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In recognizing performance efficiency as one of the great unquestioned socio-economic virtues of our age, Thomas L. Friedman in his book “The World Is Flat”, issued a colourful anecdotal admonishment.
“Every morning in Africa”, he exhorted, “a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning a lion wakes up. It knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle or it will starve to death. It doesn’t matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle. When the sun comes up, you better start running.”
The gazelles I suppose Friedman is referring to in this instance are small island states like St. Lucia with their inherent structural vulnerabilities, limited capital resources and rapidly declining rates of productivity. Indubitably, the lions on the other hand, are developed and emerging economies with their insatiable appetites for huge capital inflows, natural resources and productivity growth. The lions, restless and merciless in their quest to conquer and survive, lie unpretentiously on the great plains of globalization, and are waiting to make the kill. How will we fight back and do we have a chance of survival? Can we continue to keep our proverbial heads in the sand and ignore the danger of economic uncompetitiveness and how it can affect our country’s economic germination? By now it should be abundantly clear that no one owes us anything and consequently we need to stop resting on our laurels and keep moving to secure the changes and benefits that we desire.
Essentially, the broader question is whether our mindset and work practices are compatible with economic productivity and efficiency. Because productivity is considered a key source of economic growth and competitiveness, the efficiency of firms and organizations depend not only on a well-trained workforce, but also on matchless professionalism, critical thinking and work ethics. How do you shift a mindset of a people or organization to align with critical national developmental needs?
Admittedly shifting mindsets to align with the country’s macroeconomic objectives can be challenging, though not impossible. The best approach is to start with the leaders, managers and supervisors at all levels of the organization in order to ensure congruent understanding of national purpose, and align leadership mindset with capability. It is a simple and inescapable truth that we can never get anywhere close to the ranks of emerging economies if our work ethic is widely perceived, even by ourselves, as lacking. Poor work ethics hinder economic progress as they cripple productivity, and hence competitiveness becomes a difficult game to play. In fact, the latest research shows that poor work ethics in the wider Caribbean have become an economic pandemic which has become the region’s worst enemy. Further compounding the productivity problem are bad working conditions, poor leadership and supervision, as well as inadequate and weak institutions.
I have always maintained that in order for nations to progress and achieve their full potential, the four Ts of development (talent, technology, tolerance and thinking) must be leveraged sufficiently, and must remain the bottom line of any development thrust. To foster productivity, governments and organizations need to provide people with the enablers required to get there – this requires a well-executed plan and a change in mindset, skillsets, toolsets, and efficiency in the transitional process.
For a while now, I have followed the productivity debate in St. Lucia and still remain unconvinced that the fundamental requirements for national efficiency have been addressed. We seem to approach issues of professionalism with a breathtaking mediocrity. The system requires a mentality shift and a new national consciousness to sweep through our nation to awake our people from their slumber.
Why isn’t there a national educational thrust to educate St. Lucians on the importance of punctuality, consistency and reliability. Indeed, these are the true underpinnings of productivity and not necessarily the much trumpeted ideas of input to output ratio or production efficiency. In today’s age of deadlines and tight schedules, time management is essential for business execution and organizational effectiveness. Punctuality doesn’t seem to be a traditional virtue of St. Lucians and there seems to be no great sense of urgency surrounding due dates and appointments.
This can be seen in many situations, from the lack of punctuality of government ministers to start official events to the tardiness of doctors and lawyers in the private sector. The structure of a St. Lucian’s daily life, which is based on accepting life as it comes, could also be the cause of such an attitude to the concept of time and reliability. Therefore, if things do not go according to plan, there is no point in getting upset. For many people, time may be something to share rather than something to steal.
Another issue of importance is the need to start pruning the regulatory forest in order to eliminate superfluous bureaucracy. Take for example the huge amount of paperwork and time required in conducting a transaction at a commercial bank in the island. To be disarmingly blunt, banking bureaucracy in St. Lucia is a suffocating nuisance. How can you even plan your day productively when you are frustratingly held up at commercial banks and asked to produce all sorts of utterly pointless documents for a simple financial transaction. Then there is the issue of customer service both in the public and private sectors, where people believe that they’re doing you a favour in exchange for your money. Simple things like acknowledging a customer or asking whether one has already received service are in many ways foreign concepts. Even the practice of subjecting St. Lucian nationals to pointless paperwork and questions at our two airports is simply preposterous and disrespectful.
Moreover, if St. Lucia is serious about improving productivity and competing with the rest of the world, it should start by cleaning up its holiday calender. The number of public holidays celebrated during the course of the year is having a knock-on effect on business productivity and in turn, on the economy. Can’t some public holidays be made half-days? There is a case to be more flexible and to move holidays to a Friday or Monday so they do not break up the week in that way, causing small and medium-sized enterprises to lose production days.
Changes in technology are a major source of permanent increases in productivity, but a number of transient factors can affect both true and “measured” productivity. The digital revolution has yet to fulfil its promise of higher productivity. New technology has received its share of the blame, being described as a double edged sword. Instead of quick service delivery, many workers in both the public and private sectors have been said to do social networking while clients queue and go back having not received help.
The public service is the primary front office agent in small nation-states like ours. Any blueprint for enhancing public sector efficiency must embrace the imperative of Business Process Re-engineering (BPR) which encompasses a new orientation in delivering public services based on simplification of procedures in an effort to provide better quality service, increase speed, reduce cost and transform the workforce culture. Long-overdue and indispensible, BPR will help optimize public service efficiency and question existing processes with a view to eliminating duplication of functions and obliterating forms of work that do not add value to the service rendered to the public.
In any event, the answers to many of our intractable efficiency problems lie in better infrastructure (four-lane highways to ease the flow of traffic), a reduction in the size of the informal economy, and the more efficient adoption of new technologies. An idea whose time has come is the proper naming of streets islandwide and the swift introduction of postal codes and addresses to increase logistical efficiency in the island. If we get it right, the benefits can be enormous.
On another note, increasing agricultural productivity can make a significant positive contribution to resolving issues of food insecurity in St. Lucia. However, in order for agricultural productivity to improve the lives of the poor, it needs a supportive environment, particularly technical assistance and increased access to markets.
Lest we forget, development is a mindset; a frame of mind needed in the pursuit of personal advancement and social transformation. It is a matrix which shapes our weltanschauung and fosters democratic dynamism in our important national institutions. In seeking a regional competitive edge, we need to become lateral and strategic thinkers guided by international standards , policies and procedures; and develop more focus, vision and priorities in our commercial dealings.
“Productivity isn’t everything, but in the long-run it is almost everything,” said Paul Krugman in his book “The Age of Diminished Expectations”. The more productive an economy is—the more effectively it uses capital and labour.
I conclude that productivity growth is the key to unlocking sustainable growth in our small island. Rising productivity is the key to making possible permanent increases in the standard of living. Most experts concur that some basic steps such as better training and supervision, improved communications, sufficient staff and greater autonomy and freedom can go a long way in improving worker morale. These may be small steps for workers, but a giant leap for national productivity.
Clement Wulf-Soulage is a management economist, author and former university lecture. He lived and lectured in Germany for 17 years and writes and delivers commentaries on globalization, economic development, social advancement and education policy. For comments, please forward your emails to [email protected]