December 4, 2009 1 Comment
I first met Ian Bromage while he was doing volunteer work teaching ISO9000 theory in Mongolia with the United Nations Volunteers. Having learned he was now working in Vietnam, I was very happy to have an opportunity to meet with him, and talk about his experiences and work since leaving Mongolia. We met in Hanoi at the Hilton Hanoi Opera on 2 December 2009.
Pacific-Tier: Today we have Ian Bromage, Organization Effectiveness Advisor with the Voluntary Services Overseas/VSO, part of the UK government. Hello Ian! How are you doing tonight?
Pacific-Tier: Why don’t you give us a little about your background – how did you get to Hanoi?
Ian Bromage: Well, my background really is in telecoms, I worked for British Telecom for a very long period of time. But a few years back I decided I wanted to do something different, so I went and did some traveling, and then went to work in Mongolia as a small business advisor for the United Nations Volunteers/UNV.
Then I really got the development bug, I went back to the UK and did some further studying, and decided I wanted to go abroad again, and that’s how I ended up in Vietnam, Hanoi, with the Voluntary Service Overseas. And I’m thoroughly enjoying my time here so far.
Pacific-Tier: That’s very interesting. Going from a corporate environment to a volunteer environment, primarily outside of your home country. What is the incentive, and what is the interest to take you outside of your own country, work in developing areas like Mongolia, Vietnam, or emerging economies?
Ian Bromage: Really I guess I’ve always enjoyed traveling, and it’s been a fascination with different cultures – that’s one of the key motivators. And I think you get an entirely different experience working in a country abroad than you get as a tourist. You get to know the people more, you get to know the issues more, and I enjoy working as a volunteer. Both because I quite like the ethos of giving up my time to help others, but also because I do actually just enjoy it.
So being a volunteer isn’t about being a martyr or suffering, or anything like that – it’s nice to have a good experience as well.
Pacific-Tier: That’s great. Having many years with a company like British Telecom, it does give you a lot of organizational expertise, a lot of training, a lot of tacit knowledge and experience that is impossible to get through school. And you’re turning that into a product you can deliver today to your Vietnamese counterparts. How do the Vietnamese themselves respond to your mentoring and direction, are they what you expect?
Ian Bromage: yes, and I certainly enjoy working with them, and alongside them, and I think it is important to emphasize the fact it is working with them, not managing them. I here to help, I am not here to direct their organization.
I think you mentioned the word “tacit knowledge,” and I think that’s the key. I think we forget how ingrained things are in our culture, like meeting deadlines, like planning things in a certain way. Things are done differently here. Some of those things are very good, and some of those things need to change if the organization is going to be effective, if they are going to meet their objectives from both their donors who are giving them their money (if they’re talking of the NGO sector), and more importantly their beneficiaries that they’re trying to help.
Pacific-Tier: That’s very interesting. You mentioned the NGOs, so we’ll drill into that in just a moment. But even with the NGOs, or governmental organizations, you’re starting up a new organization, you are starting up a new way of doing things, that could roughly be parallel to commercial startups, or entrepreneurs… What is the entrepreneurial spirit of the people in Hanoi, are they excited about what you are doing with them?
Ian Bromage: yes, I believe so. I think in general in Hanoi, I think you can see there is a huge entrepreneurial spirit. I mean you look at the streets, and there isn’t a bit of space that hasn’t been turned over to some sort of private enterprise. So that entrepreneurial spirit is definitely there, and in the NGO sector, that (the entrepreneurial spirit) is there too.
There is a lot of competition for resources, a lot of NGOs are operating in the same space. That brings advantages of competition, they have to be effective, do what they do well to survive, which is an ongoing concern. It also brings problems in the fact it causes a lot of fragmentation. Sometimes I think the organizations cloud learn to collaborate with each other better, and to work better together to see the advantages to working towards common goals.
Pacific-Tier: You’ve been primarily in a mentor’s role. Have you learned anything, either Mongolia or Vietnam, have you learned anything (yourself) by being in the countries?
Ian Bromage: To be patient is certainly one of the skills you learn in a developing country. You realize sometimes that people’s values are different from your own. Sometimes you learn the importance of family relationships and familiar are often more important than the relationships at work. I think that is something we could probably learn.
For example, where I work at the moment, everyone sits down to lunch together. They make sure they all have their lunch, then eat together. There’s a lot of conversation, there’s a lot of jokes, that is very different from the environment I come from where so often these days people just grab a sandwich, eat at their desks, get to their work and don’t speak with other people.
Pacific-Tier: We do need to sit back sometimes and understand that we have to balance our lives a little bit as well. So how long do you expect to stay in Vietnam?
Ian Bromage: My assignment is for two years, so it is a very good, long period. I’ve been here for three months so far. I think that two years does allo0w you to develop those relationships and develop trust with people. And as some things take a lot longer you have that time and space that makes you able to put processes and procedures in place and watch those take shape, which you can’t do in a short consultancy where you are just coming in to fix a particular problem.
Pacific-Tier: have you found your calling now, or do you find yourself slipping back into the corporate world at any time in the future?
Ian Bromage: I would like to continue to work in the developing (nation) field. I think there are aspects of the corporate world that I miss, but I think I could find those in the development arena as well. So I don’t see myself going back into the private sector in Western Europe.
Pacific-Tier: It’s a very big world. Mongolia and Vietnam are only two countries. With your experience there’s probably a lot of other places you can go. Will you continue to work with organizations such as the Volunteer Services Overseas, or do you see doing this as a commercial enterprise? What do you see in the future, or are you just living day-to-day now?
Ian Bromage: I would like to do a mix of work, I think, in the future. I would certainly like to continue work with NGOs. I would certainly like to work at, what is termed the grass-roots level. But I would also like to get involved with policy work, and other aspect of work with governments and things. So I’d quite like to develop a range of skills, and have a mix of opportunities to be able to move up and down at different levels and move across in different regions or geographic areas.
But we’ll see. Who knows what the future holds!
Pacific-Tier: We normally talk about entrepreneurship in this series. Working with a lot of young people today in Vietnam, and formerly ion Mongolia, do you have any advice for any UK, or American, or Vietnamese, or any other developing countries where young people are jumping into the market. Do you have any advice for them as entrepreneurs?
Ian Bromage: Well I think the key thing is to always look at fresh approaches to come up with new ideas. And that’s not just in the technical field in terms of inventions and things. It’s to look at new approaches to social problems, look at new techniques, look beyond your world, look at the way other people do things. Try to travel and experience other cultures.
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes – I think that’s very key. Everybody makes mistakes. You need to learn from them, and move on. So I think that’s a very important skill for young people to have. Not to be disappointed when things don’t turn out the way they expect them to.
Pacific-Tier: I would agree. I think that taking the risk and moving ahead is probably the best training somebody can get. You can’t pay for the training you get when you make an error, or if you have a failure in our plan, it’s the best training you can get.
Any other final worlds for people who may be listening to you from Hanoi?
Ian Bromage: Well if they are listening from Hanoi, I am thoroughly enjoying my stay here. I think it’s a great place, it’s an exciting place, it’s a fast moving place, I’m really enjoying it and I am looking forward to spending the next couple years here.
If anybody wants to come and visit Hanoi, I would thoroughly recommend it.
Pacific-Tier: Well thank you very much, and I sincerely hope that someday you will be able to take the time and do a few guest blogs for us.
You can listen to the entire audio interview at Pacific Tier