The following is an account from Steve Coyle, a U.S. citizen living in Malaysia and working for Malaysia-based ServiceWinners International. Coyle and his training team provided supervisory and sales development training to employees of a mobile phone operator in Kabul late last year.
Training in Afghanistan may not be for everyone, but for our training team, it was an exhilarating experience. The team from our company consisted of myself, Dalwi Lee Wei Keat, a Malaysian of Chinese descent and Jude Louis, a Malaysian of Indian descent. The chance to train in Afghanistan presented itself right after two of our trainers survived the Dec. 26, 2004, Asian tsunami on Penang Island, Malaysia. After that experience, training employees at Telecom Development Company Afghanistan in Kabul sounded doable.
The learning environment in Kabul was more diverse than usual. As trainers, we were aware of multiple dynamics within the classroom. For example, some women felt uncomfortable sitting next to men. Also, taking a group photo is de rigueur in our home base of Malaysia, but in Afghanistan, it was a totally different story.
Afghanistan is comprised of multiple ethnic groups. We had Pashtuns, Hazaras, Uzbeks and Tajiks in our classroom. These ethnic lines are further sub-divided by religious sects. Our client had Sunni and Shia Muslim employees. Then, the learners were further sub-divided by clans. Besides the local ethnic and religious groups, each of our workshops contained a few ex-pats who came from Algeria, France, Canada and India.
There were other differences within the classroom—some learners had prejudices against those who fled the country to escape the wars. They were considered undeserving of good positions in the company, whereas those who fled considered themselves better educated and in possession of more valuable work experience than those who stayed behind.
There were age divisions. Our client's workforce consisted primarily of those in their late teens to early 20s since most of the middle-age population has been decimated by wars. Some older staff in a traditional society like Afghanistan had difficulty working for a supervisor in his or her late teens who was educated in Pakistan and spoke fluent English.
There was also a gender imbalance in the classroom; 80 percent of the learners were male. During the Taliban era, women were forbidden to work. As a result, women lack English-language and business skills.
Although the learners come from diverse backgrounds, it was refreshing to see that they considered themselves Afghans first. They were proud of their nation and genuinely wanted to better themselves both for their own good and the good of their nation.
The Afghan learners were like sponges. They were eager to learn as much as possible. They cornered you at breaks, lunch and after work to learn from you. The training coordinators advised us that running the sessions during the weekends was acceptable as this is the first "modern" training many of the learners had ever received.
Conducting a training needs analysis (TNA) is important in any training assignment; however, it's critical when training in developing countries. We had been in contact with the client months before the actual training took place. In addition, we flew to Kabul for a week to determine the client's training needs. The on-site TNA showed us what e-mail could not. It was invaluable to truly understand their skill level and fears.
Our TNA took us out of town to discover the client's sales style and processes. We also interviewed the client's dealer channels. Our findings led us to completely revamp our supervisory and sales curricula. We could then create company-specific case studies, projects and role-plays.
Our supervisory curriculum consisted of three stages: basic (five days), intermediate (three days) and advanced (three days). The client found that a typical supervisory program conducted by a training franchise using thick English- language manuals supported by Western videos would have failed for this audience's unique requirements. Instead, the client decided on our regional training house. We kept the content simple and instead focused more heavily on project work and class activities.
The goal of the basic supervisory program was to give the learners an overview of why people work in organizations and to answer some fundamental questions: What is an organization? How do people work together in an office environment? What motivates people? The primary focus was on self-development and an introduction to business life.
Building on the basic program, the goal of the intermediate program was to practice key supervisory skills such as delegation, problem solving, time management and leading teams. The primary focus was on staff development.
The goal of the advanced program was to practice basic selling skills, presentation skills and how to be a change agent within the organization. The primary focus was on improving their skills relating to peers and supervisors—basically to allow them to "shine" within their organization.
Per-capita income in Afghanistan is low, and life is tough. These conditions foster a scarcity mentality within the society that enters the classroom. For example, when we offered small tokens as prizes for best project work (a practice common in Southeast Asia), the learners were extremely keen to win. They perceived the value of the tokens far higher than other Asian learners we have trained. Competition sometimes got a bit out of control in the group work activities with some groups criticizing each other's group to win a token. They thrived on recognition from the trainers and wanted us to say which group was better.
The learning environment is fairly traditional. Afghans expect to be called on by the "teachers." As trainers, we are taught that adults are responsible for their own learning, but in Afghanistan the learners complained if we didn't call on or volunteer those who weren't participating. They wanted the whole group to be involved. We also found that generally the wallflowers, although stressed when called upon, liked the opportunity to be forced to participate.