Who moved the melting pot?

Are we capitalising on the diversity of knowledge and experiences of foreign firms operating in the UAE?

COMMENT, Business

Dr. Mohammed Dulaimi, of the British University in Dubai, on the advantages of sharing a little knowledge.

In a recent gathering of construction industry practitioners, I was impressed by the achievements of many of the foreign firms operating here in the UAE.

I heard how a German construction firm was trying to provide environmentally-friendly developments as they did in their home country. I also heard the success of the American experience in meeting green standards in the US and how it is being introduced now to the UAE.

There was also a British company that developed comprehensive safety management systems modelled on those available in the UK, being introduced and enforced on their projects here in the UAE.

To start, I would like to pose this question: how successful is the project team (with half a dozen different nationalities) likely to be if they attempted to build the German green development to satisfy the American standards while enforcing the British safety system? In other words, are we capitalising on the diversity of knowledge and experiences that we have in our organisations here in the UAE?

Many countries around the world like to describe themselves as "the melting pot" to reaffirm their claim that culturally diverse society is a source of strength. Unfortunately, the failure of organisations to develop a common "meaning" to the different approaches to work had such organisations revert to fencing differences.

Arguably the experience of the 1970's Gulf development boom did not leave significant residual knowledge to serve the interest of the country due to such approaches. The UAE commitment to sustainable development should not tolerate a repeat of such an experience in 2008.

In many cases you will find organisations in this country suffer from the formation of informal groups representing the different nationalities in the organisation.

Such informal groups tend to build impermeable walls around it and adopt a set of objectives, in many cases, not helpful to the attainment of the organisations' objectives. In such organisations, you will find management working very hard at the interface of these groups to hold the whole organisation together and enable the creation of common understanding of what works and does not.

This problem is compounded at project level.

Professor Edgar Schein, a well-known writer in management, described organisational culture as "a pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems".

Without turning this article into an academic paper, what this means is that the leadership of the project/organisation needs to effectively communicate the organisation's vision, the values, aims and objectives.

More importantly, it also means that in the process of trying to achieve the objectives, the leadership needs to promote the sharing of knowledge as well as learning from the experience of trying to achieve these objectives.

The failure to share knowledge at project level is probably one of the factors that fragment the project organisation. Knowledge sharing, sometimes referred to as technology transfer, is one that is trumpeted greatly by joint ventures (JV), here and around the world, but ignored in practice.

I would like to share with you these case studies that were examined in a research into knowledge sharing on construction projects. The case studies were from projects to build a metro line in Singapore, awarded to international JVs.

All JV agreements in these case studies stipulated that foreign and local firms should share knowledge and learn from each other. This was strongly supported by the government who sometimes require that JVs should have a local partner or give preferential treatment to such JVs.

In all cases, the information infrastructure was set up to allow the different parties to share information. The research showed these systems to be rigid and formal. In all but one of the cases, the research found the concept of knowledge sharing to be not more than a dream.

The foreign partner was not interested in engaging the local partner unless the work necessitated it.

The work packages were designed and organised so that it required as little interaction between the foreign and local partners. Even at an informal level, for example in the canteens, the foreign partner's staff would speak in their own language, not in one of the two main languages in Singapore (English and Mandarin).

The exception was a JV with a German firm who had a vision of setting up long-term operations in that part of the world, where their own knowledge and expertise wove into the local values and practices.

Here there was commitment from the highest level to create locally relevant knowledge. Excellence in this case will be unique and hard to be replicated by competition. For example, the German firm engaged their own staff on locally organised training, not their own. The training was part of a programme by a government organisation responsible for the development of the local industry.

To conclude, sharing knowledge can be the bridge to develop a common understanding of how the project can achieve excellence building on the rich cultural diversity of UAE society.

If you would like to write for Construction Week in this column, please email http://v2.arabianbusiness.com/angela.giuffrida@itp.com

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