DR. MOHAMED BAKA

Abu Dhabi 2021 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Dr. Mohamed Baka, CEO of Centre of Excellence for Applied Research and Training (CERT), about dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, renewed demand for employment, and the importance of quick reactions.

Can you give an overview of your activities, and how is CERT addressing the challenges of today?

Like many organizations navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, we at CERT are cautiously working on our plans to ensure business continuity and transition to the new normal. The pandemic has taken the world by surprise and is shaping a new paradigm of the world economy. This hybrid paradigm has its merits and challenges. In pursuit of these insights, CERT is hosting a webinar series with thought leaders, policymakers, experts, and consultants to understand the evolving best practices and strategies for a resilient recovery. According to research, more than 80% of companies have planned or are planning to embed new ways of working, evidencing that the operation model for many educational institutions, will change. The study revealed that while one of the top priorities for organizations was to secure funds to meet their financial obligations, 40% of these organizations had not planned for their recovery. Further, a common unfinished priority was the review of the post-COVID-19 implications for their business models. In the learning & development industry, COVID-19 has been a significant paradigm shifter. The future of learning has become the present and we are all bound to adapt to a faster, more agile world in terms of ways of working, communicating, and delivering education solutions to our clients. Investments within the education technology (Ed tech) industry globally has risen to over USD10 billion as an indicative of how the application of digital solutions is central to the transition to new learning paradigms. Let us take, for instance, corporate and executive programs at international business schools, where the prospect of professional networking is a driver of enrollment. In an online learning model, this key feature becomes more challenging to accomplish, requiring a careful redesign of the learning experience. Interestingly, there is a perception that online learning cannot fully replicate the conventional environment and therefore some argue that institutions should reduce their tuition fees. Although CERT is a different in size in comparison to the global business schools, but we have embraced the paradigm shift, rethinking our model and transitioning to online platforms. We successfully launched the Menasati Online Platform, the first of its kind in the region for technical and professional workforce education. Menasati has been accepted well by our clients and partners, ensuring the continuity of impactful programs with Etihad Airways, ADNOC, and ENOC, to name a few. The Menasati initiative was in the works before the COVID-19 outbreak, and in some way this unprecedented situation urged for a faster roll-out of this learning solution. Menasati is a unique, multi-entity platform that goes beyond the typical learning management system (LMS) to include an integrated student information system (Menasati SIS) and a knowledge-sharing, coaching environment. When CERT transitioned to an online learning model, we made the conscious decision to remain loyal to our philosophy of continued learning to ensure that we provide the same personalized mentorship and guidance via our virtual classrooms as if the learners were on site. Learners have access to both bespoke and standardized content which is delivered by our expert faculty in virtual classrooms in synchronous or asynchronous manner. Through the Menasati platform CERT not only delivers corporate training, but also reaches out to the community through the Menasati CSR initiative, which offers a portfolio of 50 short courses free to the public. The Menasati CSR courses include self-development and professional development topics, aimed at increasing the readiness of educational institutions for the online environment. Our most popular courses are those related to counseling, self-management, and student support, which universities and schools can integrate into their curriculum, to help their learners make the transition to online classrooms successfully.

What is your method for curriculum and course selection, and has there been any change since the pandemic?

In the midst of the pandemic the first reaction of the entire market was to see what was happening with the evolution of COVID-19, before enrolling their employees in training programs. Thanks to the excellent relationships that we have built with our partner organizations, the enrolment commitments scheduled before the pandemic came through. CERT's ability to offer a wide selection of courses, in English and Arabic, as bespoke, customized, or standardized content, is a distinctive competency in the Training & Development industry, which is leveraging our resiliency. Our catalog comprises from technical qualifications such as Process Control, Aviation Engineering to Accounting, Finance, Leadership, Taxation, Employability and the emerging fields of Data science, Blockchain and AI. Our expert curriculum development teams, trainers, assessors and internal verifiers design, localize and customize course materials and programs to global standards, while keeping the bespoke nature of the content, specific to the organization, the sector and the group of learners. Since the pandemic, CERT's shift to online delivery required an orchestration of technology infrastructure, people, and processes. We launched a number of innovations in our Menasati platform, while remaining true to our roots of active learning. From pre-training assessments and competency mapping to delivery and quality assurance, we phased-in our transition to an online model. A pillar for success was our in-house capabilities: we counted on the expertise of our faculty team and curriculum developers with prior online instructional design and teaching experience to kick start the process. We deployed train-the-trainer sessions to bring all our faculty into a standardized approach. Our mentors and call centers communicated constantly with both students and their employers to address their technical questions. Our program management teams worked 24/7, constantly monitoring and evaluating our large scale programs, ensuring the deployment of course content and the agile scheduling of hundreds of classes across multiple sections in several emirates at a time. All our programs maintained their pre-training and post-training assessments, which were conducted online. We adapted content of traditional 4-hour on-site sessions into bite size segments, delivered online via five-minute videos, or via browser modules in synchronous or asynchronous manner. We made tutoring hours a priority, to ensure that learners could connect with their instructor at defined times in the day and have live virtual sessions for feedback. We infused our programs with guided projects, class activities, learner portfolios and assessments to measure performance of the learners, attainment of standards and specific organizational learning goals. The component of assessments (formative and summative) in all our programs is a key differentiator that our client organizations value highly.

In which areas do you see an increased and renewed demand for employment and skills?

COVID-19 has accelerated digital transformation across sectors and forced us to rethink how we prepare the workforce of the future to thrive in the new reality. In terms of employability the priorities will change as our world is changing, and the need for certain disciplines will be more pronounced than others. Studies about the labor market indicate that jobs in the medical, engineering, finance and IT were the least negatively impacted during the pandemic and a turnaround in hiring is expected starting the 2nd half of the year. It is quite certain that technology will continue to be a driving force to reckon with and that the future of work is now. The post-COVID workplace is more digitalized, flexible, with efficient remote work arrangements, strong employer branding, emphasis in the integration of life and work, and increased expectations of performance. Retaining or attracting a skilled digital workforce and creating truly productive digital workplaces should be on the top of the agenda of organizations. We are constantly taking the pulse of the market and aligning our strategies to national initiatives to spearhead capacity building. We cooperate with regulators and government bodies to ensure that our reskilling programs provide the tools needed by job seekers and new hires to gain resiliency in the new reality. As a Licensed Training Provider with ACTVET and a Registered Training Provider for the National Qualifications Authority (NQA) and for Foreign Awarding Bodies and Professional Organizations, we align our programs to the occupational and functional needs of the UAE. We continue to administer IELTS, OET and psychometric tests and technical tests in our Assessment centers across the nation, supporting organizations in their human capital decisions.

How are the public and private sectors performing, and what are the challenges or opportunities?

CERT's ties with industry are stronger than ever, and in an era of uncertainty, industry leaders are looking for reliable providers of services; budding entities with commonality of missions and a proven record of impact on performance. Our clients are leading organizations in the public and private sector with a priority for investment in human capital development. We are truly grateful for the positive response of the market, which continues to entrust us with their talent development and corporate training projects to assess, skill, re-skill and upskill their workforce. Our industry engagements continue to be as active as they were before the outbreak. Many industry partners seek advice and exchange ideas with our senior management team, especially when it comes to human capital management. The pre-COVID and post-COVID markets could not be more different. Organizations ought to use this time to build in-house capabilities, and invest in professional development of their employees so that when the market bounces back, they will be ready to maintain their competitive advantage. We are witnessing a growing number of requests from organizations looking to enhance their employer branding, to attract top talent and retain valuable employees. Through our data analytics services, we are able to provide insights into their recruitment process, removing all the logistical constraints of interviewing face-to-face, onboarding new talent, or training them for their effective transition to a remote workplace. COVID-19 forced us to adapt quickly with the resources at hand. Yet, looking at the long term, we can be more strategic in the planning of our organizational needs and the set-up of effective systems to track organizational performance. Most organizations request programs to prepare their H.R. and operations management teams to effectively implement and manage remote work environments in the long-run. Resilient organizations focus on strengthening the soft skills and leadership competencies of their teams, maximizing their ability to create, innovate, and thrive. For all those activities and services, our senior management and business development teams are in constant communication with the industry. Thanks to the trust that we garnered from our partners and clients, we can successfully navigate this crisis together. CERT is an agile, dynamic organization that can react quicker than the larger companies. While there will be uncertainties, we will surely deal with them through the strength of our organizational culture and our values, looking at the future through a lens of optimism.