By Neil Denslow
Despite the transient nature of the Middle East’s workforce, it appears as though the region’s big businesses have failed to see the value in succession management.
I|~||~||~|The Middle East is renowned for its high level of staff turnover, but few companies actually prepare for the inevitable departure of key employees, such as the IT manager. As such, many are forced to quickly hire a replacement without any plans for recruitment or for integrating the newcomer into the existing workforce.The issue of succession management is particularly complex when hiring IT managers because of the wide range of activities they are involved in. This can encompass diverse areas such as project management, staff management, designing an overall IT strategy for the company and ensuring that the IT systems operate on a day-to-day basis.Given this scope of activity, companies need to properly plan for the inevitable handover to the new IT manager. The succession management plan should encompass everything from finding the right person for the vacancy to ensuring that the new manager is fully briefed about all ongoing and proposed projects, as well as support and staff issues, once they are hired. However, few local companies do this, which means the departure of an IT manger can lead to near panic.“In IT, retention has historically been a problem, but there doesn’t seem to be any attempts at addressing it inside many organisations. It’s at the point where the person decides to leave that you see a lot of hasty activity, which isn’t the most effective way of managing a potential crisis,” notes Mohammed Shah, IT director of the Xenel Group’s IT services company, Xeca.The region’s reliance on ex-patriot workers is the main reason for high staff turnover rates, as these employees have little loyalty to any particular region and will quickly return home or move on if a better opportunity arises. “A person will jump ship very quickly if a better package presents itself, or if someone is Saudi and an opportunity in Dubai presents itself,” says Mona Ataya, vice president for marketing at Bayt.“IT also is quite competitively headhunted at a certain level as well, so competition might pull that person [as well],” adds Paula Miller, HR Consultant, Clarendon Parker.Aside from the cost of finding and hiring new staff, this high turnover can hurt a company’s bottom line by delaying IT projects. At smaller companies, in particular, a new IT manager will want to reassess any proposed projects from the start, which can greatly draw out decision times. “It is actually quite a big problem…. [For instance,] we had one case where it took three and a half years to close a sale because there was four different managers,” notes Ammar Alassam, director, Middle East, Knowledge View.Larger organisations are unlikely to suffer from this problem due to the sheer number of staff and consultants involved in designing a project. Implementation decisions at Dubai government and Emirates Airlines, for instance, both involved at least 100 people. “One person changing is highly unlikely to have a dramatic impact on these decisions,” says Husam Dajani, vice president, Oracle Middle East. ||**||II|~||~||~|If an IT manager does leave, however, a company of any size will need to find a replacement who is both familiar with the organisation’s systems and a good fit with the existing workforce. A comprehensive search enhances the prospect of finding a suitable candidate, but few local companies have the time to do this as most IT managers only need to give a month’s notice. “If a company is smart, they will have somebody in an important [IT] position on three-to-six months’ notice, but a lot of local companies don’t,” say Charles Willson, general manager, ITP Consulting.By advertising for staff or using a recruitment consultant, a company may be able to find someone who is familiar with the company’s technology and also capable of integrating with existing staff. However, such candidates should also be available internally, where they will be both cheaper and quicker to find.To ensure that a suitable candidate is available, the incumbent manager needs to accept the inevitability of their departure and ‘groom’ a successor. This person will have their own managerial role within the company, but they will also be seen as the natural successor to the manager, as well as being in charge during the manager’s absence. “When you’re away, in a meeting or sick, it’s recognised and respected that your deputy has your authority and has your remit of contribution in management meetings and project teams,” says Shah, who has followed such a practice.The deputy therefore needs to be someone in the second layer of the organisation who has the skills, ambition and credibility to become the overall manager. Potential candidates for the deputy role also need to be told that they are being viewed in these terms, as some may decide that maintaining their technical skills are more important than possible management opportunities. “That does become a trade off for people,” says Shah.To ensure that the deputy can operate in the manager’s absence, as well as seamlessly replacing the manager on a permanent basis, they need to be kept fully up-to-date about all new development and issues that fall within the IT manager’s remit. “There’s no point having a recognised deputy if you don’t have them involved and debriefed enough on issues to be able perform in your absence,” says Shah.Such preparation clearly smoothes the succession process, but few companies in the region do this. Many have not considered it, while others are unable to appoint an internal candidate, either because the IT staff is too small to include a natural successor, or because none of the staff have the breadth of skills needed for a management position. The limited skill sets within organisations is a further result of the high turnover of IT staff, as few companies are willing to invest in training staff that will inevitably leave them. Such an attitude, however, forces the company to go through a time-consuming and expensive externally hunt for new managers, as when a vacancy arises they won’t have time to develop their existing staff. “It’s more of an immediate need rather than not wanting to train. They’ve got this immediate need now, so they have to have these skills now,” says Miller.||**||III|~||~||~|If a company is forced to look outside of its workforce for new staff, its first call is often to the vendor that provided its systems. The big software vendors act as informal recruitment agencies, pairing up possible candidates with companies looking to hire staff. “From our knowledge and previous interactions with people in the market, we typically know a number of [available] candidates,” says Dajani.Working with a vendor will ensure that the right skills are hired, but a company also needs to consider whether a potential candidate would fit into the organisation. As such, the recruit must move beyond just skills, and consider if the candidate has the right personality to work with existing IT staff and the hiring line manager. “It’s part of our job to help with this integration — to learn as much as possible about the environment and feed that back,” explains Willson. If a company is prepared enough, it can enhance its prospects of hiring the right person by going through an in-depth interviewing process. This will allow the recruiter to learn more about the candidate than just a list of their qualifications, as well as letting the applicant find out about the company and the region. The recruiter will then know if the candidate is the right person, and the applicant will also know if they will be happy in the job and the Middle East, which is particularly important for overseas applicants.At Mercator, the IT services company of the Emirates Group, for instance, all overseas candidates go through a series of interviews, both over the phone and in person. The potential candidate is also flown to Dubai and shown the city as well as schools, if they have any children. HR and the line manager also normally take the candidate out socially in the evening. “It’s an awful lot of legwork… but it’s a great idea,” says Willson. “People may say it’s very time-consuming… but in the long run, it’s far more time-consuming to pick the wrong person and have to go through the whole process again,” he adds.When a candidate is hired via an agency, recruitment consultants are also usually involved in the handover between the outgoing and incoming manager. In general, this should be a month or more in order to cover the full breadth of the job. “If it’s longer than that, the new guy doesn’t feel like he can get cracking with his job… But it shouldn’t be too short, as then the new guy won’t know what to do,” says Dr. Stephanie Jones, an HR specialist and senior lecturer at the University of Wollangong.As the newcomer will already have the technical skills needed for the post, the handover will focus more on how the company operates, the IT staff and any inhouse systems or projects. This wide scope shows why it should ideally be done over a few weeks. However, because of the reduced hiring times in the region, and the fact that the outgoing manager is probably going to another part of the world, newcomers to the Middle East don’t often meet their predecessors. “There’s not necessarily very good continuity,” says Patrick Luby, managing director, Clarendon Parker. “It may actually be left to the staff who are on the project or on the support side to explain to the incoming IT manager ‘this is my job and this is what I look after’,” he observes. ||**||IV|~||~||~|If the company also has no staff appraisal forms on file, which is still a possibility in the region, then the newcomer may be completely in the dark about the skills and competencies of the staff, which is bound to impact on their effectiveness as a manager.In terms of the technology, the newcomer may also faces challenges, particularly with legacy inhouse developed systems. If such systems are not properly documented then knowledge about the system will leave with the person who developed it. “If [the code] breaks down, the new people can support it, but if you ask them to change it… or integrate it with other applications, they haven’t got a clue,” says Alassam. “The company [therefore] has to implement a policy for making sure such knowledge stays in the organisation.”Unless such a problem forces a systems overhaul, most newcomers have only a limited mandate in terms of reviewing a company’s IT strategy. When a company is too small to afford consultants, a newcomer may need to design a full IT strategy. Most of the time, however, this has usually been drawn up prior to the new manager’s appointment and they have been hired to implement it. As such, a company’s overriding IT strategy is unlikely to change following a new appointment, although specific projects may be canned or reviewed. “A lot of times, when the new manager comes in, they will take a fresh look at things… and they may change priorities… [However,] if someone is using an Oracle database, for example, then the vast majority of their people will be familiar with that technology as well, and re-training a large number of people in the IT organisation… is not a trivial task,” says Dajani.Managerial changes can, however, affect the success of ongoing projects, as the newcomer may not be as committed to the technology as his predecessor. This means that the change management issues will not be fully addressed within the organisation, and that the package may only be used to 50% or 60% of its potential.“It’s very nice when you have a client who understands and appreciates what you are giving them, and tries to push it across the organisation, because they believe in this vision. However, if that person leaves [and his replacement isn’t as committed], then all you have is software,” says Alassam.||**||