Let’s invest in our talent

2010-02-20 10:34

THE quality and quantity of any country’s talent is an

indispensable factor in global competitiveness.

The experience of countries like South Korea, Japan and Singapore

in the decades following the end of World War II is tangible proof that talent

is the great ­differentiator and a key source of sustainable competitive

advantage.

South Africa has pockets of ­talent-driven excellence, as evidenced

by its many home-grown leaders in ­finance, mining and engineering. But the

country also has ­severe challenges. You need only look at the recent matric

pass rates and the state of public schooling to see that.

We need a concerted effort by both the government and the private

­sector to nurture and expand our ­excellence. The Asian countries mentioned

earlier invested in and harvested their home-grown talent to leapfrog Western

countries ­economically.

Japan became the second-largest economy in the world within a

­generation. South Korea took its rightful place in the concert of ­nations by

modernising its ­industrial base and investing ­heavily in ­research and

development. Lest we forget, South Korea, with a population size similar to

SA’s, was at the same level of development as Ghana in the 1950s.

Singapore graduated from being a poor British colony to a First

World country under the visionary leadership of Lee Kuan Yew who single-mindedly

focused on talent development and deployment as a central plank of his

administration.

He even went to the controversial extreme of saying that men who

were graduates should not marry women who were non-graduates. Although this

initially made him unpopular among women, it had the long-term effect of

embedding a ­culture of ­intellectual and professional ambition and achievement

which has ­become a hallmark of that country to date.

Over the past three decades we have seen India and China beginning

to emulate the earlier Asian success stories. The difference between ­India and

China when compared to Japan, South Korea and Singapore is that they have

natural ­resources.

That is probably why it took them a long time to discover the

hidden potential of investing in their ­people. India still has one of the

highest illiteracy rates in the world. Rural poverty in China is still

prevalent. But both countries are making a big push using education and

investment in talent development as a way out of poverty.

Their current enviable success as emerging markets at the forefront

of the shift in the balance of power in global economics is as much due to their

increasingly insatiable ­appetite for more natural resources to underpin their

industrialisation and modernisation as it is about their increasing role in the

mainstream spheres of knowledge ­production and technological ­innovation.

South Africa is in a similar situation with regards to having

natural resources and huge inequalities.

For South Africa to become a global leader that punches above its

weight not just in diplomatic and ­political affairs, but also in innovation and

technology, we need to ­redouble our efforts to catch up with Japan, South

Korea, Singapore, China and India in the sphere of talent development and

deployment.

It is one thing to invest in the ­development of talent. It is

another to strategically and tactically ­deploy it to maximise leverage.

It is not uncommon to hear about Harvard, London School of

Economics, ­Insead, Yale, Oxford and Cambridge professors consulting for our

government departments or big companies. There is nothing wrong with that as

knowledge has become globalised and the affairs of nations and companies are

increasingly inextricably intertwined.

But there is a lot wrong if we downplay the importance of Wits,

Fort Hare, University of Cape Town and the University of Zululand as

­institutions that can equally play a key role in shaping global policy

discourse and development. If they can’t, South Africa needs to invest in their

capacity to do so.

The leaders of the US and the UK never invite foreign professors to

advise them on crucial national strategic policy issues. They trust and rely on

their own. We must too.

Some local companies rely heavily on the established professional

services firms that are largely based offshore for advice on big strategic

issues. Even in such cases, there is nothing wrong with that as we are part of a

globalising business landscape. However, we need to build the ­capacity of local

professional ­services firms to advise local companies and globalise their

advisory footprints to Wall Street, Tokyo, Paris and London.

South Africa has world-class knowledge workers in financial

services, mining and other sectors that can and must be leveraged for value

creation and global competitiveness.

We need to scale up and mainstream excellence in all spheres of our

lives by investing in the ­development of top talent, and ­strategically and

tactically leverage it to unleash our full potential as a nation.

  • Dlamini is the chief executive of

    Old Mutual SA and Emerging ­Markets


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