Business leaders confront multiple challenges due to evolving work ecosystems. While much of the responsibility to address these challenges will ultimately fall upon human resources (HR) departments, it is the job of CEOs and other leaders to ensure their HR departments and other key units are prepared for the future of work.

The global economy is evolving and facing exponential disruption on an unprecedented scale. For example, the head of Dubai’s Roads & Transport Authority recently announced the emirate would launch self-flying drone taxis by July. Similarly, the historical use of huge numbers of expatriates through purely transactional arrangements is also changing, which means work relationships in the GCC could begin to develop faster than in Western countries. Leaders who embrace new tools and techniques will be best-placed to overcome challenges related to the transforming nature of work and workers.

Future challenges

The HR with Purpose: Future Models of HR report by the UK’s Oxford Strategic Consulting (OSC) and Henley Business School examined human capital challenges facing today’s leading firms and looked at how business leaders can deliver the strategic capabilities needed to succeed. The report identified three key trends in the nature of work:

? A rapid shift from a permanent full-time workforce to a mix of full-time and part-time staff. Consequently, key people will be far less tied to one organisation, so their enthusiasm and motivation will need to be earned daily.

? A trend towards flexible, project-based teams, contrasted with traditional state business-as-usual operation. Firms that help team members to maximise their happiness and enthusiasm will benefit from significant increases in individual resilience and flexibility, with big impacts on business results.

? The increasing use of artificial intelligence (AI) and the potential near-term displacement of human capital with AI capital – a development most business leaders are ill-equipped to manage. Companies will need to balance and manage increasingly interchangeable human and technological capabilities.

In some senses, the characteristics of GCC economies and their human capital can help the region respond positively to these work trends. Many GCC nationals juggle multiple work responsibilities, including day jobs, roles in family businesses, running small and medium-sized enterprises as side projects, and serving as sponsors for foreign firms. For these professionals, no longer being tied to one company would resemble a continuation of rather than a rupture in their work paradigms.

At the same time, Dubai has made happiness a national priority, and has taken steps to encourage firms to implement happiness in their agendas. Moreover, the state cabinet launched a National Strategy for Innovation in 2014, with the aim of making the UAE one of the most innovative countries in the globe by 2020. For this to happen, there can be no major pushback against the inevitable advance of AI capital.  

Plenty of traditional employment models exist across the GCC, and many of these will be affected by new work trends. HR departments should, in theory, be well-positioned to address these challenges posed for more traditional employees. In practice, HR services are increasingly delivered by technology and external providers, while business leaders often rely on subject-matter experts for advice. An inability to deliver strategic contributions in today’s fast-changing business environment, however, will leave internal HR units to simply oversee relationships in a quasi-procurement role.

Until recently, the key capabilities needed within GCC firms have been primarily human capabilities, yet those capabilities are becoming more interchangeable between humans and technology. Robot taxi drivers ferrying passengers to and from Dubai International airport serve as an example. This capability shift presents an opportunity for GCC business leaders to empower their HR functions to become expert in both human and technological abilities so they can start to deliver the capabilities needed to achieve strategic success.

To accomplish this goal, HR departments and other key units such as information technology (IT) and strategy will have to be expert in the trade-offs between human and technological capabilities as well as expert in the capabilities themselves, such as AI. While some HR departments in the GCC operate according to world-class standards, far too many remain limited to administrative duties rather than serving as strategic business partners. These underdeveloped departments will have to catch up quickly.   

In addition to new work models, global business leaders must consider how the future of work will affect their increasingly tech-savvy employees. In particular, employers are at risk of making tech-savvy managers switch off from learning new skills with dated digital technologies, according to a report authored by the UK-based Chartered Management Institute and OSC.           

The Learning to Lead: The Digital Potential report found that nearly all (97 per cent) of surveyed managers spent at least one day a year developing skills through digital learning. However, four in five (79 per cent) managers believed their organisation was not “realising the digital learning potential” of the smartphone and tablet web-enabled apps they now take for granted. More than one in three (37 per cent) surveyed said the courses are “poorly aligned with their organisation’s objectives”.

Younger managers

Counterintuitively, the report found that younger managers are more likely to opt for face-to-face training. This was attributed to current e-learning materials falling short of the expectations of managers who are used to high-quality smartphone apps. Younger managers express a clear preference for more advanced digital training approaches, such as gamification. For example, those under the age of 35 are more than twice as likely (41 per cent, in contrast to 16 per cent of those aged 55 and above) to find games and apps useful.

GCC business leaders can learn from these report findings, ensuring they get such advanced apps right. The rewards for providing high-tech digital training and development opportunities link directly to resourcing challenges. A survey by UAE jobs website Bayt.com found that nearly 83 per cent of employees in the Middle East were willing to leave their current employers for better training opportunities elsewhere.

The control and content of leadership development is increasingly exercised by managers themselves at all levels, bypassing learning and development (L&D) experts. It is unsurprising then that three-quarters (73 per cent) of managers want to see digital learning become more personalised by using adaptive learning technologies, with tailored learning styles and progression. Successful L&D leaders should respond by providing guidance for self-directed learning, ensuring high-quality content is easily accessible, building new ways to help “do” leadership as well as learning it and providing accreditation for a wide variety of journeys to management capability.  

While the precise effects of the future of work have yet to be defined, it is easier to discern how existing trends will fit within the context of leadership development in the GCC. Firstly, burgeoning youth populations and the ambitious national development plans across the region result in the need to develop millions of local government and business leaders. Secondly, new and existing managers will need help responding to rapidly outdating work models and competing in a crowded, global environment.

Technology can improve and speed up leadership development for new managers. Research by OSC found that about 1 million world-class Saudi leaders will be required in the kingdom within the next five years. Technology provides new opportunities for L&D, as well as the means to reach out to a large number of managers. For example, a new smartphone-based app, iLeader, helps first-line managers to maximise the productivity and engagement of their teams. It guides them through difficult decisions and helps improve their performance with tools, guidance and team feedback.

Research needed

Both new and existing leaders need to engage better with changes to their industries and staff. Apps such as iLeader can address some of these challenges, but ultimately more research is needed to determine the precise effects of work trends on specific industries and talent populations. For example, the strategic needs of airlines across the GCC will differ substantially from those of telecoms providers.

Broad reports help highlight future challenges to organisations and their management teams, yet narrow, bespoke research garners real insight for business leaders and their companies. The US Postal Service, for example, recently worked with OSC on their Delivering the Future report, which examines the future role of global postal service providers. Other organisations may consider a similar tactic for the chance to become a future thought leader in their industry.  

 William Scott-Jackson, Oxford Strategic Consulting

William Scott-Jackson, Oxford Strategic Consulting

William Scott-Jackson, Oxford Strategic Consulting

William Scott-Jackson is chairman of Oxford Strategic Consulting and a visiting academic at Oxford University. Robert Mogielnicki is the firm’s head of public relations