Category Archives: Southeast Asia

How Understanding Market Power Can Multiply Social Impact

How can we prepare workers in social enterprises to continue to get good wages going forward, when they enter the open job market? To me, skills-based market power is the way to go.

So just what is this market power? It could come from a coordinated group action to limit competition and maintain higher wages. Or it could come from skill, where the workers have an uncommon ability to deliver value to the market.

Let’s consider this case of worker-based market power more carefully. If the worker’s skill is uncommon and valuable, then there’s truly a negotiation to be had with the employer. The employer needs the worker to deliver the product or service, and it isn’t easy to find enough qualified workers, thus workers are able to demand higher salaries, and the employers know that finding replacements will be tough, and so they value the working relationship more highly.

Now look at the case of employer market power. If the worker’s skill is easy to find then the employer will have a lot of people to draw on, and this will drive down the wage. To make matters worse, if the skill is not particularly valuable, the employer will tend to invest even less in the working relationship, and be more likely to engage in short-term employment arrangements. In other words, workers get the short end of the stick.

Consider the case of Friends International, that among other things trains disadvantaged youths to be cooks in restaurants. Being a savvy organization, they are acutely aware of the challenges that their employees face when they look to find their next job after working for Friends. And thus they strongly encourage their cooks to stay with Friends long enough to master both Cambodian cuisine, as well as Western cuisine, because they know that cooks who are competent at both are in much higher demand in the market. Rather than simply flooding the market with more “run of the mill” cooks who will lack market power, they create much greater social impact by training employees to that higher, harder to achieve level of skill.

Thus I propose that smart social enterprises must be aware of the dynamics of market power. They should consider how to orient their training and job opportunities towards professions where hard-working people who invest the time and effort can develop market power, and enjoy the benefits.

There’s hidden talent in those rice fields

Given the chance, what might he be capable of?

I recently wrote about DDD Battambang which is bringing IT jobs to rural Cambodia, a place traditionally known for farming. In response to this business, one could reasonably raise a concern about the talent pool. Will the people really be there to make such a business work, and furthermore will they have had sufficient experience and education to get up to speed?

These are certainly valid questions, and they bring to mind an important but relatively unknown book about talent written by a gentleman named Elliott Jacques. In his book Human Capability, Jacques makes a point which is of great interest to social enterprise. He states that one’s talent trajectory, for instance how far ability-wise one can get as a manager, is as intrinsic as one’s eventual height. That as long as a person isn’t malnourished or abused, their leadership talent will develop as they age, whether or not they have had education or leadership opportunities.

Thus in disadvantaged areas, we can expect that there are a number of undiscovered, under-leveraged people who could be doing great work on the global business stage, if they just had the opportunity. That even though they may not have had great education or work opportunities, their innate talent lies ready and waiting for action. This is great news for social enterprise, which faces a variety of challenges in competing with a normal for-profit company. The ready availability of such a talent pool can really make a social enterprise competitive in the market place.

When I was in Cambodia, I had the pleasure of meeting several people like this, who are talented, who hadn’t had good work opportunities before DDD, and who are very happy to have the opportunity to do global work in a rural setting near their families.

I believe there is great potential for a variety of other service delivery businesses to base in rural locations. It will take dedication, problem solving, and knowledge sharing to help move these efforts forward.

btw If you’re interested in learning more about the book “Human Capability,” check out my Amazon review that describes his unique way of identifying leadership talent.

From farmers to information workers: DDD Battambang brings IT jobs to the heartland

Rice farming in Cambodia

Potential information workers?

Last November I was in Battambang, Cambodia facilitating public speaking workshops for the local management staff of the local Digital Divide Data (DDD) office. Although DDD has several other offices, the Battambang office is the only one located in the countryside, and as such is very interesting from a development point of view.

Much of staff comes from the countryside, either around Battambang or from neighboring provinces, and thus grew up in a farming family. People from these backgrounds typically have limited employment options. They are faced with either continuing the family business in farming, finding a factory job, or moving away from family in search of employment. But for high achieving people these aren’t great options.

Furthermore my informal conversations revealed that farming just “ain’t what it used to be” in terms of its predictability and profitability as a business. Say what you will about climate change—the farmers are noticing changes that are directly impacting them, making farming a riskier and more complicated venture. Plus I have to wonder how lucrative small-scale, small investment farming can be on a sustainable basis, with farm products being sold more and more as a global market.

As I was travelling between Phnom Penh and Battambang I noticed a few factories along the way in rural areas. And yes, while factories are a way to employ a large number of people, they aren’t going to properly tap into the latent talent that is in the community, looking for an outlet.

And moving to the big city, while it may sound promising, is a decidedly mixed bag for many people. Consider that in a family oriented culture such as Cambodia, it’s particularly tough to leave family behind and move away to a big city where accommodation is expensive and where the traditional family safety net isn’t there. Nonetheless your smartest folks, who would be natural community and family leaders, will be that much more likely to move away from the countryside to the big city in search of employment opportunities. The result is a brain drain.

Now in this day and age of technology and remote working arrangements, in theory it ought to be possible to locate outsourcing centers in rural areas. There should be an opportunity to tap into attractive cost structures and a smart, motivated, untapped workforce.

But there are barriers to overcome. How would one jump-start the talent pool, in order to get such an organization off on the right foot? What special challenges would come up from training a rural workforce? And would international clients be comfortable trusting work to a location that was difficult to visit?

And yet one way or another, DDD Battambang has managed to overcome these hurdles and create a thriving rural BPO office in the countryside of Cambodia. It’s quiet, it’s peaceful, there’s fresh air. It’s a pleasant place to live.

I think this is just the beginning—rural BPO could have a big impact for many other places, and other services as well.

 

From farmers to information workers: DDD Battambang brings IT jobs to the heartland

Last November I was in Battambang, Cambodia facilitating public speaking workshops for the local management staff of the local Digital Divide Data (DDD) office. Although DDD has several other offices, the Battambang office is the only one located in the countryside, and as such is very interesting from a development point of view.

Much of staff comes from the countryside, either around Battambang or from neighboring provinces, and thus grew up in a farming family. People from these backgrounds typically have limited employment options. They are faced with either continuing the family business in farming, finding a factory job, or moving away from family in search of employment. But for high achieving people these aren’t great options.

Furthermore my informal conversations revealed that farming just “ain’t what it used to be” in terms of its predictability and profitability as a business. Say what you will about climate change—the farmers are noticing changes that are directly impacting them, making farming a riskier and more complicated venture. Plus I have to wonder how lucrative small scale, small investment farming can be on a sustainable basis, with farm products being sold more and more as a global market.

As I was travelling between Phnom Penh and Battambang I noticed a few factories along the way in rural areas. And yes, while factories are a way to employ a large number of people, they aren’t going to properly tap into the latent talent that is in the community, looking for an outlet.

And moving to the big city, while it may sound promising, is a decidedly mixed bag for many people. Consider that in a family-oriented culture such as Cambodia, it’s particularly tough to leave family behind and move away to a big city where accommodation is expensive and where the traditional family safety net isn’t there. Nonetheless your smartest folks, who would be natural community and family leaders, will be that much more likely to move away from the countryside to the big city in search of employment opportunities. The result is a brain drain.

Now in this day and age of technology and remote working arrangements, in theory it ought to be possible to locate outsourcing centers in rural areas. There should be an opportunity to tap into attractive cost structures and a smart, motivated, untapped workforce.

But there are barriers to overcome. How would one jump start the talent pool, in order to get such an organization off on the right foot? What special challenges would come up from training a rural workforce? And would international clients be comfortable trusting work to a location that was difficult to visit?

And yet one way or another, DDD Battambang has managed to overcome these hurdles and create a thriving rural BPO office in the countryside of Cambodia. It’s quiet, it’s peaceful, there’s fresh air. It’s a pleasant place to live.

I think this is just the beginning—rural BPO could have a big impact for many other places, and other services as well.

 

The social enterprise end game must be outplacement

Phnom Penh is home to several social enterprises. I’m very much enjoying visiting them, meeting people who work there, and thinking about how this handful of enterprises fits into the bigger picture of business in Phnom Penh.

It seems to me that the “start game” for social enterprise is much easier than the “end game.” In the start game we can hire people, train them, treat them well, pay them well—possibly out of line with general market pricing. We do this because we can, because we  believe it’s a good idea and more “profitable” for the society as a whole.

However assuming that the whole economy isn’t going to turn into a “social benefit economy,” but will continue to largely be driven by  bottom line profit, we need to consider a few things:

  • There will never be enough of these special opportunities to be trained by and work for social enterprises–demand will outstrip supply.
  • The end game for a social enterprise needs to basically be about outplacement. Although yes, there is some room in a social enterprise for internally developed management and leadership, that ought to be relative small compared to the much larger number of people moving through the organization.

But consider: if said employee couldn’t get a fair wage before going through a social enterprise’s program, what’s to say that they are going to be able to get a livable wage after? Thus smart social enterprises need to consider how they will set people up to have market power, to get a good wage, especially in a developing country where that can be hard to achieve.

I think that skills based market power is the way to go. Thus to the extent that these social enterprises in Cambodia can set up their workers to gain market power,their “outplacement” will be that much more successful for them.

What do you think? What else must a social enterprise consider in how it fits into the bigger picture of the broad world of business?

Helping Talent Bubble to the Top

I had the pleasure of meeting Socheat at Digital Divide Data. He joined DDD 9 years ago as an operator, and today as an HR assistant is clearly a DDD success story. I first got to know Socheat through his dedicated participation in the communications workshops that I led for the DDD Phnom Penh office. And it was on the way to visiting the home of Bunthy, a DDD operator, that Socheat told me of his journey to DDD.

Socheat’s parents, like many of his generation, were displaced by war and moved around several times. With the economy in tough shape, Socheat was sent to Phnom Penh to try to find work. And he did, as a security guard. His ease with people and responsible nature helped him land this job, which by chance was at an English school.

Now here’s the really interesting part. You might guess, correctly, that the security guard job at the English school was a key launching point for Socheat to learn English and one day join DDD. But what surprised me was that the other four security guards did not learn English—they played soccer while he was learning.

Every chance that he got, Socheat would look over the wall at the classroom and strain to hear as much as he could. He’d take notes and do his best to learn. Fortunately a kind teacher noticed his efforts and invited him to sit in on the class whenever he had a chance.

Socheat took on this opportunity with gusto, and pushed himself to learn and use new vocabulary, writing 7 sentences for 5 new words every day. And in so doing he laid the foundation for his future success.

One day Socheat heard about DDD from a friend—he didn’t know what they did, but heard they were hiring. Unfortunately he had been given the wrong address however he searched for four days until finally he found the office.

The rest, as they say, is history as Socheat rose through the organization into his current position as assistant HR manager. I can attest, as well, that his English now is great—it was a real treat to have him helping me on the home visit.

Now this story leaves me wondering, what is it about Socheat that made him different from the other guards, in his energy to study English and better himself?

Any ideas, about what makes some people like Socheat decide to rise above the crowd and distinguish themselves? If so, please share your thoughts in the comments section.

What motivates some to succeed academically?

Today I had a very unique opportunity to travel to a remote Cambodian village with Arun Sothea, Executive Director of Sovann Komar, an orphanage in Phnom Penh.

To get there we drove about 45 minutes outside of Phnom Penh, boarded a ferry that crossed a large river, went overland by motorbike another 10 minutes, took a small boat for another 15 minutes over seasonally flooded land, and finally drove another 10 minutes by motorbike. Needless to say I wasn’t clear at all where we were.

Arun was visiting families that he works with in various capacities, such as education and health, to see how they are doing and to hear their ideas of what they need in order to better their lives.

When we were boarding the small spot for the 15 minute ride, Arun informed me that when he was a child that boat service didn’t exist. However he needed to cross that water in order to get to school every day and so he *swam* to school. He said that the snakes and scorpions in the water weren’t so bothersome–it was the centipedes that would bite. OK so if you’ve heard the “when I was a kid I had to walk 5 miles in the snow uphill both ways” story then I think this one ups the ante.

So I couldn’t resist but to ask Arun “What motivated you to swim to school every day, and stick with it, when most of the kids dropped out?” And his reply made me laugh: “My relatives told me that I was too skinny to be a good farmer, and so I’d better study.” I can relate to that!

Arun continued on to say that he was told that his parents (who were killed in the Khmer Rouge regime) were smart, educated people, and so it made sense for him to also become educated. So here we have a similar story to DDD operator Bunthy’s story, where there is a “runs in the family” theme to education.

That makes me wonder–can family’s attitudes to the value of education be changed? If so, how? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Attitudes for Success Run in the Family

Today I had a very special opportunity to visit one of Digital Divide Data’s computer operators, Bunthy. He was hired by DDD out of CIST, which runs an IT training program for disadvantaged youths, and given further training by DDD in order to become a successful digitization operator at the Phnom Penh office.

Bunthy’s parents, like many people of their generation in Cambodia, had to move a lot in order to stay safe during the Khmer Rouge regime. As a result they ended up with no clear place to be, and no land. After living in a slum next to Boeung Kak Lake for several years, they were forced to leave when the land was sold to a developer. Fortunately they were eventually given a cash settlement to purchase land elsewhere and start over.

Now this is where it gets interesting. Bunthy’s father is a visionary. He could see the talent in his son, and he knew that in order to get ahead, he had to support his son through finishing high school. So in spite of the hardships, he took that long term view, and allowed Bunthy to continue studying rather than leaving school early to make money for the family.

And this investment has really started to pay off. After graduating from high school, Bunthy was accepted into CIST’s training program, and after that he was hired on by DDD to be a computer operator doing digitization work. And in just a couple of weeks, with DDD’s support he’ll be attending university to study business.

What’s even more fascinating is that this cycle of education is continuing in the family. Bunthy’s sister (seen in the picture holding a young neighbor) is being supported by Bunthy to stay in school, at his insistence, rather than going away to take a factory job as his relatives have suggested. “I want her to get a job where she uses her mind” he told me, “I don’t want her working in a factory.”

Bunthy has plans to help the family finish building their home, and then to start a side business from the home, selling consumer goods. He also has an idea to make soap for sale locally. His father works in construction, and his mother works across town selling beef kabobs that she makes. This is an enterprising family with a bright future.

What was so uplifting for me in visiting Bunthy’s home was seeing the hard work, smarts, ambition, and vision that Bunthy’s whole family holds. They “get it” as to why they should keep their kids in school, and they have the core attitudes for success. Indeed this is the type of family that I aim to support in my social enterprise work.