World thought leaders in High Performance


Excellence in the desert

A few years ago I was sitting in a plane going from Birmingham, where I had presented a paper during the British Academy of Management Conference, back home to Amsterdam. I got into a conversation with the man sitting next to me who turned out to be en route to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Eventually we came to talk about my research on high performance organization and I explained to him how the HPO Framework is basically valid for all countries. Amazingly, he responded grudgingly that he doubted whether it would be effective in the UAE context as he, having worked there for many years as expatriate, had found that management in general was very hierarchical. On top of that, there were so many different cultures a manager had to deal with at work, as most laborers are from Asia (especially India and Pakistan) and there were also many Westerners operating in the region, that this complicated daily work-life a great deal. This sounded like a real challenge for the HPO Framework and I was happy to accept it!

Developing an excellence framework for the UAE

So without further ado I set out to get contacts in the region in order to obtain a pilot company where I could test the HPO Framework. Fortunately, in the past 15 years there had been a strong drive for excellence in the UAE. However, in their strive for excellence UAE organizations had depended heavily on excellence frameworks developed in the Western world but had found that many of these did not easily transfer to an Arabic setting. So it wasn’t long before I attracted the attention of a manufacturing company that was looking for a method to increase its performance with a technique which would work in the challenging business environment of the UAE. So I and my colleagues found ourselves in the blazing heat in the outskirts of Dubai, at the very end where the desert began, to get acquainted with the case company. This turned out to be an ISO 9001 certified company manufacturing building materials for the construction industry from its facilities in Sharjah, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and employing around 1,000 people from many different nationalities. In the past years the company had experienced declining sales and profits and although things were looking up recently the company was not “out of the desert yet” (so to speak) as national and international competition was on the increase. Therefore, the company needed to understand better where it had to strengthen itself in order to stay competitive.

As usual in an HPO Diagnosis first the internet-based HPO Questionnaire was sent to all managers and employees who had access to a computer. For people with no electronic access a special room with computers was set-up where these people were invited to partake in the questionnaire. The scores of all respondents were averaged for the five HPO factors and put in a graph (see Exhibit 1), indicating the company’s HPO status relative to an HPO and to the average of the HPO scores for UAE organizations as collected in the database of the HPO Center. The company turned out to be an average performing one, in line with other UAE organizations. In fact, as the graphs for both are the same shape, it can be stated that the company was a typical UAE organization at the time of the diagnosis.

Exhibit 1: HPO scores of the company versus the average scores of UAE organizations

The HR Manager was the most satisfied person with the HPO Framework as it allowed her finally to implement several sorely needed changes.

Subsequently we conducted twenty interviews with managers and employees at the Dubai and Sharjah locations, and then we gave a feedback presentation to the management of the company.

Our analysis yielded three main recommendations which were aimed to advance the company from an average to a high performing company.

Recommendation 1: prepare managers better for the future

Recommendation one was for the company to prepare its managers better for the future. Many of the managers had mainly relied during their career advancement at the company on their intrinsic motivation and on self-development. The company did employ a human resource manager but this person mainly had an administrative task. Thus, many of the managers were seen by employees as people with high integrity and who did their best, but who sometimes lacked the management skills to be resolute, especially with holding employees and fellow managers accountable, as they had never formally learned how to do this. The recommendation therefore was to give the human resource manager more maneuvering room to introduce mandatory management development programs focused on management skills.

Recommendation 2: increase the morale of employees

Recommendation two was to increase the morale of employees. Although they were very loyal to the company they were not satisfied with everything that happened in the company. The recommendation was to create more transparency about the on-goings in the company. By providing employees regular updates on the company´s situation and explaining the basis for management´s decisions, employees would feel better informed which increases commitment to the company. Management should also create more balance between their managerial interest in employees (i.e. about work-related issues) and social interest in employees (i.e. about personal issues).

Recommendation 3: strengthen internal cooperation

Recommendation three was about strengthening internal cooperation. Just as many other organizations, the company suffered from the silo-effect. This refers to the occurrence in which people view their unit to be more important that the organization and consequently they behave in a manner that benefits their unit but can be detrimental to the organization as a whole. Therefore, the company had to cultivate cooperation between departments, by adapting the evaluation and reward structures so that these balanced rewards between unit and company results. Also, management had to look for synergy opportunities between units and make collaboration happen through creating sharing mechanisms within the company.

After the HPO Diagnosis the company’s management team commented that it was both insightful and objective, and a great starting point for their reflection on how things could be improved. The results of the diagnosis were also presented to the Chairman of the company who appreciated these and urged the management team to indeed start improving things based on the recommendations. Finally, the HR Manager was the most satisfied person with the HPO Framework as it allowed her finally to implement several sorely needed changes.

I do hope next time I fly to the UK (or the UAE) I will sit next to the UAE expat who initially set me on this very interesting journey, to thank him for his remarks and to tell him that yes, HPO also does work in the desert!

More information:

André de Waal, Mirna Mroueh and Liesbeth Schiavo (2017), “Analyzing performance in the UAE manufacturing industry using the high performance organization framework”, Middle East Journal Of Business, Vol. 12, Issue 1, pp. 3-11