Sunday April 21, 2024

How nations compete

By Mian Salimuddin
March 21, 2018

“If only we had learnt these tools and techniques at the undergraduate and graduate levels, we would have been more efficient and productive in our workplaces.” This is the most common form of feedback that we receive at the end of quality management training sessions for both public and private sector organisations.

These observations are based on our experience of conducting training sessions for over 20 years. At times, it is quite embarrassing that we have to teach basic quality concepts to Grade-20 and Grade-21 officers and senior company executives – something which they should have learnt and applied much earlier to improve their organisations.

A similar situation existed in America and Europe in the late 1980s and the early 1990s, with the onslaught of high-quality, low-priced Japanese products capturing their markets. In 1991, the Harvard Business Review published a letter penned by the CEOs of several major US corporations that chided various American universities, especially business schools, for being too slow in adopting and imparting skills about total quality management (TQM).

Business schools duly responded to this criticism and a great deal has changed over the last 25 years. Today, most universities and colleges – not only in Europe and the US, but also in India, Bangladesh, Hong Kong and South Africa – offer advanced courses in TQM at the graduate level.

When industries in America and Europe face a loss of market share and issues of competitiveness, they do not approach their governments for bailout packages. Instead, they approach the academia with their knowledge and skill requirements to ward off competition.

The industry expect quality management courses to focus on a few important quality concepts and skill categories: customer orientation; practical knowledge and the application of TQM tools; data-driven decision-making; the understanding of work as a process; team orientation; and a commitment to continuous improvement, active learning and systems perspectives. In India, trade chambers have established their own colleges and often hire foreign faculty to conduct quality management training at an advanced level.

But what does our industry do in these situations? When it faces a loss of market share, it approaches the corridors of power and demands fiscal concessions – subsidies, reduction in duties, rebates, loans on easy terms and reduced gas and electricity tariffs. Most of these demands are included in the suggestions that value-added textile sector made to the government in October 2017 to improve the competitiveness of their products.

These demands are made at regular intervals and granted by the government in the form of packages that have practically no impact on exports and only help enrich textile tycoons. A careful scrutiny will reveal that these demands were the same, even before the energy crises began. The battle for higher market shares can only be won by a knowledgeable and skilled managerial workforce that is equipped with quality tools and techniques. Packages doled out by the government can do little in this regard. In order for this to happen, the Higher Education Commission (HEC) has to take on a leadership role.

After over 20 years of exposure to the industry, our team was convinced that Pakistan lacked an adequately qualified managerial workforce to ensure the competitiveness of its goods and services in the global market. This is reflected in the continuous downslide in the country’s exports.

Against this backdrop, we submitted a paper to the HEC in 2014 that recommended and outlined a specific syllabus for universities and colleges. The proposed syllabus offered a basic introduction to quality concepts, standards and practical skills that would be taught at a much lower level than those that are being taught in India and Bangladesh. The recommended syllabus covered only one of the eight requirements stipulated by the industry in Europe and the US.

The premise of a strong relationship between the quality of managerial expertise and the quality of products and services was reinforced by a survey conducted by the Career Advisory and Assessment Services in August 2016. The survey highlighted gaps in the academia-industry linkages in Pakistan, with 76 percent of employers expressing their dissatisfaction with the quality of graduates produced by the universities.

After the usual delays and incessant reminders, the HEC responded to our paper. The commission wanted to know which universities across the globe taught quality management. We promptly provided a detailed list of universities along with the syllabi and the credit hours required for them. This was followed by numerous meetings with the curriculum wing, the executive director’s office and the chairman.

Nothing tangible came out of the meetings. We could sense a complete lack of understanding of quality concepts and their strategic impact on the industry’s ability to seek a greater and sustained share of global trade. At every level, a state of disinterest prevailed and the overall attitude suggested that no one knew what they were supposed to do with TQM.

As a consequence, our four-year-long efforts to close the gap between the existing curriculum and the skill set required, and ensure the sustained competitiveness of Pakistan’s goods and services proved to be futile.

Despite the bailout packages given by the government, the country’s exports continue to nose-dive. Pakistan can only emerge as an economic power on the strength of its natural resources if the HEC plays a proactive role. Undermining basic quality skills and tools for corporate training programmes is akin to abrogating a major responsibility that the HEC owes to the nation.

Delays have already done a great deal of damage to the industry and the economy of our country. The failure to act forthwith can be fatal for our domestic industry that is already on a ventilator.