Tuesday, January 20, 2009

HR Woes

Anyone who has worked at the Base of the Pyramid can tell you that human resources is a major challenge. Recruiting and retaining good talent can be a nightmare and has major implications for how fast (or slow) a social business can scale. I am faced with these issues every day in my work as an Acumen Fund Fellow with Micro Drip , an irrigation solutions company that focuses on poor farmers in Pakistan.

Micro Drip has been searching for over a year for a competent Operations Manager. Most candidates are either extremely over or under-qualified. As a social business, we simply cannot compete with large multi-national corporations in terms of salary and benefits. Our plight provides further evidence to the gap at middle management that is often present in developing countries.

Recently, I helped develop a start-of-year workshop that was designed to rally the company around a new Vision & Mission and build a feeling of belonging & teamwork (Video). As part of the three-day event, we introduced a strategic task list to help strengthen the company’s foundation in preparation for further expansion. Each employee was assigned at least one strategic task with which they were supposed to outline a logical sequence of steps to complete the task, along with an estimate for how much time each step would take. Yesterday, I reviewed the tasks in detail with several key managers and requested that they jointly create a sequence of steps necessary to complete one of the tasks. I was amazed when they were unable to do it unassisted. After about an hour of coaching the managers through the process, we arrived at a logical plan. It is not that these gentlemen aren’t intelligent, quite the contrary. I attribute their inability to complete the task at hand to two main factors: (1) Traditional Pakistani education system, and (2) A “Yes Boss” culture.

In the traditional Pakistani schooling system, there is often a stronger affinity for rote learning, discipline and respect for authority. In most classrooms in the country, critical thinking skills and problem solving skills are new concepts. This can lead to dependency on superiors in the work environment. Some of the more prestigious schools do embrace independent thinking as a critical concept to teach students, but these schools primarily cater to the elite.

Pakistan is a very hierarchical society. Many bosses in hierarchical cultures simply want to give orders and have their direct reports follow their plans to the letter. They encourage a “Yes Boss” culture in which employees never voice a dissenting opinion. This poses particular problems in Micro Drip, as we are a small company with limited resources. We need capable employees who can think for themselves without having to be guided every step of the way. Ultimately, our company will be stronger if different points of view are better represented, irrespective of where they come from in the organization.

At Micro Drip, we are committed to helping develop our employees to better themselves, but the verdict is still out on how long it will take to introduce a culture of problem solving. We must begin now to think on how we will retain our talent, because once our employees reach a higher level of professionalism, they will be a scarce commodity in an underserved human resources market.

Joel Montgomery

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Monday, January 19, 2009

A Team in Three Days

Last week, I helped conduct a start-of-year workshop to help Micro Drip clarify its Vision, Mission, & Values. This video has some footage from the experience.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Instantaneous Parties

Living with a family here in Pakistan has truly been a blessing. It’s given me such a unique perspective into the real Pakistani culture. One particular behavior that I have noticed is that instantaneous parties occur on a regular basis. Often times, I will be sitting at home in jeans and a t-shirt and all of a sudden nicely dressed friends or relatives start to appear as if on cue. Magically, mounds of food appear out of the kitchen that usually just feeds three. I’m the only one who seems to not be in tune with whatever frequency is advertising these impromptu gatherings. Over the past few months, I have learned to look for clues that may indicate that an instantaneous party is imminent… bouquets of flowers on the table, dinner not being served before 9:00pm, and the appearance of random children that I have never seen before are all tell-tale signs. The more I think I understand Pakistani culture, the more I realize that there are a lot of subtleties that I am only beginning to see.

Joel Montgomery

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Life in Pakistan for an American is just plain different. Of course I’ve known this ever since I arrived almost two months back, but it became more real to me on a recent visit to Singapore during the last week of December. Suddenly, I was able to walk wherever I wanted, wear whatever I wanted, and relax my guard. In Pakistan, I live 500m away from work and yet no one wants me to walk, but in Singapore, I walked all over the city and even biked over 50 kilometers. In Pakistan, I don’t drive outside of Karachi after dark, while in Singapore, I traveled extensively after dark. In Pakistan, I stay confined to two districts of the city, but in Singapore, we explored every nook and cranny of the island nation.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t feel scared living in Pakistan. Precautions are just a fact of life.

Joel Montgomery

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