It is no secret that the Middle East is working to restructure its economy to alleviate its dependence on oil. Dr Wayne Brockbank, clinical professor of business at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan and partner emeritus of HR consulting and development firm The RBL Group, talks about the importance of boosting the educational attainment of local people and how businesses in the region are drawing on best practice from around the world.

What would you say were the big topics on organisation’s agendas?

The single biggest trend is probably localisation. There is a recognition that oil money will run out one day and what’s going to be left behind are people. So the development of people and the institutions that are able to leverage them has become the most critical issue on the agenda for this generation. One of the main issues is how to raise the educational level of the local population, whether in the UAE, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar or Saudi Arabia. There is huge expenditure on education, both primary and secondary, and universities are also popping up left, right and centre. One of their challenges is to recruit faculty members to teach in these institutions, which tend to have difficulty hiring PhDs who are already willing and able to teach in the region.

Are there any particular challenges that have arisen from the focus on nationalisation?

As well as having every right, these countries have an obligation to future generations to engage the local population in developing, leading and guiding all kinds of institutions – educational, medical, financial and social. Developing the ability of local talent to do so is mandatory, so that they can eventually run their own country, independent of imported expertise. However, on the other side there are some local leaders who believe that the obligation of current generations is to build the future of their countries by ensuring that they fully leverage any expertise they can get from anywhere in the world to raise the technical and administrative standards, and allow the local population to learn from that expertise and carry it forward to future generations. So there is a struggle between current localisation now versus current expertise. Managing those dynamics is a critical challenge and opportunity for local institutions, but it’s a very exciting time and an exciting place in the world to be in HR, because the challenges are transparent and important, as are the opportunities.

How is the HR function developing in the Middle East? Does it have a big enough role in overall business strategy?

In the companies with which I am familiar, the recognition of the importance of HR as an eclectic set of practices is as acute and acknowledged as any other place in the world. Almost never in my career have I been so intellectually pushed, not just in terms of current value creation, but in terms of building the institutions that will carry on well into the future and add value to their countries long after I’m gone. Within that context, you will always find that split between HR which provides strategic value and HR which focused on functionary administration. But this contraction is not new to the HR field. In terms of strategic support, HR needs to ensure that there is a clear definition of what the organisation is trying to accomplish; what its critical business issues are that create sustainable competitive advantage; and how to align the collective HR practices to those critical business issues in a disciplined and integrated manner.

What is the most important business trend you’re seeing at the moment?

The Middle East is an interesting area because it geographically removed from the world’s major financial and industrial centres; The fascinating and intellectually invigorating trend is the aggressiveness with which many Gulf institutions are reaching outside their geographical area to understand best practice and to make sure they have the most up to date and relevant information they need to ensure high performance – not just against local standards but against global standards. They do this through both big data and analytical means – which is on the increase in the Middle East – but also through constantly bringing in visitors from outside or making visits to well-informed institutions and individuals from around the world. That means they are leveraging both the quantitative data analytics but also personal visits from which they glean valuable insights. In many of these companies, HR is playing a central role in making this happen.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the vice president and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, and Emir of Dubai, gave a speech a couple of years ago where he indicated that the UAE has 50 years to be ready to be independent of oil – 50 years to get the national human capital and economic agendas solidified so the prosperity of future generations is ensured. And that mission is quite deep in the national psyche, especially for the top tier of Emirati leaders. What’s also interesting is that I don’t see them being driven by fear but by a clear sense of mission and obligation to their country and its future.

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