Case Study: Ooredoo
Author: Philip Heijmans
Bringing strong HR practice to Myanmar is daunting – but it’s a chance to do something revolutionary, says Ooredoo’s Myo Than
Late last year, the sense of anticipation was palpable in Myanmar ahead of the country’s most democratic elections in more than half a century. For an entire generation, it marked the first time they could vote – and today, with a new government taking its seats for the first time, that sense of hope is briskly transforming what was once southeast Asia’s most closed-off country.
But the task of integrating Myanmar with the rest of the world isn’t purely a political matter. Both multinationals and local businesses are feeling their way as they transform the country’s 51.4 million people from an isolated but curious population into a global workforce capable of developing a technology-enabled future market.
It is a challenge that relies on the people acumen of the likes of Myo Than, part of the first cohort of business leaders who have cut their teeth abroad and are now dedicating themselves to jump-starting Myanmar’s threadbare economy. “The change will be gradual,” says Myo Than, director of talent development at Ooredoo Myanmar, one of two foreign telecoms giants that broke a decades-long government monopoly with a national rollout of mobile phone coverage last year. “Next year will be the start of a new direction for this country.”
Myo Than returned to the country after decades abroad – most recently as a corporate trainer in Thailand and working in L&D in the Cambodian hospitality sector – to oversee the training and development of Ooredoo’s largely local staff, headquartered in Yangon and currently numbering 900, but expanding rapidly.
His principal problem is how to help employees, most of them newcomers to the industry and in many cases to a corporate environment, to sell and manage a service most people hadn’t even imagined until recently. The simple process of calling customers for marketing or operational purposes can seem extremely difficult when most of the country isn’t used to receiving a phone call.
The answer to this conundrum is more than a theory – it’s a mantra. “People-focused, people-centric,” says Myo Than, with the confidence of a man who has seen his HR philosophy tried and tested during periods in Egypt, Australia and Russia, among others. The best way to grow a team with long-term ambitions for the acquisitive Qatari-owned operator, he says, is to ensure that staff feel thoroughly engaged with what they are doing.
Ooredoo is committed to training its employees to international standards, at a cost of more than $1 million, or 3 per cent of its payroll, each year. Naturally, that includes a wealth of training programmes, but the business’s principal differentiator as an employer is that it offers the opportunity to grow. “This is how you make adjustments in people. We try to borrow these concepts to help a manager become a leader,” says Myo Than. “Manager is a position – leader is not a position, it is a role. You have to prove that you are a leader; you have to walk the talk. I want people to be passionate about the training. Don’t undertake training for no reason or because your boss told you to.”
Plenty of Myo Than’s ideas must seem left-field to the more sheltered members of his workforce – but he insists that having the opportunity to try new ideas without being beholden to a corporate legacy can only be a positive. Take his use of personality testing: almost unheard of in Myanmar, he believes it has opened up a wave of self-knowledge among employees, and boosted performance.
The HR team, meanwhile, employs Dave Ulrich’s ‘outside in’ system to become a genuine business partner and move beyond the purely transactional (Myo Than has also partnered with the CIPD to help build HR competencies). And all staff sign pseudo contracts in which they agree that their training and development opportunities will be applied in their everyday work.
The result, he hopes, is that employees will seek out their own development opportunities – and that they will display initiative rather than waiting to be told what to do. “You don’t need an appraisal, you need feedback every day,” says Myo Than. “Don’t wait until something blows up.”
Even so, all the training in the world cannot control a talent market that is rapidly overheating, with potentially dire consequences. “Whoever receives training by Ooredoo, these are the people [other firms] want to hire,” says Myo Than. The business often has to effectively outbid competitors to keep its own employees. The financial services sector is hungry for the type of talent Ooredoo is cultivating and, with almost every business in Yangon experiencing attrition of at least 10 per cent, it can seem a losing game to keep your best staff.
“Local employees have an expectation of overnight success,” says Myo Than. But he is relaxed about such attitudes, preferring to work with those who want to grow rather than those who chase the highest bidder.
And then there is the issue of helping Myanmar’s largely inexperienced workforce become accustomed to the everyday conventions of corporate life: “It’s a little cultural thing. I talk to people, look them in the eyes and say: ‘Hi, how are you?’ People don’t do this: they will bump into each other on the street and ignore each other.”
Fixing these issues could be a full-time job in itself. But Myo Than is equally focused on the employees of the future: Ooredoo is currently working with local universities to design open internship programmes that will help local students bridge the gap between education and work, and enter the corporate world with more realistic expectations and a greater degree of preparedness.
Until then, Myo Than will continue to build an effective, people-centric, HR-led culture from the ground up. And if he is daunted by the scale of his task, he knows what’s important, he says: “As long as you focus on the people you work with, recognise how important they are and take care of them, you’ll succeed.”
Size of the Myanmarese workforce; unemployment currently stands at around 4 per cent, according to the World Bank
Overall literacy rate in Myanmar, which compares favourably with neighbouring countries such as Laos (79.9 per cent) and India (72.1 per cent)