Monday, 30 August 2010

People Above The Place

There used to be a sign on the jail by the Dubai Petroleum building in Jumeirah that read something like, 'The Person Above the Place'. It always struck me as a tad odd in that context, a little like putting 'Arbeit Macht Frei' on the front of a concentration camp, although it's nothing like as strange as the heading on Dubai Police's website, 'O, mindly people consider', which has always rather tickled me.

I interviewed prominent Emirati businessman Ali Al Bawardi some years ago and recall being struck at the time by his assertion that all too often, businesses here invested in the place over the people - throwing up world class infrastructure but then bringing in cheap, unqualified and under-empowered people to operate that infrastructure, often with poor management to oversee them. Result: world class infrastructure that doesn't work very well.

It's a thought that came to mind over the weekend as a routine checkup once again brought me into contact with the excellent medical staff, superb facilities and bumbling, plodding administration of the American Hospital in Dubai.

It's an odd type of materialism, this belief in the solidity and value of physical infrastructure rather than human capital. In part, it must be driven by the transience of the human component - you don't invest in people or develop them, you just buy them in when you need them. Because they're only temporary, they're not trusted (and only trusted staff are empowered staff) and so they are forced to conform to rote systems and have no power to deal with any eventuality that falls outside that system.

This is all very fine and dandy, but we're left to deal with the result of this process as it gazes at the screen, drooling and clicking away listlessly, trying to avoid coming to the moment when it has to look up and accept that yes, they've goofed everything up and no, there's nothing that can be done.


KJ said...

I agree that human capital investment is overlooked here, or probably in the companies I have worked for so far. What's important is the illusion that things look great then the people operating it are great. Even if they indeed were, there's not enough investment in nurturing these talents as, like you said, it's a transient place and people are bought left and right to do temporary work then bye.

James O'Hearn said...

Ah, the American Hospital... perpetually under construction, beautiful buildings, and wallet busting bills.

How I do not miss ye.

These days my heart is set on the Dubai Mall Medical Centre. Speedy, courteous service, excellent facilities, and a waiting room where, for once, I do not fear that me and my brood will find our deaths due to coughing vectors sitting inches away from us.

Rootless said...

Isn't this a direct corollary (or perhaps more appropriately a preamble) to your previous post? Building whizzy automated "handing" systems to try and protect the soft centre of the vulnerable organisation from the righteous wrath of wronged "customers" is one manifestation of this very place above the people principle. And I would wager a lot that the propensity to construct these kinds of systems correlates directly with the likelihood of that organisation having aggrieved clients. And then when you finally do break through the electronic armour it is only to be confronted with the same untrained, unempowered, unvalued, underpaid, deer-in-the-headlights, bromide bleating cannon fodder in the "service" centre that you have described above.... I wonder, now that capital is so much scarcer and more expensive, whether there will be more reluctance to lavish capital expenditure on solving relatively simple problems versus a much more modest but sustained increase in operating costs (employee salaries and training) that may actually be easier for a cash-strapped business to support??

We live in hope (as is inscribed on the bottom of my Prozac bottle).

nzm said...

We noticed that a lot in our last year in Dubai. Our local Starbucks staff went from intelligent counter-staff who remembered us, our orders and were happy to share a joke or two while getting out exactly what we ordered, to people who could barely talk, get an order correct, or even walk and talk at the same time.

However, Alexander, I have to say that in positions such as you've described (front counter idiots), the world is full of them. It's not just a UAE phenomenon.

Peanuts. Untrained Monkeys.

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