February 18, 2007
Reflexions on Talent, Markets, MENA & Development - The Value of Initiative
Inspired in part by a comment by Shaheen, and in part by some convo I dimly recall from a few months back somewhere in bloggy land about the value of expats and overseas educated and experienced staff, I thought I might make a comment on the value of staff with international experience.
While perhaps potentially self-serving, I really mean to briefly reflect on barriers to growth in MENA, as a business as well as a social problem.
Now Shaheen wrote in response to my ranting about my team:
So typical. I used to want to kill my employees because of that. They were supposed to be of the skilled sort, and I expected initiative and autonomy. Yet, if they'd bump into some problem, they'd do exactly that, sit on their hands til I clarify.
I don't think the education system is the root of the problem though. I kind of reached the conclusion that it was a mixture of environmental laziness and of mentality (how authority is structured and how any initiative is perceived within that authority structure). The laziness part - I don't know if this is the right word in fact - as it is the result of incentives to bust one's ass not being relevent enough for those who remain on the salaried job market: those with more ambitions tend to leave the local salaried job market, either by leaving the country or by chosing to be self-employed/entrepreneurs, which statistically speaking is a better strategy indeed in those places to make a very good living. Those with less ambitions would have the safety network of their family so the sanction of not working is not such a big deal and money or status beyond a certain threshold is not an incentive anymore for them - or the minimum incentive is greater than the value they bring.
There is much merit to this observation.
That being said, certainly education in a broad sense plays a role. As does experience.
By experience I do not merely mean time-served in one office or another, but practical experience in environments that push for performance - and that generally means in the West (or developed Asia for that matter). One can quibble about how much merit is really rewarded, etc. in any given developed economy - I am not an ideologue on that issue - but clearly incentivization and real rewards for "busting one's ass" comparatively are far greater and far more operational.
The conversation I recall having on a blog somewhere, to bring in another angle, was about expats and foreign educated/experienced 'natives' over-valuing themselves.
I can hardly deny no small segment of the expat and what I will call "overseas Arab" community have excessively high opinions of themselves, although that's a common among phenomena in any achieving group.
However, in my experience in business in the region, in truth expats and the "overseas Arab" with solid business experience in developed markets do indeed perform measurably better than locals - not necessarily on pure technical skill basis, but rather on softer, harder to measure but in many ways more relevant issues like initiative and creativity. It's an issue that many - I will go so far as to say most - "local Arabs" don't get. And whinge on miserably about. Of course it is also a source of frustration for those that go for advanced local degrees (or even foreign degrees, or semi-foreign degrees, as in American University in Cairo) when they run into income differentials. There is a clear tendency to view this as unfairness - and focus on check-box skill sets, with little understanding of issues like initiative and the like. (As in when I ask for an analysis of recent IPOs, I don't expect you to (i) come to me a half hour later with a half page of internet rubbish you pulled down, (ii) have to explain every fucking simple step I need, (iii) have to hand hold again and again)
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Leaves the question of: what's the right incentive to get a local Arab to perform as if he was overseas?
Whoever finds the answer to that one wins the jackpot.
I think education has a lot to do with it, e.g. if you've come out of a system where you're expected to regurgitate facts for exams vs a system where you're expected to do research and analysis in the course of your study. But having supervised recent graduates in the US, I can tell you that there's a lot of the laziness and not taking initiative and pulling stuff off the web that you describe there too. Idiots have a way of remaining idiots with the best of opportunities.
Conversely, some youngsters from much less creativity-oriented educational backgrounds really blossom when they're thrown into a workplace that challenges them. And then you have those who had the best of educations but were raised to think that being a Big Man means you never admit you're wrong, you bully your juniors, can't deal when someone younger is promoted ahead of you, etc, and that's the sort of cultural baggage that can be really hard to get rid of.
Incentives for busting one's ass and so on may be more important in the formative work environments for the kind of expat you have in mind, but doesn't it also happen that some expats who are in demand mainly for being expats (I'm thinking of some particularly frat-boyish specimens in Dubai), because the company likes to have Westerners for their image or whatever, are subject to fewer pressures and incentives to actually produce results? Isn't it equally misleading to use "Western education" as a "check-box skill-set" as it might be to use "a master's degree" without recognising that both can really vary?
I'm not saying the valuation of expats is *necessarily* misguided, just that it *can* be. It's not just expats who can keep irrational overvaluations of "their own kind" going, there are also those who have a science or engineering background that may or may not be relevant for a marketing job, for instance, who will always lean towards hiring someone with an engineering degree, because they feel a greater affinity with them or are more likely to attribute their own success (even wrongly) to said engineering degree.
Posted by: SP at February 18, 2007 12:21 PM
if you've come out of a system where you're expected to regurgitate facts for exams vs a system where you're expected to do research and analysis in the course of your study
AFAIK, the educational systems in the Maghreb (in Morocco and Tunisia at least) are a carbon copy of the French one. In theory, if you have a MSc./PhD./etc. in one, you have the same skills in the other. Yet, I've seen a huge difference in performance between employees on both sides of the Mediterranean. I've also seen people coming directly to the French job market after they've completed some Maghrebi educational curriculum perform decently. Now, I might be wrong about how close the educational systems are (I personally know the French one, I don't know the Maghrebi ones first hand), but assuming I am not, that sends the root of the problem to other environmental factors.
I would call the problem a confluence of environmental and systematic factors. I am not a great fan of the French educational system, although it does produce good engineers and technicians.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at February 18, 2007 06:54 PM
Now as to Shaheen's question, I think if one is dedicated, one can build a performance culture within a firm - I have seen it - in region with pure local staff, if care is taken to ensure a strong corporate culture.
Not easy to be sure, but possible.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at February 18, 2007 06:58 PM
I would definitely be interested in the details Col. The region specific details that is.
Educational system? I doubt it. It seems more an issue of culture.
Over the past four years I've had a lot of interaction with Indian and Chinese engineers (in India and China). The Indians simply do it. They'll ask questions, but they don't need hand-holding. They are the same way in India that they are in the Silicon Valley, there is no split personality. By contrast, I must give the Chinese specific instructions, gigantic documents specifying exactly what they are to do, else they just sit there and either don't do anything or produce utter useless rubbish. Yet both nations are big developing nations with similar educational systems.
The biggest cultural difference I notice is that the Chinese are real anal. Everything must be perfect, else they get this lost toddler look to their eyes. The Indians, they do it good enough, slap some duct tape over the seams to keep it from falling apart, and move on. Reminds me of when one American expat had to fly to India from his home in Thailand in order to meet a customer. The Indian airliner had *duct tape* holding a light in and holding some wires together in a panel in the seat armrest, and they had makeshift trays for the front seats (the ones with no seat in front) that were made out of pieces of other trays, and there was *peeling paint* on the inside of the window shades. But where it counts, they do the job right. The plane didn't fall out of the air, after all. They simply look at the big picture, which our Chinese workers seem utterly incapable of doing.
Posted by: BadTux at February 22, 2007 05:45 AM
Educational systems train people in these ways.
Similar educational system means fuck all, you have to look at the guts, what the actual training approach is. Obviously there is an interaction between culture and the educational system as well, and the political system as well.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at February 22, 2007 05:44 PM
BadTux, I've been riding the IT outsourcing offshore wave since the beginning, and the only reason Indians are not like the Chinese in the way you mention is because they've had some experience and quite a few broken teeth behind, they often learnt the hard way. The Chinese are just starting. At the beginning, the critics that are being addressed at Arabs in this entry, or that you're addressing at the Chinese, were very much - and still often are though to a much lesser extent - valid for Indians as well.
BTW Col, I've been researching and reading a few scientific articles and publications about organizational behavior in MENA since you wrote Not easy to be sure, but possible. This is a question that interests me in a very concrete way.
For now, the most remarkable thing I could say about it is how it shines by its lack of study. Outside the Gulf region, there's almost nothing, and even inside the Gulf region, there's comparatively very little material, most of it focused on the UAE. For the Maghreb, I couldn't find more than a handful of articles exclusively dealing with the textile industry. Absolutely nothing dealing with more skilled workers there. Also, some of the material is complete trash, and I wonder how serious scientific publications could publish such rubbish.
Anyway, I may write some entry about it if I manage to get enough information about the issue and reach some relevant conclusion.
Re my statement, it was of course utterly unscientific gut reaction.
But you're right, other than the Gulf there is almost nothing serious at all out there with respect to Maghreb, and what exists... Well, one of the issues is the lack of clear information in English, and the French seem not to publish serious market studies aimed at this kind of pragmatic and practical business oriented organisational behaviour.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at February 24, 2007 10:06 PM
Posted by: horse at February 28, 2007 06:56 AM