In the age of globalization, the search for universal corporate management recipes may be regarded as a legitimate approach. But can we really expect a given set of management practices to fit into any professional environment – without ever taking local realities into account? Indeed, even the European and Anglo-Saxon models display significant differences, if only in terms of employee protection...
Authors: Jonathan Kabré, Vincent Held
As for the African continent, it has often been observed that companies that exceeded the family circle can very quickly find themselves confronted to important challenges in terms of employee management. Our aim here is to explore a few approaches with the aim of overcoming the most frequent challenges facing medium and large companies, such as high rates of absenteeism or a difficulty to have certain norms and procedures enforced.
But in order to grasp the meaning of such actions, it is first and foremost necessary to investigate the preponderant role played by community life in numerous African societies. An importance that originates in the latter’s essential role for the very survival of its members...
The community model: advantages and limitations for African societies
Sub-Saharan Africa displays true ethnic and cultural diversity – with most varying customs from North to South, from East to West. From one country to the other, untold numbers of ethnicities and tribes, all of which greatly differing from each other, can be observed. And yet, in spite of their diversity, most of these societies share an essential feature: community relationships often pervade the lives of the group’s members.
This preponderant role playede by the community in the life of its members can be explained by the fact that the underlying solidarity allows maintaining a level of social assistance that benefits its most vulnerable members. This advantage is not to be underestimated in societies that are often confronted to harsh economic realities.
The reverse side of the medal is that each member of the group will have to be available for others, as they themselves enjoy the help and support of the group when needed. Community life thus generates diverse obligations for the individuals inside it, who will have to return countless favors and take great care not to offend or neglect other community members, among other duties...
This is probably the reason why family businesses provide the traditional framework for the exercise of economic activities: being made up of close people who have a converging interest in making the business successful, a family venture indeed allows redirecting a maximum amount of resources towards people who share a strong bond.
However, the present-day necessity to keep public infrastructures (water and wastewater companies, power plants, fiscal administrations...) and industrial companies (mining and oil corporations, raw material transformation units...) running requires bringing employees from much broader horizons to work together. Quite obviously, the latter’s interest in making the organization successful will be much diluted...
It can also be useful to introduce the notion of "extended family", which goes together with community life in numerous African societies. While a nuclear family is organized around a father, a mother and their children, an extended family also closely associates uncles and aunts, nephews and nieces, cousins to its core members... It is also important to note that the very notion of "family" does not solely apply to connections by blood, but also to certain close social relations with which there is a strong relationship of trust – the notions of "uncles", aunts and "cousins" being often applied without any direct biological ties.
It is now time to observe that the competition between the interests of the company and those of the diverse communities its employees belong to, can give rise to countless malfunctions.
The impact of community life on the functioning of non-family corporations
It is indeed understandable that community life – with its vital role for the very survival of individuals – may threaten to encroach on corporate life. This observation may have led some observers to consider that "corporations represent a foreign body to Africa [...] a body that has never been fully accepted nor completely digested". (1)
And here is an example that seems to corroborate this point of view. The high rates of absenteeism caused by the obligation to attend the funerals of members of the "extended family" represent a reality innumerable companies have come to regard as a fact of life. For those concerned, a failure to fulfill this social duty on professional grounds can indeed be misinterpreted as an act of disdain towards the community and lead to a great loss in terms of social status – to such extent that even the threat of a dismissal can lack any dissuasive power!
Another aspect of this intrusion of community life into the operations of the organization is linked to the fact that the relations of subordination as stated in the organizational chart can be completely neutralized due to the importance of the interests that link employees to each other outside work. It can for example prove difficult to take action against employees who are frequently absent without justification and negotiating the application of certain norms and procedures may be time consuming. Indeed, using coercion against a member of one’s own community in a professional context may lead to retaliatory action against oneself and one’s close relations...
In addition to the absenteeism caused by funerals, the collusion between executives and employees at lower organizational levels may explain the fact that "time management – especially in relation to absenteeism – is regarded by numerous researchers as a key factor in explaining the low competitiveness of companies in Africa" (2).
It may also be noted that in many societies, the traditional importance of showing respect for the given word can make it difficult to control the enforcement of procedures that require written justifications. Let us consider the example of an employee who claims to have paid a certain amount in cash on behalf of the company, yet who cannot provide the corresponding receipt. If the systematic issue of an invoice is not part of the local culture, the employee in question may not understand why a proof of payment is required of him and perceive this demand as a sign of distrust. It would thus be useful to replace this practice into the context of standardized procedures the aims of which can be clearly explained – such as the keeping of books in accordance with the applicable law.
We will now review a few practices that may be implemented in order to prevent the Board from being short-circuited by the strong extraprofessional relationships that bind managers and their subordinates together at the lower echelons.
Beyond traditional structures: a few tips to adjust management practices to the African cultural framework
In a work published in 1998, M. Zadi Kessy, managing director of several Bouygues subsidiaries in the Ivory Coast, completely refuted the idea that "certain African cultural traits [would be] incompatible with the management of modern companies". (3)
In his book African culture and modern corporate management, he outlined diverse steps to be taken in order to allow decision-makers to exert direct control over their subordinates’ activity at all levels of the organization:
- Outlining and communicating an organizational charter of values which "ought not to remain a mere slogan aimed at illustrating an idealized vision of corporate life, [but rather] clarify the behavior expected from of each employee". Although this "charter" ought to reflect "the values underlying managerial policies", it will nevertheless be oriented towards the enforcement of procedures. Also, these procedures will have to be "clearly defined, understood, accepted by all and readily enforced, without perpetual questioning".
- Using internal training programs as a tool to gather the employees’ support for the "charter" and raise their awareness for the enforcement of procedures. The aim of this approach is "to meet a need for close supervision on the ground" rather than lead employees to develop new skills. It can therefore be useful to insist on the behaviors that are expected from them in clearly identified situations. Also, obtaining the group’s explicit approval of the procedures outlined by the organization can help mitigate the risk of their being questioned later on, as they will gain legitimacy.
- Implementing an individual notation system based on a detailed behavioral grid that refers to "moral values" and "traditions". Although Mr. Zadi Kessy did not provide any details regarding the contents of this grid, we can nevertheless mention that respect for elders, as a traditional value, can provide the ground for demanding from one’s younger subordinates that they follow the instructions. On the contrary, a young supervisor may be confronted in many cases to a legitimacy deficit...
In his work, Mr. Zadi Kessy also insisted on the use of "feminizing certain positions", i.e. only entrusting certain roles to women (customer relationship management / internal controlling). The aim of this approach is to ease the defusing of potential conflicts and support the enforcement of procedures by men without their starting an argument or trying to negotiate. Indeed, according to him, women are naturally "more respectful" of established rules and men do not like entering a negotiating process with them "for psychological reasons".
Finally, the idea of cultivating some kind of ethnic diversity, by being careful to mix employees from distinct communities can provide some insights on how to mitigate the interferences between the company’s interests and those of the managers in charge of enforcing its policies and procedures.