Within the Middle East region, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) combines a large economy with an attractive growth rate and high levels of personal income. In fact, the country can boast a higher nominal GDP per capita than South Korea or Spain. At $37,346 (US dollars) it rates just below mature markets like the UK, France and Japan.
The country is famous for its fast pace, dynamism and focus on innovation, having grown under the visionary leadership of its Royal Family to become a regional beacon of architectural marvel, social tolerance and stability. As a direct result the country is a welcoming home to a large and multicultural expat community, making up 90% of the total population.
HR is lagging
While similar to developed nations from a macro economical viewpoint, there is still a lot of opportunity to increase maturity levels in the workplace, especially within the HR context. Compared to the dynamic and progressive nature of the country, it can often feel that HR functions are lagging behind, focusing more on administration and enforcement of policy than on providing strategic advisory to the leadership team or managing change. While the desire to move HR to a seat at the C-suite table is nothing new globally, there is a much more persistent perception of HR as glorified “personnel administration” across the Middle East.
Over the past years there has been a very noticeable and positive trend of companies investing in HR technology, automation and the capability of their HR people. This is underscored by increased activity of professional member organizations like SHRM and CIPD in the region. Having a strong, strategic and mature HR capability is critical for the country to sustain its place as a regional hub for knowledge workers, particularly given the transitory nature of its workforce.
Rather than focusing on incremental improvements towards more mature standards, HR in the region (and the UAE in particular) could make a play for step-change significantly beyond those standards, through systematic early adoption of new technology. With the rise of blockchain, AI, machine learning, VR/AR and people analytics, the potential strategic value of HR practices has expanded significantly. As many countries and organizations are trying to understand how to best leverage and incorporate these innovations, there is a real opportunity for the UAE to leapfrog more mature markets, similar to the adoption of mobile networks in Africa lead to a step-change there in financial services.
How leapfrogging can help
Over the past years technology has been transforming the African continent. A lack of investment required to build fixed line networks meant there was an opportunity to skip landlines altogether and rapidly adopt mobile phone networks. Millions of Africans who did not have access to basic financial services, like a bank account, can now bank through their mobile phones. Farmers and traders can now leverage mobile remittances systems to sell their products across country or even across borders. M-Pesa, a mobile phone based money transfer and micro financing service, has made Africa a world leader in mobile money. The only observed drawback to these developments is that, in order to fully capitalize on the technological advancement, Africa still needs to develop legal and social infrastructure to sustain the changes.
Seizing the HR moment
Unlike Africa, the UAE already has a robust regulatory environment, an advanced general infrastructure and strong sets of skills and capabilities within the local and expat populations. UAE has a unified, grand vision of leveraging technology and innovation to advance the well-being of the nation. The nation appointed a Minister of Happiness, as well as a Minister of Artificial Intelligence to push those technology goals.
The UAE has the means and appetite to be early adopters of innovation, so why not skip getting up to speed with automation and immediately move to building smart platforms that improve productivity – an objective that industry analyst Josh Bersin highlighted as a critical challenge in his HR Technology Disruptions report for 2018.
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Why not become global leaders in the use of AI powered recruitment technologies which would help better serve and attract a highly transient and diverse workforce and with the aspiration of attracting the world’s best and brightest? Why not follow the example set by the country’s award winning Smart Government initiative, to build intelligent self-service capabilities and ongoing, real time feedback platforms?
Why not use the vast amounts of data available to enable people analytics that provide real insight into the drivers of various strategic organizational challenges and build insight to help drive sustainable growth for organizations and the country?
The opportunities are very real. If I have learned anything in the seven years I have been in the region, it’s that the term “impossible” does not exist in the vocabulary of the UAE. With the right vision, infrastructure and opportunities in place, leapfrogging could be the key to quickly unlocking long-term strategic value in HR.
To quote Mark Zuckerberg: “In a world that’s changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks.”