programmes, or local attitudes towards work. But there are more pieces to this puzzle than that.

Concerns about the shortage of knowledge and skills and the need for more training to fill resource gaps, particularly between national and expatriate workers, have many merits and deserve continued attention: but the discussion neglects other important factors in both diagnosing and solving the problem.

One such factor is how knowledge and talent are managed. I recently completed a study of human capital and organisation performance in the GCC countries. I found that a common weakness is not necessarily a lack of national talent in the Gulf countries, but a lack of the right environment and incentives to place, activate and maximize its potential. The study was based on a survey of more than 700 employees in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Oman. It found that although skills and abilities are increasingly available, they are often misplaced, unrecognised or underused – at a rate of 49 per cent in Saudi Arabia, 46 per cent in Oman and 40 per cent in UAE.

Those who took part in the survey suggested several reasons for these failures. They included inadequate opportunities to participate in organisation, resistance to different ideas and opinions, over-reliance on strict seniority and hierarchy, mismatches between expertise and job content and between knowledge and authority, and poor placement of graduates after they complete educational and skill-development programmes.

It is clear from the study that without better strategies to make the best of national talent, further education will probably be ineffective and irrelevant to performance. It is well known that if knowledge and skills are not integrated and used properly, they (and their benefits) are lost. In addition to the waste of time and money spent on these programmes, the study shows that highly educated but poorly placed people tend to be less motivated and less loyal to their organisations, and more likely to change jobs and to have unhealthy relationships with their managers, co-workers, and even with their fellow citizens.

Something else that gets lost in the rush for national skill and leadership development programmes is the need for broader organisational development and reform. Often, both policy makers and managers pay only lip service to issues such as strategic knowledge management, the transfer of knowledge from expatriate and international companies to local ones and from individuals to institutions, succession planning and talent retention, and worker empowerment. And when they do address these issues, it is often in a narrow and arbitrary fashion.

The economic downturn and shrinking budgets (both public and private) in the Gulf region have refocused attention on the disconnect between human resource development and the larger process of organisational development and governance reform. This gap is caused by a tendency to blame (and therefore try to change) the "individual", but not the "environment" within which people are expected to perform.

We need to be aware of the challenges facing our companies and institutions as we become more integrated into a global environment that puts new pressure on our society to be more knowledge-intensive, decentralised, participative, adaptive, progressive and responsive to rapid change. A major transformation in how we develop our policies and manage our resources is not something we can implement quickly: it has been said that it would take a minimum of five years’ solid effort in the private sector, and even longer in the public sector.

The current economic downturn may be an opportunity for us to rethink our human capital and employment policies and to implement a series of measures to transform the way we do business, and to re-engage all our minds and hearts in the process; a process through which the puzzle can be solved collectively and creatively in-house with less reliance on external consultancy and advice.

Khalid Al-Yahya is an assistant professor at the Dubai School of Government.

This article was originally printed in The National. It can be accessed here.

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