Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Attracting Talent

The concept of attracting talent and multinationals to Oman is an important issue. We hear a lot about the new economy as if it only applies to IT or is still some way in the future; that it is something only young techies in smart offices are involved in. If that's what you think then you couldn't be further from the truth. In fact it is here and it is now and it affects us all.

Today's modern economy is fast moving, dynamic, ever-changing and global. To become successful, companies, countries and cities must master the art of innovation, constantly developing and adopting the best products, techniques and practices and attracting the right kind of human capital. Indeed, successful cities will be those that can adapt to the demands of rapid change, those that are flexible, creative and diverse and manage change rather than being drowned by it.

Benchmarking Cities
The World Knowledge Competitiveness Index benchmarks the world's high performing cities in terms of their performance on four crucial variables - knowledge capital, human capital, regional economic outputs and knowledge sustainability and it makes for sober reading. The recent index is dominated by US cities. The top 21 world knowledge competitive cities are all in North America. In fact, the first European city to feature in the ranking is Stockholm at 22nd and there is no Gulf city listed in the top 125.

The world's burgeoning cities are a critical fact of the 21st century - and represent one of the greatest challenges of the future. By the year 2050, cities with populations over three million will more than double from 70 today to over 150. When knowledge is perhaps the most important factor in today's economy, there's a growing interest in the concept of the knowledge city. But it isn't just large cities that have cornered the market in attracting talented people. For example, in the US, a number of smaller cities have some of the highest conce-ntrations of creative people in the nation, notably college towns such as Austin, Texas, East Lansing, Michigan and Madison, Wisconsin. But where does Muscat stand on attracting talent and establishing itself as a knowledge city?

We've a Tech Park
Clean, unpretentious and safer than most cities, Muscat is home to KOM, the Rusayl-based technology park. Tenants on the 68 hectare park are exempt from corporate taxes, have access to Class A office accommodation and superb telco infrastructure. Its tenants live in modern, comfortable and affordable housing, their kids attend great schools and healthcare here is second to none. The park's firms are positioned to tap a growing, youthful Middle East market, and a young, educated, increasingly tech-savvy, multilingual indigenous workforce. All of this should bode well. Among others, Hewlett Packard, Siemens, Huwaie, Gulf Air, Infocomm and NCR are taking advantage of what KOM offers. But if we want to attract creative talent to the sultanate - multinationals and entrepreneurs that drive innovation and create employment - KOM won't achieve this on its own. The point is, Oman doesn't have just one competitor - either the UAE or Saudi Arabia or Qatar. That's not how the global economy works. We are competing against a collection of countries simultaneously, and the cumulative effect of UAE plus Saudi Arabia plus Qatar plus Thailand plus India is something to worry about. So what should we be thinking?

The concept of attracting talent and multinationals to Oman is an important issue. Indeed, in the battle for global talent, we are moving from a company-centric economy to a people-driven one. Simply put, people are turning to their community rather than to their company to define themselves and location is taking precedence over the corporation. For example, when smart individuals and firms visit KOM, they don't just consider the Class A office accommodation, the tax benefits and infrastructure on offer. Increasingly, they check out what's available and happening in Muscat - the recreation and sports facilities, the standard and availability of accommodation, schools, healthcare facilities, flight connections, cinemas, night life, museums, shopping centres, art galleries and restaurants. They're looking for audile and visual cues which signal whether Muscat is a place where they and their employees can live, work and play.

It is also apparent from talking to people that location is as important as salary and career opportunity. Again, recent studies suggest that folk who make a job-based decision to relocate but neglect lifestyle factors such as recreational and cultural amenities move again shortly thereafter.

A High Amenity City
In order to help Oman attract talent and multinationals, what we should be looking to develop is Muscat as a high-amenity place where you can get anything you need instantaneously. If you are pulling an all-nighter, you can get a Thai take away at 2 am. When your dry cleaning piles up, there's a place in CityCentre that will take care of it in 30 minutes. If you need to blow off steam, there's a skatepark to ride or a wadi to bash! In brief, a place that has all these amenities is efficient. You save time when you live there. Many of these amenities are on offer in Muscat - but are we (collectively) getting this message across to international firms and entrepreneurs? Perhaps not.

Obviously, cities differ considerably in their ability to attract and retain human capital and the companies these folk manage, this is why talent hasn't spread evenly across the economic landscape and helps explain the emergence of business and technology clusters. From experience, it's more than apparent that people look for the same things in a city that they look for in a company: energy, amenities and a sense of fun. In Oman, people want to be able to go camping, cycling and picnicking on beaches. Now, when you question potential residents whether they camp, cycle or picnic on beaches, generally the answer is 'no'. But they want such activities to be available, because they like the idea of being able to do them if they want to.

Low Entry Barriers
Economists have long spoken of the importance of industries having low entry barriers, so that new firms can easily enter and keep the industry vital. Similarly, it's important for a city to have low entry barriers for people, that is, to be a place where newcomers are accepted quickly into various social and economic arrangements. All things being equal, if Oman adopts this approach, we are likely to attract greater numbers of talented and creative people - the type of people who power innovation, entrepreneurship and create employment. Cities that thrive in today's world tend to be plug-and-play communities where anyone can fit in quickly. On its own, building a first class technology park won't attract greater talent and more international firms, we need to work harder on offering more lifestyle options and greater cultural diversity.

Talent Magnet
Talented people seek an environment open to differences. Many highly creative people, regardless of ethnic background, grew up feeling like outsiders, different in some way from most of their schoolmates. When they're sizing up a new company, city or country, acceptance of diversity is a neon sign that reads 'non-standard people welcome here.' Put simply, crusaders of the new economy increasingly take their professional identities from where they live, rather than from where they work. In the past you would meet a guy on a plane, ask him what he does, and he would tell you that he writes code at Oracle. Today, it is, "I design educational game software and live in Madison." The most important national and corporate resource over the next 20 years will be talent. Smart, sophisticated businesspeople who are technologically literate, globally astute and operationally agile. And even as the demand for talent goes up, the supply will be going down. We have great ideas, we have got money, we just don't have enough talented people to pursue those ideas. We are talent-constrained. So, if we are to compete, we've got to get our heads round this issue and look seriously at how we can retain and attract the right human capital.

Research clearly indicates that talent is attracted to three types of new economy hot spots. First, there's the traditional, high-tech industrial complex such as California's Silicon Valley. Then there's the 'latte town' - high-energy places with easily accessible outdoor amenities, such as Boulder, Colorado. Finally, there are new urban technology centres cro-pping up, such as Pioneer Square in Seattle, Washington. Indeed, Muscat's fate cannot depend, quite obviously, on the performance of one technology park or one free zone or one port. Its prosperity will depend on the productivity of all its economic sectors and in its ability to collectively create a diverse environment - and one that does not compromise local culture - that is attractive to both talented entrepreneurs and multinationals.

What's at KOM?
Tenants on the 68 hectare park are exempt from corporate taxes.
They have access to Class A office accommodation.
They live in modern, comfortable and affordable housing.

What Muscat Should do to Attract Talent?
To attract talent we need to work harder on offering more lifestyle options to compete.

To compete we have to look seriously at how we can retain and attract the right human capital.

Talent Appeal
If Muscat wants to attract and retain creative talent what are the questions we should be asking? Here's a starting point:

1). What will attract young bright creative minds to Muscat?
2). How do we inspire the Omani community (nationals and expatriates) as a whole to take ownership in making Muscat a more creative city?
3). What other cities should we model our efforts on and why?
4). What are some of the key success factors to making Muscat a creative city?
5). Conversely, what are some of the barriers?
6). Identify positive creative initiatives currently underway that we can build on.
7). Is the creative community in Muscat a cohesive one or does it function in silos?
8). Where are the opportunities for increased collaboration/cohesion?
9). What is the role of economic development in building a creative city?
10). What are some current opportunities to do this?
11). What steps can Muscat take to become an internationally recognised medium sized creative city?
12). What can the private sector do to improve the quality of life indicators of Muscat?