Have I got a great case study for you … That is not quite how I deliver my strategy and marketing training courses to clients - I don't want to come across as a slippery life insurance salesman. But in a training environment, delegates love to listen to stories and case studies about success and failure. It helps them understand what has worked for a certain company in a given situation and what pitfalls to avoid.
Inevitably, I get asked one particular question that stumps me: "Do you have any local or regional case studies that illustrate the management concept you are talking about?" You see, like others who deliver their training programmes in a "pocket-MBA" format, I resort to sourcing case studies prepared by the likes of Harvard Business School, the Kellogg School of Management, INSEAD and others. There is a healthy body of documentation available from these international business schools on a myriad subjects including strategy, human resources, marketing, finance, leadership and other areas of interest to students and managers.
And since the authors and contributors to these business schools are largely based outside this region, the case studies are written about organisations based in the US, Europe and some in Asia. Very rarely do you come across one set in the GCC or even the MENA region. There are a few, but not of the quality to put into a training programme. Yet all of us who live in the Gulf know there are some excellent corporate and organisational examples. Take the success of Air Arabia in outsmarting its peers; or the award-winning RAKBank that every year tops the banking league for customer service; or the hard-hitting Al Jazeera international news network that has changed the perception of Arab broadcasting in the global media landscape.
These and other trail-blazers are fine examples of world-class organisations. Unfortunately, in the majority of cases, their best practice has not been documented in a way that managers and students can discuss, study and learn from. So I end up teaching by anecdote. If these stories were documented within a management framework and subsequent case study it would prove an important source of knowledge for managers and students to draw on.
It could even assist with establishing better corporate practice, governance and entrepreneurship - after all success breeds success. David Jones, a senior adviser at Hewitt Associates, one of the world's largest HR outsourcing companies, agrees. "Local research is critical because to have full practical benefit in the workplace," Mr Jones says, "we need data that is both rigorous and relevant to working practices in the region.
"Importing best-practice approaches from outside the region and assuming that it is relevant to the situation of local organisations is not always useful." He also agrees there are plenty of good regional examples, such as the Islamic Development Bank, based in Jeddah. They have employed oral history techniques to capture the experience of innovators at the bank that were involved in the development of the sukuk and the imaginative use of financial waqf funds more than 30 years ago. But these have been primarily for internal staff consumption.
So why is there this lack of local management case studies to draw down on? First, a number of organisations in the region are prone to excessive secrecy and playing a game of smoke and mirrors. They are not willing to open up their management practices to outsiders. In the case of a poorly managed organisation, that is not a bad thing, since what we'd see would probably want to make us cry. But I am surprised when I see the same secretive attitude demonstrated by those organisations that are excelling in their fields. The best-known brands and most profitable companies around the world have reams and reams of management case studies written about them. They learn from these, improve what they are doing and then go on to the next level of their development.
The second reason for the lack of regional management case studies is that local business schools have not taken up the task of documenting best practice. To date they have focused their attention on bringing fat-fee paying students through the doors on to well-marketed MBA programmes. They have provided the students with some exemplary teaching through world-class faculty members but have failed when it comes to developing practitioners and capturing the application of the teaching locally.
There are some exceptions but unfortunately most business schools are not providing their students with the opportunity to reach out and do some genuine fieldwork. This also needs to change. "One hundred years ago, Japan was busy importing external best practices and nobody could have imagined that a distinctly Japanese management model would develop and dominate management thinking in some specific fields," Mr Jones says.
"There is no reason why a distinctly Arab approach to management shouldn't be equally valuable if we take the steps to appreciate and understand its strengths and have the confidence to implement our own approaches at work." The irony is that the greatest leaps in Arab scholarship and knowledge occurred when Arab scholars intellectually engaged the works of the Greeks and other ancient civilisations. Having mastered these, they then built on them to create new frameworks for thinking and development which other parts of the world adopted.
History has a way of repeating itself and sometimes in a positive way. Let's hope it doesn't take too much longer as I've got a training programme to deliver next month and will no doubt be asked the very same question. Rehan Khan is a business consultant and writer based in Dubai email@example.com