Bringing Workplace Training to Rural Myanmar

The first Hub cohort receives course completion certificates in Yangon on April 28.

Since Seongkyul Park joined Proximity School in early 2016, one of her focuses has been finding ways to bring creative workplace learning to the growing number of staff who are sparsely located across Myanmar. A year and a half later, she tells the story of the very first Hub installment — the strengths, the struggles, and how it came to be.

Trainees connect with colleagues from different Business Units and field offices around the country. They immerse in vibrant feedback sessions after solving cross-team challenges, leading role play activities, or discussing case studies. Team members wrestle with tough conversations about how to break through the Burmese “anah-deh culture*” to improve communication within the workplace.

After four months of applied learning in the field, training participants will gather in Yangon for the closing ceremony , as they did at the end of this past April , reignited with ideas on how to work better together for Proximity’s customers — the smallholder farmers in Myanmar.

What is Learning Hub? Learning Hub is the newly-designed core competency training program offered to the 600-plus Proximity field staff around the country. Previously, Proximity School provided one training each year during an intensive week in Yangon. But in 2016, we started identifying gaps such system posed for a fast-growing social enterprise like us.

The most visible drawback was the Yangon-centric nature of the training. Considering we are an organization with 80 percent of our staff working outside of Yangon and in close proximity to farmers, we recognized the need to rehouse the professional learning sites in the backyards of the field staff.

Content wise, providing a week of training on a hodgepodge of subjects led to a fragmented learning experience, with the absence of a larger narrative of what all the learning was building up to. And while the former training incorporated workshops and seminars, there was little follow-up on whether the learning had made any difference. It also became clear that one week a year was simply not enough for the field staff to learn, retain, and apply ambitious technical and soft skills needed to perform confidently, and transition into leadership roles within the organization.

A group of field managers and staff discuss the topic of workplace feedback during a pilot training course.

After considering these needs and compiling insight from months of interviews with business unit leaders, field managers and field staff, Proximity School team drew up a sketch for a more agile learning experience for the workplace. Then came months of prototyping, remodeling and adding more members to the School team. In January 2017, we officially launched Proximity Learning Hub.

The Learning Hub Model is based on the idea that learning works better for busy adults if it is experiential, collaborative and integrated into the learner’s daily work challenges and long-term career goals — none of which matters if learning is not, at first, accessible. Located at seven branch offices around the country, the strategic placement of Hubs ensures that any of our field staff can reach the training in less than four hours of travel time, instead of the 24-hour-plus journey previously required to reach Yangon.

Yamin Myo Nyunt, Head of Proximity School, facilitates the final review session that wraps up the course.

Refashioned into a year-round four-month program, Hubs offer courses that target core competency skills identified by teams as high priority — including mindsets, communication skills, and problem solving. Participants take these courses in progression through thematic “Tracks” or course packages. Each of the courses also enhances participants’ critical thinking skills, cross-team collaboration, and Proximity’s value-based attitudes and behaviors.

For our adult learning methodology, we drew inspiration from the “70:20:10 leadership development model” — 10 percent of learning happens in the classroom, 20 percent through peer-to-peer coaching, and 70 percent on the job. For Hubs, this means the bulk of the learning happens outside of the classroom. Self-selected participants, capped at 25 per Hub, attend two days of training each month. They then spend a month applying their newly-acquired tools on the job. When they return to the Hub for the following month’s course, they debrief their experiences with peers before moving on to the next module. This process is repeated three more times.

To wrap up the four-month experience, all participants come to Yangon at the end of each track to identify future roadblocks, create personalized action plans and be formally recognized by Team Leaders for their commitment to learn and grow.

The Hub trainings are further complemented by the newly designed comprehensive manager trainings for both field and Yangon managers, who are equipped to coach and create office cultures conducive to changing behaviors. The system also emphasizes two-way learning, by recruiting in-house volunteer trainers with diverse Proximity experiences. These trainers can then be challenged to grow in the process of sharing their expertise.

Why are we doing all of this? Because our field staff are at the heart of our Learning Hub program — they are the Extension Officers, Loan Officers, Sales Representatives, and other support staff — the frontline heroes of Proximity who make our mission possible. When we think of field staff, we don’t just see folks who are preoccupied with meeting monthly targets or implementing projects initiated in Yangon. We see leaders, creative problem solvers, hardworking empathizers, from whom we expect game changing ideas starting day one.

No matter that many of them, with or without college degrees, were educated through rote-learning in schools weakened by decades of military rule. No matter that some of them arrive to Proximity without the full set of professional skills. That’s where the School comes in, with the goal of engaging staff, equipping them with tools to succeed, to become leaders, and to find passion and purpose in what they do every day.

None of this came easily. Many creative brains, from in and outside of the School team, came together to make this new learning program possible. Thanks to the Proximity family, in the first installment, we’ve enhanced the quality of curriculum and trainers, refined logistical processes, and strengthened feedback loops among three business units, ten in-house trainers and 15–30 field offices per business unit. We also strove for managers’ active involvement throughout the process to accelerate growth and engagement in staff.

Regional Manager Ko Aung Moe (left) awards the completion certificate to the participating field staff.

Of course, we have a lot more to learn. Looking forward, the School Team will develop leadership programs and explore digital learning platforms that can facilitate learning for the 1,000 staff members Proximity will employ by the end of 2018. Are we overwhelmed? Not when considering how much our field staff accomplish every day towards improving the lives of rural farmers and empowering Myanmar’s rural communities.

*Anah-deh is a Burmese word that refers to the sentiment of not wanting to cause others inconvenience due to one’s own words or actions. In the workplace, this sentiment often results in not taking initiative, not speaking up when something goes wrong, or refraining from giving feedback or proposing ideas to more senior employees.

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