Providing advice in an intercultural context

Development workers work in an intercultural context. Therefore, they frequently need to tailor how they impart knowledge to local customs and traditions. Meike Wischmann, an HR and organisational development expert who worked in Laos, gives us the inside track.

In 2007, the Participatory Development Training Centre (PADETC) in Laos found that it lacked the organisational skills to meet demand for its courses. It therefore requested the assignment of a German development worker specialised in organisational and management consulting. Meike Wischmann was assigned to assist PADETC. She tells us how she approached this task and about the highlights of her work there.

Since 1996, the Participatory Development Training Center (PADETC) has been working to improve education and reduce poverty in rural areas of Laos. 'Development must come from within – this is a key part of our mandate,' stresses PADETC's director Sombath Somphone. 'We work at the grassroots level. Our Lao staff have built up a strong network nationwide. We work closely with the target group, adopting a holistic approach,' he explains.

In fact, PADETC has already trained more than 200,000 young people in 16 provinces, and set up a large number of youth groups throughout Laos. Its work in the area of rural development is groundbreaking. By the time PADETC requested assistance, its staff was already involved in community development, demonstrating agricultural technologies and helping to deal with environmental and health problems.

Development workers are also there to learn

At the start of any project, an advisor needs to learn on the job. Sombath Somphone believes that advisors must be able to build a relationship of trust. This skill is just as important as sectoral expertise or an ability to adopt a professional approach. At the outset, development workers must invest time in getting to know their partners as peers and in building a sound working relationship with them. It is important to 'break the ice', eliminate cultural barriers and build bridges based on understanding and respect. Focusing on technical aspects alone will simply not work, he believes, as the human dimension is lacking.

There were some teething problems to start. PADETC had never worked with an internal advisor before and were unsure where to start. The director and senior managers seemed very busy. So a decision was made to start me out in the administrative division. That was a stroke of good luck, as it allowed me to be hands-on and to get to know my colleagues. It helped both sides to eliminate misconceptions and build a strong working relationship.

Identifying where change needs to happen

Advisory services will only be successful if there is demand for them. In other words, there must be a true desire to introduce changes along with a certain pressure to implement them. I helped out by providing support where the pressure was greatest. The administrative division was tasked with drafting job descriptions at short notice. As I have a background in HR, I offered to help the person responsible. I firstly obtained a mandate to interview the relevant managers and staff. This allowed me to forge contacts, find out the information I required and identify needs. My support was not only greatly valued, I succeeded in breaking the ice. Suddenly even the director had more time for me, even though he was snowed under with work.

In many discussions on organisational development, ideas were proposed, problems analysed and action items identified. Using mind maps and cartoons to illustrate my analyses, we were able to reflect on images and structures together. This allowed me to glean valuable information, get a better idea of the context and help PADETC identify bottlenecks. We then set up a routine, weekly meeting with all senior managers to nail down plans and held a strategy development workshop.

PADETC's strategy involved pooling expertise and decentralising projects and activity areas. The aim was to have 10 learning and training centres – each focusing on a specialist area – offering training courses and services by 2012. PADETC had already established a successful organic farm in the south of Laos that was regarded as an example of best practice. The farm offers in-situ training courses and demonstrates a wide range of organic cultivation methods for a broad target audience.

Senior management gave the plans their full backing, but time was of the essence. The managers and senior staff in the learning centres needed assistance in building a wide range of managerial skills to ensure the project was a success.

Defining advisory objectives and tasks

So, after six months at PADETC, I had a better idea of what I was expected to achieve and the advice I needed to attain these objectives. I advised HR managers and coached HR staff in carrying out their tasks. As a process advisor, I worked on the organisational development steps together with senior managers and steered ongoing changes. As a coach and HRD expert, I took on responsibility for providing on-the-job training in the areas of management and leadership to new senior staff at the centres.

Although I am an experienced trainer, I did find working with the learning culture in Laos particularly challenging. It was up to me to develop methods that facilitate continuous learning, application and change. In consultation with senior management, I designed monthly training days to interlink organisational and staff development. We assessed progress routinely using feedback loops and decided what further action was required.

I had to tailor my German training strategies and methods to a significant degree to the local environment. The Lao participants were a lot more visual and activity-oriented than their German counterparts. They needed to see and feel the learning experience. I therefore developed audiovisual material such as photographs, mind maps that revolve around a central theme, management cartoons, role plays and plays to clarify and reinforce abstract management concepts. I focused on the direct implementation of management techniques and instruments. Participants took what they learned at the first session, applied it at their workplace and then reported back on their experiences at the next training day. Thanks to the positive dynamics between the centre managers in the group, there was a very constructive and intense learning atmosphere. Over a period of one year, we reflected on the lessons learned using close-knit learning loops. As a result, the training days had more of an 'on-the-job' coaching format. We established that the only way to safeguard learning and capacity building in the long term was to adopt this holistic coaching method to transfer knowledge and develop proactive capacities. My background as a trainer and coach stood me in good stead in this context: professional preparation, implementation, follow-up and respectful communication are qualities that are not to be underestimated. They inspire others to follow suit.

I also adopted an approach of taking everyday skills that are part and parcel of day-to-day life in Laos – such as the ability to expertly organise religious festivals – and incorporating them into managerial tasks. We identified the skills needed in this context and transferred them to a project planning context.

Developing coherent management instruments and systems

Developing a vision is one thing, mobilising an entire workforce is another. We identified gaps in communication, in the transparency of processes and in managing staff.

During a process of reflection and discussion and learning-by-doing, PADETC looked at a number of professional management systems and set up its own in keeping with the organisational culture in Laos. Thanks to regular weekly meetings and harmonised planning and reporting procedures that are mainstreamed in a quarterly review, projects are now managed transparently and effectively.

Every three months, PADETC organises a quarterly review to identify the status of projects. Project managers report on progress over the previous three months, presenting the results achieved and describing any problems that may have been encountered along the way. The social element of these reviews is just as important, and they always involve a get-together over lunch, role plays or a field visit. The introduction of quarterly reviews has helped PADETC evolve into a 'learning organisation'. It has enabled managers to present what has been achieved to others, discuss any problems and jointly devise potential solutions. The quarterly review has become a meaningful ritual that builds a sense of community, generates positive energy and facilitates change.

Building process competence and paving the way for activities to be phased out

One of our tasks as a limited-term advisor to a partner organisation is to work towards and prepare for phasing out activities. We have to transfer the required expertise and skills to managers and staff within the partner organisation. I therefore compiled guidelines describing the 13 most successful methods and instruments that I used at PADETC. A series of drawings clearly depicts, step-by-step, how to successfully plan and set up monitoring and evaluation systems, provide feedback and write success stories. To facilitate learning we even produced videos for some instruments. Senior management and centre managers were trained to use the methods and now use their new skills in meetings and workshops.

The ten learning centres are now up and running and are offering training courses. They will consolidate their activities over time. Management structures, workflows and work processes have been harmonised to ensure transparency. As Sombath Somphone rightly says 'Development must come from within'. Advisors and coaches are merely agents. They provide motivation and an impetus for change.

A sustainability evaluation established that management instruments and systems should be 74% sustainable. The sense of ownership has increased significantly over the past three years, as have self-confidence and the strength of the bond between participants and PADETC. After three years of 'thinking outside the box', my assignment at PADETC finally came to an end. The unique relationship I built up with the organisation remains strong, however. 'Thinking outside the box' is no longer such a challenge. In fact, I now find it quite enjoyable.

Maike Wischmann is a personnel manager and HR and organisational development expert. She worked as a development worker in Laos from 2007 to 2010.

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