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Striving for high performance in South Africa: the case of De Beers Marine

1. Introduction

During the latest crisis and recession, interest in creating high performance organizations (HPOs) has been growing in countries all over the world. South Africa is no exception to this and South African managers have been looking into practices that will help them elevate organizational performance. However, there seems to be a shortage of high performance studies conducted in Africa and South Africa in particular (Hoskisson et al., 2000; Horwitz et al., 2002). A recent overview of high performance studies (de Waal, 2010) showed that only one such a study was conducted in Africa, in Zimbabwe (Khumalo, 2001). It examined seven industrial companies which were each the best financial performers in their industry. The study results showed that excellent companies in Zimbabwe had a participatory style of management, communicated with all levels of employees, promoted from within, trained their employees, emphasized the product of quality products and services, showed concern for others (for example by participating in community programmes), placed high value on customers, and rewarded good work. The overview study by de Waal (2010) yielded three other high performance studies in which South African organizations were part of a larger, multinational. Unfortunately, the research results were not specified for South African organizations (Khanna and Palepu, 2006; Stuart-Kotze, 2006; Gostick and Elton, 2007).

Other studies that were found focused only on a limited number of aspects of excellence in South African organizations. Turner et al. (2000) surveyed the extent of ISO 9000 certification among South African organizations and looked at the benefits that these quality assurance standards brought these firms. Struwig and Smith (2002) looked at the relationship between organizational culture and strategy formulation in South African organizations. Gaylard et al. (2005) identified the most important variables for retaining South African information technology workers as their turnover has negative consequences for their employing companies. Spangenberg and Theron (2005) developed, based on Delphi research with South African managers, a model that defines and describes leadership behaviour required for creating an ethical and high performing organisation. Prinsloo et al. (2007) evaluated the effect of incentives on interfunctional relations in South African organizations. Serfontein et al. (2009) looked at the factors that helped a South African company transform, after a crisis, into a high performing entrepreneurial unit of a larger corporate environment. Finally, Fontannaz and Oosthuizen (2007) developed a conceptual framework to guide organisational development in the South African context. It concerned a meta-analytical study of existing research, in-depth qualitative interviews and pilot testing of the so-called Performance ESP Index. This index (based on Execution, Strategy and People) provides a composite measure of the multi-faceted stakeholder view of organisational performance, and provides a diagnostic tool to assess the existence of an execution culture to address the challenge of complexity. However, it is not clear from the article whether the Index was actually tested in South African organizations and therefore its validity for the South African context cannot be established.

The above shows that there was a need for academically grounded high performance research performed in the South African context. The study described in this article has used the High Performance Organization (HPO) Framework (de Waal, 2008, 2010), which is an empirically validated framework based on worldwide collected data. It was expected that this framework could be used in the South African context as earlier Western management practices and techniques had been transferred successfully to South African organizations (Horwitz, 2002; Oosthuizen, 2005), and in addition the HPO Framework had already been applied successfully in the Tanzanian context (de Waal and Chachage, 2010). It is important to evaluate whether the HPO Framework is useful in the South African context, as previous research has shown that South African organizations with above-average output performance were the ones that had adapted global best practices successfully (Oosthuizen, 2005), Furthermore, it is important to
know which adaptations to the framework are needed to make it suited to the South African context (Iguisi, 2009). Proving that the HPO Framework can be applied successfully at South African organizations will make it possible for other South African organizations to achieve a sustainable increase in their performance when also using the HPO Framework (de Waal, 2010). Consequently, the research question of this study was as follows: Can the HPO Framework be applied in the South African context and with that help improve performance at South African organizations?

The article is structured as follows:

  • Section 2 provides a brief overview of the theoretical foundation of the HPO Framework which was used.
  • Section 3 describes the case company at which the HPO Framework was applied, De Beers Marine (DBM).
  • This is followed in Section 4 by a description of the research approach.
  • Section 5 discusses the research results.
  • In Section 6 the actions of DBM following the HPO research are described.
  • The article closes in Section 7 with a brief discussion and mentioning of the opportunities for further research.

The research described in this article constitutes one of the first studies into the determining factors of sustainable high performance in South Africa and as such, it adds to the strategic management literature by showing that the HPO concept can be applied in South Africa to identify elements of sustainable high performance in South African organisations.

Download the full research paper ‘Striving for high performance in South Africa: the case of De Beers Marine’ by dr. André de Waal in PDF.

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