Talent management, leadership development and strategic workforce planning are the three paramount challenges that corporations across global markets have yet to master, said a recent study by The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) in collaboration with the World Federation of People Management Associations. In a survey of executives underlying the study, a small part of responses — some 115 out of 4,228 worldwide — came from corporate leaders and human resources (HR) managers in the wider Middle East and North Africa. Executive wanted to know how well the study reflects the people management situation in the MENA and how relevant its insights are for the region. Sven-Olaf Vathje, partner and managing director at BCG Middle East talked to Executive while racing across a rural highway in Saudi Arabia to his next consultancy meeting.
You have identified top needs in human capital development for companies globally in your report. How relevant are these topics as priorities for companies in the Arabian Gulf?
As you know from the report, we covered corporations and HR departments throughout the world for this study. The finding was that these topics are relevant in developed and developing economies, including the Middle East. However, the flavors are a bit different. What we see in the United Arab Emirates and the Middle East in general is a strong increase in efforts and focus that executives put on their HR departments. Historically, at many corporations, HR was mainly about supporting the growth of the corporation and making sure that the right quantity of labor was bought, all the way up to management positions. What we have seen happening, at least structurally, is a shift in HR departments from being focused more on the transactional side of HR to the quality part of HR, like identifying talent that can qualify for higher roles and starting to take individuals within the corporation to make full-fledged managers out of them, which is something that rarely happened in the past.
Your data collection on MENA included 37 survey responses from the UAE, five from other Gulf Cooperation Council countries and 39 from Turkey. On a statistical level, how much do these responses tell us about the Middle East?
If you applied the pure rules of statistics, you would have to have a couple of hundred more interviews, but we combine the formal statistical input that we receive with the qualitative experience in the marketplace where we have been working on numerous HR assignments with regional firms. The evidence we got from the formal survey was very much in line with the discussions we have on a regular basis with managements of corporations within the region. We feel very comfortable that the findings of the survey reflect the reality of the marketplace.
In the global study you speak of a two-speed economy of slowing developed markets and accelerating emerging markets. In the region, we see a two-speed economy of another sort, between oil and non-oil. Is there a regional two-speed world for HR priorities in non-oil versus oil?
That is a very good question. There is also another way for seeing a two-speed economy in the Middle East besides oil and non-oil. If I had to choose which the two speeds are, I would go for state-owned and non-state-owned or family-owned enterprises. What we have perceived in [state-owned] oil companies was that they face many of the HR challenges that are similar to those of other state-owned companies in the region.
One of the topics that the state-owned companies are working on is the whole element of strategic workforce planning and understanding where the real value creators are positioned within the organization. A second challenge that is specific to the state-owned companies, much more so than to the privately held ones, is the whole topic of nationalization of the work force. The key challenge here is how to strike the balance between promoting the local workforce and bringing in the right international expertise that allows these companies to play in the international arena, which many have an ambition for. The region’s oil companies have this kind of reach, but also telecoms companies are in fact international players [as well].
On overall development of talent and people management, is the UAE ahead of the regional curve on HR?
If you look at the GCC economies, the scarcity of natural HR resources within the countries is strongest in the UAE, and the share of foreigners in the economy relative to the indigenous population is also the highest. The UAE also has the longest experience in bringing expatriates into the country and working with expatriates and has also needed to retain them in a more and more competitive environment. So I would say that the UAE is generally ahead of the curve regarding HR.
Is the gap between the UAE and other countries in this respect decreasing or is it still widening?
That is a good question. In my view, the gap is decreasing at this point in time and not because the UAE is losing speed but because other geographies are picking up. Qatar is doing a lot to make the country a more attractive place for key talent. We see the same thing happening in Saudi Arabia but there the flavor is more about ensuring that the much larger pool of local talent is trained in the right way.
BCG states a case for integrating sourcing management and holistic people sourcing. What do you mean by that?
What we mean by that is the stronger linkage between the HR department and the business department. What we have seen in the past was that HR and business departments each moved in their own spheres, and very often HR departments recruited or identified talents which were not in line with the needs on the business side.
In the new world we have HR heads that are deeply embedded within the management team, dealing with internal and external business units in defining the right recruitment profiles and working hand in hand with the business managers on bringing the right talents on board.
How large or advanced is the awareness of HR importance in the GCC? Is it adequate to the needs or still behind the curve?
The awareness is awakening right now. It is not yet at the point where it should be, but the awareness is rising that the people side is the key differentiator between success and failure.
What value, if any, do you see in exercises of ranking companies for being great workplaces in the UAE or GCC?
I think these rankings are going to gain in importance and there are many reasons for this. Increasingly, young management talents are looking for more than financial remuneration when it comes to choosing a workplace. There are a lot of questions about work-life balance and personal development. A second element is that these rankings are also going to be a driver of workforce retention.
The ratio of women in top HR positions worldwide seems high when compared with other female executive and board roles. Is HR in this region a domain where women can become leaders more than in other areas?
That is another good question. We have noticed that, as in many other parts of the world, women in the Middle East have a stronger interest in pursuing a career in HR departments than in other divisions. There is a natural inclination for females to work in HR. On the other hand there is also the notion among the male part of the management teams that females may have an overall better capabilities spectrum for HR jobs than males. It is quite interesting for the Middle East that the female share in the overall workforce is still below the level that it should be and the more we have HR departments which understand the capabilities of female applicants for upper managerial positions, the more I think they will have a chance in being successful in corporations as well.