DO EXECUTIVES REALLY WANT FEEDBACK? © Duncan Graham 2007
Memo: All managers:
"Do not copy US management texts. Write your own. Put advice in the context of Indonesian case studies. Local solutions can only come out of local cases." David Schrieber, consultant.
Schrieber, a former University of Wisconsin (US) professor of business administration and economics who has been involved with Indonesia for 37 years, knows well that management systems developed overseas don't always travel well.
A template solution that might work in the Western world could make a bad fit in Indonesia, particularly when the issue is personal.
"In many cases when consultants are called in they find that the problem is the CEO," he said during a visit to Malang, East Java "That can make for difficulties if not handled well.
"A consultant should be hired to tell the company something that it has chosen not to hear till then. There has to be a clear identification – and acceptance - of the problem. There has to be mutual understanding – without that you have nothing.
"No-one likes to be accused of being incompetent, but if the problem person isn't included in the solution you're wasting time. Consultants have to be aware of the culture and the protocols. Managers can take offence at advice – their egos get in the way."
Schrieber, who is now a human resources consultant with the non-profit overseas voluntary aid organization ACDI-VOCA, first came to Indonesia in 1970. He was sent on a Ford Foundation program to help upgrade courses and teaching in faculties of economics and business.
He spent one year at the University of Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta, and the second at the University of Indonesia in Jakarta.
Although he'd undertaken a three-month Indonesian language and culture course in the US before flying to Yogya, he found his learning of little use because the language on campus was Javanese.
The other shock was the lack of facilities, resources and staff. The few books in the library were 20 years out of date and could not be borrowed. He was supposed to be helping the 40 academics but few could be found.
"I discovered that a university qualification in Indonesia gave status, but not money," he said. "Staff came, delivered a lecture and left for jobs elsewhere. There was no relationship between staff and students."
It was a critical test for the new consultant. As a Westerner he found the idea of paying staff members to upgrade their skills distasteful – yet realized those who attended his seminars would be losing income to do so. However the Ford Foundation hadn't allocated funds for this purpose.
He also learned that many academics teaching business had no experience of the outside world; in those days students were too shy to challenge the credentials and competence of their superiors.
Schrieber, who spent ten years with General Electric before turning to teaching and advising, commented wryly: "Texts can't be teachers."
In Jakarta he found UI slightly better prepared, though again staffers were busy with off-campus jobs, often with the government in senior ministerial offices.
Since then Schrieber has returned to Indonesia on programs funded by the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. He's worked at state universities in Semarang (Central Java), Pontianak (Kalimantan) and Padang (Sumatra).
He's also been a consultant in Africa, Russia and South America.
"When I completed my first assignment in Indonesia I said progress could not be made until decentralization was introduced," he said. "If you depend on the center you make bad decisions. That's a truth everywhere.
"The changes in Indonesia in teaching business and economics have been impressive. Academics have learned that simple memorization is not the point of education and that just reading notes to students is ineffective.
"A lot of good management is common sense. It's delegating to the lowest possible level in the organization. Managers have to trust their people to make decisions by themselves.
"This requires a system of giving those people the skills and resources to do what's asked. That doesn't necessarily mean having a degree.
"Having a degree is no guarantee that you'll get a job, but it does increase your odds.
"Good management is using your human resources properly, having open communication and strategic planning.
"This means sitting back and asking: Who are our customers? What do they want, and are we satisfying their needs? If we didn't exist, would they care? Are we doing any good? Do we have values that are worthy?
"I define open communication as managers spending as much time listening as they do talking, and that the process has to be ongoing. Management has to be circular, not linear, so decisions are made and passed on – they don't just drop off the end."
During his career Schrieber has discovered many aspects of human nature. We might ask for feed-back, but most of us don't really want to hear nasty comments about ourselves and the way we do things – even when we know it's for our own good.
Ironically the funding bodies that have sent Schrieber to 12 different countries also fall into this category. His recommendations that projects have some continuity and allow for participants to maintain contact have been largely ignored. "Aid projects tend to be one-shot affairs," he said
He also learned that employees can be hostile to outside consultants and not prepared to be honest about their difficulties. It's the: 'If it ain't broke, why fix it?' syndrome.'
The locals are happy with the way things are and don't want their effectiveness challenged or their cozy practices disturbed. They're unwilling to take the risks of trying something different, even though it might boost profits and expand the company.
"The great thing about Indonesia now is that learning is in the air," Schrieber said. "Campuses are less hierarchical. There's more of a worldview in universities and businesses. Administrators realize the role of a university is to teach students how to think."
Schrieber, 80, still makes regular visits to East Java with his wife Janet, and maintains contact with university colleagues. The couple's daughter Karen has married a famous Malang dalang (puppet master), Soleh Adi Pramono, and has become a celebrated pesinden (woman singer in a gamelan orchestra.)
Does Indonesia still need outside consultants? Schrieber, normally quick on the trigger with his replies, took time to answer: "If it's at the request of Indonesians, yes.
"Consultants can't be imposed from outside and must be conscious of cultural differences. A good business consultant helps people confront themselves and find their own solutions.
"As consultants we have the means and processes which can help you know how you can grow."
(Firs published in The Jakarta Post 2 April 07)