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Capitalism meets Khmer culture

Capitalism meets Khmer culture

A worker walks past crates filled with soft drinks at the Cambodia Beverage Company factory in Phnom Penh’s Russey Keo district.

A favourable investment climate, advantageous lab-our conditions and political stability continue to draw foreign companies to Cambodia.

Foreign firms comprised about 40 per cent of listed companies in the Kingdom last year – a growing figure that experts expect to heighten the demand for a highly skilled local workforce.

But a callow economy and a turbulent past mean Cambodia lacks the human resources many foreign companies require, experts say.

Cross-Ways, an Asia-based consulting firm, says the dearth of talent casts potential employment problems for international businesses setting up shop in the Kingdom.

Cross-Ways is attempting to tackle this problem head on.

“We want to show local employees how to behave in a Western work environment, which contradicts what they are used to,” managing director Hans Andersson told the Post last week.

“They are used to waiting to be told what to do, so they usually lack initiative, urgency, creativity and accountability.”

Cross-Ways had recently completed interviews with members of more than 50 international companies, non-government organisations and embassies in Phnom Penh to identify unique cross-cultural issues along with resolutions, Andersson said.

Problems, according to Andersson, include the Kingdom’s small population, relatively early stage of development and lack of experience in highly skilled positions. While the young age of the workforce can be benefic-ial, it sometimes means people can be over-promoted.

“The few that do have degrees, experience and language skills often get promoted too quickly to a higher level when they’re not necessarily the right person for the job, which leads to incompetence at management level,” Andersson said.

He added that a clear model had emerged showing that many of the behaviours and thinking patterns typical among most Asians are in direct conflict with significant Western business values, and are therefore blocking Cambodian nationals from achieving promotion in multinational firms.

Some Western managers and employment experts in the Kingdom, however, argue that the local workforce already has the capabilities to succeed within a multinational company at both ends of the employment scale, saying the main obstacles lie with the management.

Mona Tep, director of the Society of Human Resource Management and Productivity, an organisation that works with manufacturing industries to improve productivity and the skills of floor operators, said that although such issues were long-standing, it was primarily the responsibility of employers to resolve them.

“It’s a problem of mismanagement, a misperception from employer on employee regarding capacity of a workforce. But we have found that the local workforce is extremely capable of taking on new responsibilities, as long as they receive initial guidance.”

An increasing number of foreign factory managers were now realising the advantages of training local staff, such as increased productivity and reduced expenditure, Mona Tep said.

The organisation’s last survey had shown that about 70 per cent of previous clients had achieved promotions or wage increases since the training, predominantly within foreign companies, she added.  

Matthew Robinson, the executive producer of leading Cambodian film and video company Khmer Mekong Films, agreed that Western managers should bear the responsibility of cultural integration.

“The key is selecting the right staff. The manager should make sure they have sufficient education and be prepared to motivate them,” the English film producer said.

Since Khmer Mekong Films was formed six years ago, Robertson has constructed a highly skilled staff force “which are probably the country’s top workers in their field” through spec-ialised training and sheer determinat-ion of the staff. He has also had to adjust, however.

“There was obviously the language barrier to overcome, and conflict resolution is very different here. But I feel like we’ve adapted to each other – met in the middle,” Robertson said, adding that the Cambodian workforce would continue improving with the necess-ary attitude and resources.

Cross-Ways' survey suggested that the relative lack of highly skilled labour in the Kingdom restricts increases to the national average wage, although HR Inc Cambodia managing director Sandra D’Amico said equilibrium was gradually being achieved.   

“There are an increasing number of skilled people in the market, and a large number of people developing up the career value chain,’’ DÁmico said.

“I think it’s fair to say that around five years back, we saw the lack of skilled people having a significant impact on salaries. However, that is beginning to level out.’’

Still, D’Amico agreed that skill shortages for technical and senior positions remained, often resulting in rapid promotion, higher wages and a lack of experience.

“Those that tend to get a promotion by jumping jobs usually miss out on gaining a collective experience that consolidates their knowledge, learning and skills as in their new role.

“They’re expected to function at a management level, something they might not have done previously.”

Although restricted skill resources could potentially limit Cambodia’s ability to “move up the value chain and do more value-added services and work”, international investors should consider the broader environment and opportunities, D’Amico said.

With the cultural gap closing and the Ministry of Commerce’s estimate that more than 1,000 of the 2,572 businesses granted licences in 2010 were foreign, there seems to be no foreseeable decline to the number of multinational firms flocking to Cambodia to capitalise on its young, enthusiastic labour force, as well as  the other benefits on offer to investors.


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