By Corrie Block
Like many of you, I began my consulting career on the two key elements of consulting that have nothing to do with business or organizational dynamics: luck and wit. It was both that earned me my job in the Middle East.
At my request I am in Taiz, Yemen, learning Arabic with the intent to open a branch office of our small firm in Sana’a in the next few years. With an eye for the future, I began investigating the opportunities for consulting in Yemen and found out that essentially none of the organizations that I am used to working for (companies, ministries of government, etc.) actually exist in my Western framework for organizations.
Organizations here are nearly without exception marionettes of larger metanetworks of families and clans. It reeks of “corruption,” I know, but I’d like to think out loud with you for a few moments about the complex possibility of consulting for metanetworks.
When I was working in Europe, the boundaries of the organizations I worked for were quite clear. You were either employed by the company I was consulting for or not. In better cases, if you were a supplier for or a client of the company, I would bring your views to the table. The CEO or board of directors was the boss, the managers implemented, and the company could be easily assessed, and solutions for efficiency, focus, or competitive edge could be identified.
No sweat, right? Well out here in the desert, the rules are quite different. Let’s Start With a Partially Fictional Story:
The Taiz Water Authority has more than 600 employees. The utility should run quite nicely on a staff of 70 to 100. The gross over employment is a result of the influence of metanetworks.
The local Sheikh has a nephew in need of a job, so he calls the federal Minster of Water in Sana’a and requests that his nephew be hired. The Minister’s father was a close friend of the Sheikh’s father, so in spite of the fact that Junior has no education in water, and the Water Authority has no budget for more staff, the head of the Taiz Water Authority receives a phone call from the Minister of Water instructing him to hire Junior the next day.
A few years later, the water supply in Taiz is down to a critical low. The Sheikh’s son has not received city water to his house for more than a month. Thousands in the city are without adequate water and are being cut from service. The Sheikh’s son makes a phone call, to his cousin Junior at the Taiz Water Authority, and receives a portion of the scarce water supply the next day.
Junior then receives a magically zero interest loan from a local bank, at which the Sheikh’s son works. The Sheikh is also responsible for the distribution of foreign aid in the area, and uses a part of the municipal paving grant to repair the street in front of Junior’s house. Junior then turns the water on for the Sheikh as well.
Yes, it’s fictional... but it’s really not far off from the way things work here. Traditionally, I might be looking at the Water Authority or the local bank as potential clients, but those organizations primarily exist to provide services to the families of those employed by them. They are compromised. Working for the bank, I could tell them to cut jobs, charge minimum interest rates on every loan, and I could even design a nice placard for the hallway with vision and value statements on it, but the bank doesn’t actually exist apart from the family that controls it.
A manager can’t fire the employee he was ordered to hire, and the values and goals of the bank are truly secondary to those of the families of its employees. So I’ve found myself turning my eyes upward, off of the knock-off businesses and fake organizations, to the webs of metanetworks and their CEOs, their grandfathers. There are a few organizational commonalities that I have identified in metanetworks that make it clear that they are strategic organizations:
1. Diversified Human Resources — Metanetworks intentionally have their young people trained in areas where the family is weak in representation. This way, they have hands in every jar. The family is able to exercise some control in every organization in which it is represented.
2. Pinnacle Monopoly — In general, the top-level staff of organizations in Yemen are from the same metanetwork. The Branch Managers, VPs and CEO are all members of the same family. In this way, they can maintain control of the organization as a whole, to lean its resources to benefit the metanetwork.
3. Authoritarian Governance — The CEO or head of a metanetwork may be technically unemployed, employed as an “adviser,” or even the CEO of a traditional organization. However, the technical title of the head of a metanetwork seems to have no effect on their scope of influence, or the real patriarchal power structure.
4. Strategic Clan Alliances — We call these marriages in the West. Here though, marriages are a big part of binding organizations (families) together. Between the sons and daughters of power brokers, marriages are the mergers of businesses. The best way to secure a long-term successful merger of companies (or even a supply chain for that matter) is to arrange a marriage between the children of the CEOs.
(This is obviously not a complete and exhaustive list. Since I have not found any reading material on the subject of consulting for metanetworks, I am limited by my own musings, and welcome into dialogue other consultants who are rethinking the nature of organizations from an Eastern perspective.)
There are also three organizational weaknesses I have found common in metanetworks:
1. Lack of Innovation — Metanetworks are commonly lacking in the research and development function inherent in successful Western organizations. This lack of innovative impulse is not uncommon in Western organizations either, but here it seems to be epidemic. There is little concern for new product or service development.
2. Short-Term Thinking — By this I mean about one to three years. In my experience, metanetworks do not have the tools or desire to project their successes into future successes. This may be a product of historical inertia: a family in power tends to remain in power. In today’s global economy however, this tempts leaders of metanetworks into a false sense of security, seducing them away from thinking about the 100- (or even 10-) year plan for their organizations.
3. Lack of Focus — Metanetworks, though showing signs of natural (or casual) strategy, do not seem to focus their efforts very well intentionally. The concepts of mission, vision and values are fairly new in intentional thought on Western organizations.
Consultants can help metanetworks in each of these areas, and by upgrading the members of a metanetwork, we could strengthen the effectiveness of the organizations in which it is represented. To be honest, the oligarchy alarm in my head goes off every time I try to stretch my thinking into strategic consulting for metanetworks, but I can’t help but wonder if my Western head is just too small to see that families operating efficiently and effectively could not in the long run be a greater benefit to the global economy than Western traditional organizations.
In the West, we cram hyper-individualistic people into an organization, and hire consultants to help them play well together. In metanetworks we have the beneficial foundation of shared history and loyalty between the “employees,” and the social responsibility of businesses is not a new idea here. It seems to me that to develop the strategic function of a family-based organization is much simpler work than to convince individualistic board members and management teams that they are a kind of family. Perhaps “corruption” can be steered by a little luck and wit. Corrie Block is a consultant with Zeitgeist Holdings Ltd., a small Hong Kong-based development firm. Corrie Block is a consultant with Zeitgeist Holdings Ltd., a small Hong Kong-based development firm. He has a decade of experience in international leadership and has provided educational and leadership consulting for the European Union, the World Bank, and European governments. He can be reached at email@example.com.