L&D in Dubai — where East meets West

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Written by Paul Matthews on 25 September 2015

Attending the Training and Development Show Middle East 2015 last week in Dubai, gave me the chance to see the many contrasts of where East meets West, and the sense that there is far more beneath the surface than I can see as a visitor. Although the show was small with 50 exhibitors and four seminar theatres, there was a reasonably steady stream of delegates spread out over the two days.

Visitors came from many countries around the region, some seemingly just wanting to keep in touch with new ideas and some with a clear intent to find new suppliers. Face to face training was by far the most common request, but I couldn’t help, but think that this was the result of a habitual desire rather than a desire triggered by a robust needs analysis. The exhibitors were a healthy mix of local companies and international suppliers as well as a stand hosting the Federal Authority for Government Resources.

I had the opportunity to speak at one of the seminars on the first day on the subject of Performance Management, and this was clearly a subject of interest as there was a good turnout, and a lot of interest from delegates after my session. There was a wide range of topics covered in the other seminars and most were delivered in English. Topics included Behaviour Change, Innovation, Training Skills, Interactive e-Learning, Culture Evolution, Human Capital, Stress Management, Future Trends, Gamification, Digital Skills, and many, many more. In many ways the list of seminar topics was not too different to what I would expect at a similar show in the UK.

What was fascinating to me was the range of challenges faced by the HR and L&D people I spoke with. Many of these challenges arise out of the unique culture, demographics and economies of the countries they came from. For example, I spoke with the L&D manager of a large retail operation based in the UAE whose employees are mostly workers from the Indian subcontinent, sending a significant proportion of their wages back home.

They are largely untrained other than what they have been shown on the job and subject to a largely command and control management structure. I kept getting the impression that there is a huge untapped potential in the people, and that this will stay untapped because of the way the labour system works. General labour is a cheap resource, so problems are often solved by simply adding more people despite the inefficiencies.

The biggest challenge that seemed to underlie all others is culture change, and as always, this is a tough and complex nut to crack. It is especially difficult with the fast rate of growth that seems to be the norm. People without experience are promoted to be supervisors and managers, and not well supported or trained to make the transition. On top of that, they have usually not had any good management role models, and so the culture persists.

Even after this brief 5 day visit, I can see that there are many opportunities here, but it is also clear that L&D solutions that work well in Europe or the US will not necessarily work here. It seems an obvious thing to say, but any solution needs to take account of the local culture, and that is multifaceted depending on if you are dealing with Emiratis, expats from India, Pakistan or the Philippines, or Arabic expats from other Arabic speaking countries. I also was told that one transport organisation had just brought in 100 workers from Poland. The region is a vast melting pot, and many of the ingredients do not mix easily.

An example of this is when I stopped by one of the seminars to listen for a few minutes. It was being delivered by a western speaker and she was talking about handshake etiquette, and the impression that different handshake styles create. She was using the traditional western ‘use a firm handshake’ mantra and had the people in the seminar experimenting with each other. I could see bemusement on the faces of non-westerners in the audience. Handshakes don’t work that way in the Middle East where they are usually very gentle.

When even a simple thing like a handshake can be confusing, it is clear some sensitivity and advice about local culture is needed.

About the author

Paul Matthews is the founder of People Alchemy and an expert in workplace learning.