Written by
Changeboard Team

Published
26 Jan 2015

The knowledge transfer dilemma

26 Jan 2015 • by Changeboard Team

Empowering the workforce

In February, the UAE government announced plans to create 120,000 private sector jobs for nationals. Sheikh Mohammed called on businesses to “extend a helping hand in the process of Emiratization, even a tiny percentage, to make a contribution to the growth of this country”. Those helping hands include the boards and CEOs of private sector companies and the expatriate workforce which holds the ability to empower the national workforce via knowledge and skills transfer.

How can expats help locals?

Through working with clients and conducting our own research, we have found that while the concept of knowledge transfer is supported in principal, it often lacks substance. A new appetite for knowledge transfer supported by leadership – that provides security and incentives for expats and is embedded into performance management – can help solve the dilemma and encourage expats to extend that helping hand.

Knowledge transfer fails when there is no leadership buy-in or incentives, expats are excluded from the process, there is uncertainty over the future role of expatriates or employers are put under pressure to manage costs. During our research on Nitaqat, Saudi Arabia, we learned many lessons that can be explored in the UAE context.

Misplaced attitudes Nitaqat

When we asked 150 senior expat leaders about their attitude towards Saudization, the overwhelming majority agreed that it is 'the right thing to do’. In addition, 32% of respondents were keen to coach a Saudi colleague and 35% look forward to training a successor. However, 37% said they were nervous they would be pushed out and no longer needed, 30% said nationalization means they know their role is not for the long-term and 27% said that if a Saudi national was found for their role, they would consider leaving the country.

These dynamics suggest that an expat could actively undermine the development of a national counterpart to remain secure in his or her job. To combat this, knowledge transfer needs to be supported by business leaders and institutionalized through initiatives such as:

  • Career pathing: Expats need reassurance that their successful coaching and knowledge transfer will be rewarded and that there is no danger of losing their own jobs as a result of training national counterparts
  • Formal coaching programmes: These must be included as part of balanced scorecards and actively evaluated during the performance management process. Expats often welcome the opportunity to share knowledge but need to know it will be supported
  • Incentives: Of the 150 respondents to Hay Group’s research, 37% would like to see incentives to encourage knowledge transfer. This demonstrates that the organization takes knowledge transfer seriously
  • Vocational training and internships: Beginning the knowledge transfer process and providing the opportunity for nationals to build skills early in the career journey
  • Performance management that rewards and incentivises national employees who commit themselves, and dedicate time, to learning new skills.


While HR has a large role to play in implementation, offering a helping hand in the nationalization process needs to be a leadership objective, not just an HR initiative. Board level buy-in adds substance to long-term nationalization programmes.