Tag Archives: Digital Divide Data

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.

 

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.

The thrill of releasing untapped potential: An alternative come-from for social enterprise.

As I get more and more familiar with the non-profit space, I’m becoming more aware of a way in which my core motivation for being in the field seems to be in the minority. Let me explain.

A typical description of the motivation for non-profit causes can be found in the classic SSIR article Social Enterprise: the Case for Definition by Roger Martin and Sally Osberg. About half-way into the article they lay out a very well-articulated three-part definition for social enterprise. It was the first part of the definition that really caught my attention and pushed me to think about what energizes me about social enterprise.

Part one of their definition is as follows:

We define social entrepreneurship as having the following three components:

(1)    identifying a stable but inherently unjust equilibrium that causes the exclusion, marginalization, or suffering of a segment of humanity that lacks the financial means or political clout to achieve any transformative benefit on its own;

It was the word “unjust” that I reacted to. Underneath the word “unjust” I project that there needs to be a villain who is intentionally creating this justice, and a victim who bears the weight of this injustice. And I’m sure that there are many situations where this is clearly the core dynamic that’s going on.

However I propose to you that there are also a number of other important situations where poverty is happening because of less intentional and less nefarious circumstances. Furthermore I propose that the angry energy that often goes hand in hand with social justice isn’t the only way to bring about change.

In fact I speculate that in some situations, a come-from based on anger would make it that much more difficult to hear and understand all players, making negotiation difficult. Thus it’s critical to size up a situation and consider “which frame will best serve this challenge?”

So I think it’s very fair for somebody to push me on this with, “okay so if social justice isn’t what motivates you, what is?” To put it very simply, what excites me is untapped potential. I believe that in these populations of impoverished people, there is a lot of hidden talent and capability. One can look at India for example, and how in spite of the many challenges, a lot of talent bubbles up into the information economy. It gets me thinking about what untapped talent there must be in rural Cambodia.

Along these lines there is a very exciting idea in the field of talent development which says that a person’s innate ability to manage complexity is something that is deeply embedded in them—as deeply embedded as their eventually height. But even if someone hasn’t had much education, nor have they had much work experience, their inner capability to manage complexity will continue to develop as they age, and will be ready to go when the opportunity arises.

So if this idea is true, it means that there is this gold mine of talent sitting within underdeveloped countries like Cambodia. These people simply need guidance, best practices, and opportunities in order to take their rightful place on the world stage and play in the global economy.

Granted, I’m not saying that every farmer out in the countryside is going to become an amazing programmer or a world-class project coordinator. This isn’t the case in any country. But I am saying that there are some kids out there who absolutely have the potential to do fantastic things on a global scale. If we can identify these people and we can get them on the path to entering the world stage, then they can transform their own lives, the communities which they come from, and the countries within which they live. That is incredibly exciting to me. And in fact this is precisely what DDD is doing in Battambang, Cambodia.

Thus while for some people the social injustice frame is a motivating one, for me personally I find the untapped potential frame to be thrilling and motivating. I have nobody to save, I have nobody to rescue. I simply want to go out and find people who are my intellectual peers, and help them get to where they belong on the world stage.

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.