Posts Tagged 'work'

mongolian grasslands

The recent Nobel Laureate in Economic Sciences is a woman (one of the two, rather), which is unique in its own right.  But more exciting, much of her work centers around the proper management of the commons, which is an important issue in Mongolia today.  Fittingly, that work involved Mongolian grasslands, demonstrating that locally-based, community management is more effective than both privatization and socialism.

policy training

As part of my work with OSF, I have been assisting with the policy fellowship.  The fellows are all affiliated with NGOs or universities for the most part, and have little to no experience with public policy.  Thus, part of the fellowship’s objective is to allow the fellows to become familiar with policy analysis and research, through the pursuit of their own policy study project.

I can’t speak for the fellows, but I am definitely learning a lot. Having to teach concepts requires a person to really delve into a topic and learn a lot about it. We have a lot of words in English that we use interchangeably but that have distinct meanings.  When communicating in English, we can gloss over these specific and non-specific definitions. But when te words need to be translated into another language their usage needs to be precise and clear. Add the complication of Mongolian having far fewer words, and I”ve never had to think so hard about basic words like “fact”, “assumption”, “problem”, etc. The other major thing I’ve learned is one that every training facilitator learns – group dynamics makes or or breaks the workshop. And the trainers’ role is to ensure that cohesion is found quickly.

Now put these together – group dynamic and translation issues – and you have my situation – facilitating a training in a language I don’t speak on a topic with a lot of universal elements that are strongly contextual.

For the most, I’d say we were successful, in surprising ways. The activities on argument and analysis worked better than expected, given that the examples were taken almost verbatim from the GRE.  At the last minute, I removed the game “2 truths and a lie”, only to have the fellows ask to play it. So we did, and not only did they enjoy it but they understood the point immediately. And even better, they picked up on subtexts in another exercise, intuitively getting the point, which leads me to wonder if critical thinking does not need to be extensively taught, but just encouraged to emerge.

In other news, I am undergoing a spur-of-the-moment apartment move and have recently returned from the countryside, so expect pictures of Western Mongolia once I’m resettled.

cultural divides

I’m back in the office again for a few weeks before heading west for the eagle festival.   While in town, I’m working to develop a policy training session that will last 3 days.  The Policy Fellows are heading into the home stretch of their research, having completed almost all of their data collection.  The key now is to focus on turning that data into policy, constructing logical arguments, and generating policy alternatives.  So, for 3 days, we will review the steps of policy analysis and spend some time with some one-on-one work (hopefully outside the city in a national park).

I’m currently working on developing some training exercises for this workshop.  Day 1, we basically modified activities from a training manual created by LGI.  For Day 2, though, we’d like to spend a little more time working on translating data into effective arguments.  I’ve been searching around for some ideas, and have decided to turn one activity into a re-hash of everyone’s favorite exercise – the Analyzing an Argument writing section from the GRE.  It’s a pretty good example of using facts vs assumptions, plus what to do about missing data.   But I’m having one slight issue.

Until you leave the US, you never realize how US-centric we really are.  There is almost nothing universal about American culture, except perhaps that it is so pervasive that people in other countries are already somewhat exposed.  But so many institutionalized cultural elements are taken for granted, and in reviewing the Argument topics on the GRE page, it occurs to me that part of our isolationist attitude is already embedded in our education system.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – obviously, some things are distinctly American and, for example, someone interested in domestic issues benefits greatly from being well-versed in these areas.  But I must have reviewed over 100 topics before I found 3 that I could modify for the Mongolian context.  Foreign students taking the GRE are at a major disadvantage here for applying to American schools.

Would it be difficult to universalize this section of the GRE, and for that matter, any other part of our educational system that creates a distinct advantage or home-grown students?  Would it be useful or beneficial?  Politically expedient? Do we like our uniquely American system?  And how does it work the other way?  Are our students too Americanized?  I find sometimes that Americans have a harder time adjusting here than expats and visitors from other countries.  Is that tied into our education system too?

art of the cross-sell

I’ve been out of the city for a few weeks (posts to follow), hence the quiet around here lately.   But now I’m back in the city, and after this weekend’s flurry of goodbye parties, I hope to really buckle down and clear off the lingering items on my to-do list.  At least for a few weeks, before my brothers arrive and the whirlwind starts again.

Being back in the office is a secret relief.  While I love traveling and experiencing new things, the office routine is a bit comforting.  Of course I say this now, and in 3 weeks I’ll be itching to head out again. But currently, OSF is working on their strategic plan, and this is the sort of thing I enjoy doing – the brainstorming and big picturing that goes behind making a 2-year plan.   It is fascinating to watch their progress on this, and offer my insights based on my experiences with American organizations and non-profits.

Today, we had an enlightening conversation about the word “cross sell”.  I was asked to explain it, so I gave the superficial definition – just the idea of selling a second related product to a customer after a successful first sale.  But, because it seems a bit odd that we have a term and a concept for something so mundane, I tried to get more into the “why” of the word.  Which is where things got tough, because so much of language is related to culture, or at least a way of expressing culture.

See, the cross-sell is more than just selling a second or third product.  It’s about adding value to a product for the consumer, and about customer retention and building a relationship.  The cross-sell isn’t just for the purposes of unloading more crap onto your willing customer, though our American penchance for buying more crap makes it a bit easier.

My Mongolian colleagues understood the idea of add-on “deals”, but the psychology behind the transaction was a little bit lost.  Our service-oriented, consumerist, capitalist culture has yet to make inroads here in Mongolia.  While competitiveness is a newly burgeoning concept here, it has yet to establish itself into the national psyche.  And free-market economics, driver of competitiveness, which essentially drives the need for service and relationship-building, is still on the fringe.

So the idea of being sold a motorcycle, and then being offered the helmet at a lower cost makes sense, of course, from the consumer point of view.  But thinking about this from the business point of view is something of a new experience for Mongolians.  It’s the reason why sellers won’t go below a specific price, even if it means losing the sale entirely and having to hold on to inventory far longer than necessary.  It’s also the reason why restaurants operate with only half of their menu items, and no one seems to be bothered. And it’s the reason why buying a bottle of wine is often more expensive than buying 4-6 glasses of wine (interestingly, it’s cheaper to buy 0.5 L of beer, vs 2 0.33 L mugs of beer).

I imagine this is all rapidly changing from a Mongolian perspective, but from my perspective, where I take these things for granted, it seems excruciatingly slow. In the meantime, I have to settle for paying for my wine a glass at a time, and feeling no loyalty towards the  businesses I frequent.

the working life

It occurs to me that there are a lot of posts here about parties and horseback riding and other frivolous adventures, but not much about my daily activities. Mostly, that is because on a semi-regular basis, I actually work, and that isn’t all that exciting to write about (or read).  But for the purposes of explaining life here in Mongolia, here’s a post on work.

I work with the Open Society Forum, which is part of the Soros Open Society Institute network.  The network is an amazing model – while initially each country office was a subsidiary of the main office in New York, eventually each branch spins off to become semi- or even fully autonomous.  Yet, each office in-country retains its contacts in other countries (and New York), providing a web of organizations each with a common purpose.

In Mongolia, OSF operates in a number of sectors, including economic, fiscal, environmental, and social welfare policy.  In addition, election monitoring and anti-corruption are other important areas in which OSF has a vested interest. On a regular basis, OSF staff work in these fields, often collaborating with Parliament, and local and foreign NGOs, as well as other organizations in the OSI network.

My role at OSF is somewhat undefined. I am, of course, here to do my own research.  But at the same time, I have certain expertise that can be useful for them, particularly in terms of methodology.  Our American educational system places a high value on problem solving and critical analysis skills, and Mongolia is still heavily invested in the Soviet model (aka, rote memorization).  So one skill I bring that is useful is a clear understanding of analysis and methodology in research.  Which is beneficial, because OSF currently has a cohort of policy fellows in dire need of some training.

Policy analysis is by no means a difficult field, but without a foundation in the type of thinking that is promoted in our educational system, it can be difficult for students educated here to step outside the system and delve into analysis and synthesis.  So I’ve been working on a training manual for the fellows – just a simple pamphlet outlining the steps in a policy analysis, as well as some brief information on various data collection techniques.   I’ve also been working on developing a private blog to share thoughts and provide critique on some of the documents the fellows are sending in (first step: proper explanation of a literature review).  In this case, it seems clear that the policy fellowship serves two purposes: one is civil society engagement in political processes, and the second is training for the fellows in critical analysis.

Of course my other role at OSF is rather simple – I am the de facto yoga instructor.  It is actually quite a lot of fun, and I do appreciate a weekly committment to my yoga practice.  Ideally, it will help me maintain my own home practice as well.    Other than that, I am also available to edit English documents and help put together a newsletter.  I am also working on setting up a system for producing podcasts.

I am, in other words, a policy analysis expert, methodology trainer, yoga instructor, and new media specialist.

As for life in the office, I have it good.  The staff cook lunch every day, so I get to eat freshly homemade Mongolian food (way better than restaurant food by a mile). Of course, it also requires dropping the vegetarian pretense, which frankly has not bothered me here.  Knowing that my meat is not industrially produced but instead is raised and slaughtered in a traditional manner means I’m not violating any major principles that led me to being a vegetarian in the first place. I meet my awesome friend Dave every so often for lunch – he helps keep me sane and fills me in on all things post-Soviet political. We also tend to eat veg….

And that is working in Mongolia in a nutshell.  I am also here to do my own research which is slowly coalescing.  More on that, soon enough.

In the meantime, as part of a longer (perhaps lifetime?) project, I’ve set up another blog.  It starts here in Mongolia and will branch out…  And will be looking for guest bloggers!