Monthly Archives: January 2012

An American working in Afghan Enterprise – Lessons & Thoughts

My three month anniversary has recently come to pass; to many abroad this may seem like a long duration in Afghanistan, although to most foreign aid/military in country I am still a new arrival.  Seemingly, it is more common to meet individuals that have been here for the long-term vs the short-term.  It seems people get used to being out here after a while, and it increasingly becomes the norm.  To be clear though,  I don’t think anyone wants to be here forever.  Personally speaking, homesickness subsided at approximately the two month point.  Since then, there’s been a direct focus on personal and professional development (without the distractions of DC social life).

There’s an age-old problem in the evolution of an enterprise: keeping your human resources up-to-speed with shifts and changes of the market, new technologies, resources, opportunities, etc.  Change is difficult but necessary to maintain a competitive edge in any market.  Old habits die hard, ingrained methodologies take time and labor to breakdown, analyze, and rebuild.  Any enterprise you will ever work for in your life, you will always notice (and probably complain) about archaic practices that are not in harmony with the “the way things are” – or how the market and practices have changed.  I noticed this at Reuters, I noticed this at IBM, and I’m seeing it in the Business Incubator.

Take the challenge of bringing a change in business practice (as enormous as it is) and compound a language barrier, a resource (monetary, or otherwise) barrier, a cultural compromise, and a less than ideal environment.  Let me clarify; cultural compromise meaning learning a new culture, understanding their norms and morés and adjusting your usual way of doing business to compliment the cultural standards – not work against them.  Less than ideal environment meaning conducting business training, seminars, and consulting services to both your Government clients and your business clients in an office building the size of an IBM suite in downtown DC.  With the same staff and business clientele, six days a week, many times 10-12 hours/day.

It is difficult, many times frustrating.  It’s an incredible opportunity for growth and an incredible test of patience.  It’s a fulfilling experience to see your assistance making a difference and but it’s a very powerful demotivating force to watch your efforts blatantly thrown aside and disregarded by the individual who you want to help.  It’s difficult to relate to human beings which exists in a completely different culture from your own, at the same time it’s incredible to see relationships develop across cultural barriers, sometimes so easily.  It’s difficult to consult for 7 companies, spanning a breadth of service offerings in an emerging industry within a struggling economy.

Noticing the overlaps and oxymorons?  That pretty much encapsulates the experience in a nutshell.  It’s a firework display of impatience, trial and error, hard work, and a challenge in creativity.

I sat across a meeting table from a COO, negotiating a multi-million dollar partnership between international organizations for a very large contract.  I’ve taught a handful of seminars to young entrepreneurs ranging from IT to Business Development.  I’ve watched highly demanded requests get thrown away after I’ve invested time in them, and I’ve seen minor actions on my part make a large difference.  I’ve networked with tens of NGO’s and local businesses desperately seeking opportunities for collaboration and a pipeline of entrepreneurs and opportunity for the Incubator.  I’ve negotiated with multi-nationals in attempts to appeal to their ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ side.  I’ve developed tons of business documents – for the sake of developing business documents (anyone in the corporate world knows what I’m talking about here).  I’ve had drastic growth from a number of angles due to trial by fire.  But I’ve also failed in innumerable ways due to lack of experience, lack of creativity, lack of motivation – whatever you want to call it.   I’m spattering experiences across a canvas in contrasting colors to give you a peek within this microcosm which is a Business Incubator in the middle of, technically, a war zone.

So what does it take to overcome the obstacles and implement long-standing change with the young entrepreneurs of Afghanistan?  Well, if I knew the answer – I’d be doing it.  To elaborate, I think it’s important to learn the lessons from NGO’s past instead of rebuilding the wheel each time a new NGO has a bright new concept for their development efforts.  I’ve seen first-hand ambitious newcomers fall victim to the reality of idea generation vs implementation.  As an example, I thought it may be a great idea to develop an A+ and Network+ training facility, however the Cisco Networking Academy which started in 2002, was at its’ peak around 2004, and has since been quite under the radar – I honestly cannot figure out if it has tanked or not… if so – perhaps it’s ominous for a program like the one I suggested.

I also think a wise strategy for any Afghan NGO or development oriented organization would be to begin a diesel fueled networking and collaboration campaign, in order to meet the organizations, network with the people, find opportunities for collaboration – and most importantly – learn lessons from failed attempts at whatever endeavor.  Too many times I feel organizations rebuild the wheel when we need to take a lesson from Computer Science… Create Open Source software, let others help you build it, make it modular, create an initial release and obtain feedback in order to build it moving forward.  etc.

I’m afraid as foreign funding begins to dwindle, many of the efforts, organizations, and endeavors which may have once been highly ambitious will crumble under a foundation which wasn’t built solid and had too many ill-thought out plans built above.  A deconstruction is necessary to evaluate what has made a difference and what hasn’t – based on that, a reconstruction of things that had a solid impact.

Finally

Carefully stepping through the dark army base dodging silhouettes of passers by, I looked up and saw what I had been anticipating since arrival here… a full moon illuminating a deep blue sea glittered with ivory. No clouds, no ambient light, you can see everything.

Considering coming back to the US next month, or the month after. Don’t quite know if I’m ready to end the adventure. I had a long discussion last night with one of the guys here on the compound, he’s been working in Jordan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and various places in Africa for the last 6 years, according to him, “I still have a lot to see – why go back?”