Alfaisal UniversitySocial impact through international collaboration

Social impact through international collaboration

The 21st-century university can change the world but needs networks of collaboration to do so. Alfaisal University’s work with the World Economic Forum on the Global Competitiveness Report has transformed the institution, positioning it as an engine for Saudi economic development and business competitiveness

Collaboration should be central to any higher education institution’s strategy for increasing social impact. Internally, a university’s research power and knowledge base can help develop a suite of solutions to tackle society’s problems, but acting with partner institutions can be a multiplier for impact. 

At Alfaisal University, Mohammed Kafaji, director of quality assurance and accreditation, heads up a team that works with the World Economic Forum (WEF) to produce the Global Competitiveness Report, a collaboration that Kafaji believes has a positive impact locally, nationally and internationally.

“We are a not-for-profit university with a great ambitious mission to generate societal impact. One aspect of this mission is to help communities and businesses” Kafaji says. “We don’t want to be just another university with a pure knowledge-based education system – although we do great on that as well. We also want to produce an impact to make a sense of our existence.”

Compiled annually, the WEF’s Global Competitiveness Report ranks some 140 participating nations’ economies based on their ability to attract foreign investors. “The higher the rank, the more visibility of the country globally, and the more attractive it will be to serious foreign investors,” says Kafaji, who has managed Alfaisal’s WEF collaboration for the past seven years.

Much of the work is data-driven, with Kafaji managing teams based in the Saudi cities of Dammam, Jeddah and Riyadh, performing site visits to ensure his teams are compliant with WEF criteria. Kafaji develops a sampling frame in compliance with WEF criteria to pull data from four core sectors of the Saudi economic landscape: industry, non-industry, services and agriculture. 

The WEF’s computational models are informed by hard and soft data sets. The hard data sets are published by each nation’s economy and can include data on GDP, population, healthcare, crime, the strength of banking and financial sectors, education and diversity. While this data offers a broad outline of economic activity, the soft data sets paint a more detailed picture. Here, an element of subjectivity is introduced to the process of data gathering, as companies themselves are surveyed. This is one of the areas where Kafaji and his team get involved, coordinating the surveys and processing the data.

“There are over a hundred factors, or indicators, classified into four main themes or categories,” he says. “Some in the environment to identify underpinning economic activities – basically how do we do business? Some in human capital – how do we educate and manage our workforce with social production schemes? Some in the actual market – how efficient is our market to allocate resources for development and stability? And some on our innovation ecosystem – how we further enhance the market through the adoption of innovative technologies. In gathering business data, we try as much as we can to be objective, but people will also be influenced by what they see, how they do business, and how they interact with others. So, there is an element of subjectivity in this soft data.” Kafaji’s sampling frame includes companies of all sizes, from those with just 10 employees to those with more than 1,000 on the payroll, geographically dispersed, and from four key business sectors. Respondents are all pooled from the surveyed company’s executive staff.

The data tell researchers a lot. Because of the pandemic, in 2020 the WEF chose to publish a special edition of the Global Competitiveness Report that offered a trend analysis for the past decade, reflecting on the pandemic response and the lessons learned. “Every economy received their data to work on, which for us as statisticians is a great opportunity,” Kafaji says. “We love to understand how the economy works and what the market dynamics are. We got the data, which was very useful, and we could do some trend analysis as well as some referential statistics and time series work.”

Kafaji expects the results of the 2023 report will once more be hugely instructive, offering a clear picture of the market dynamics in Saudi Arabia and its economy – information that gives stakeholders across the country a better idea of what competitiveness in the 21st century looks like. For Kafaji, this competitiveness rests upon innovation and using technology to both rationalise business processes and create new markets. 

“It will help organisations to learn more about competitiveness and how the market dynamics impact their position in that competitiveness spectrum,” Kafaji says. “They will benefit by being more competitive in multiple ways. Some of those might be improving their innovation, adoption of the latest technologies, improving the processes and services and effectiveness of work. All these innovations will eventually feed back to their clients resulting in customer satisfaction improvement”

Furthermore, Kafaji sees competitiveness as a driver of standards nationally, helping companies standardise how they work to attract inward investment, and globally, with open markets creating a dynamic economic environment that rewards entrepreneurship. “When other companies come into the market and the market is opened to investors, local investors, local companies, local entrepreneurs have to match. They have to develop themselves otherwise they won’t have a place in the market,” he says. “Together, they will help to create new jobs, improve the GDP per capita, improve the standard of living, create new products, and compete with stronger economies.” 

Alfaisal University’s collaboration with the WEF has created new avenues for collaboration in other areas such as gender equality, education, risk management and telecommunications. It is also consistent with the university’s broader impact strategy, which includes the pursuit of accreditation from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. “We tie what we do for the World Economic Forum [with our pursuit of] accreditation to further enhance our societal impact,” says Kafaji. The WEF project also led to the foundation of the Alfaisal Competitiveness Consultancy Unit, a unique centre providing integrated consultancy services to support economic development, diversity and sustainability. 

Find out more about the Alfaisal Competitiveness Consultancy Unit.

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