Written by Professor Andrew Hupert
I’ve spent the last 20 years working with successful management teams and top business schools in Asian financial centers like Shanghai, Taipei, Hong Kong, Bangkok, and now Hanoi. My main focus is professional skills development. I help international teams manage the challenges of cross-border leadership and negotiation successfully – and profitably.
At the invitation of VietnamBusiness.TV, I’m excited to be able to share my observations about the evolution of training and development in Vietnam as the nation emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic and begins taking on a higher-profile leadership role in SE Asian trade and business.
Organizations in Vietnam are going to have to start devoting more time, money, and managerial bandwidth to Learning & Development (L&D) in general, and professional skills training in particular. Even before the global Covid-19 pandemic threw Vietnamese managers into damage control mode, professional skills training has been largely ignored or minimized here.
English ability - defined by IELTS scores – is still the general requirement for most international jobs in Vietnam, and many specialist positions are filled by recruiting the graduates of Vietnam’s elite undergrad business programs, like RMIT University where a Western curriculum and English language lectures are the norm.
Professional skills – sometimes erroneously lumped together under the soft-skills title – include leadership, negotiation, strategic planning, presentation, critical thinking, and project management. These are the areas that high-potential Vietnamese management teams must focus on as the country increases its global exposure.
New opportunities, new threats in 2021
Vietnam is going to be thrust into the international spotlight in 2021 for reasons both good and bad. Vietnam’s exemplary handling of the Covid-19 pandemic leaves the economy comparatively strong and has brought the country a great deal of positive notice on the international stage.
The timing couldn’t be better, as the spiraling US-China trade war has international manufacturers scrambling for new supply chain options and manufacturing partners. New trade agreements (an FTA with Europe has already been signed, and it looks like another with Canada may be in the works) will increase the interest of foreign investors, manufacturers, and purchasers.
Global industrial shifts and technological advances are also boosting commercial prospects here.
Vietnam has a young population that is driving consumption, and it is rapidly developing its electronics production, investing in green technologies, and even showing great promise in the sensitive field of Rare Earth Minerals.
Last but not least, Vietnam took a multi-polar approach to international relations before it was cool – businesses here routinely partner with not only American and Chinese firms, but also with companies from Europe, Canada, Japan, Korea, Russia, and Southeast Asia.
Until now, Vietnamese policy has been about balancing the needs of the economy against the risks of foreign interference - and its performance since instituting Doi Moi - or Renovation - in 1986 has been impressive. But in 2021 political, party, and commercial leaders must make some difficulty choices about the future of Vietnamese’ economic development.
Vietnam has carefully cultivated an independent, non-aligned approach to international trade. But as more multinational brands adopt a China +1 strategy of diversifying supply chains, purchasing managers are looking to Vietnamese factories as a natural second source.
At the same time, Vietnam’s traditional reluctance to get involved in international affairs has not stopped the country from signing multiple free trade agreements over the last several years, including the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), the European Vietnam Free Trade Agreement and multiple agreements with ASEAN partners. The country has been careful to maintain its own voice with respect to the US-China Trade War, and with Chinese provocations in disputed ocean waters and because of the country’s solid economic growth, it is becoming more prominent on the regional stage.
Pre-Covid attitudes towards training and development.
Even before the pandemic made in-house group training a non-essential risk, many Vietnamese decision-makers didn’t see much need for it. Vietnamese start learning English as children in public school, and the major universities offer 3 tiers of business programs ranging from basic to “elite” English-language programs featuring British and American curriculum and western lecturers.
Vietnam business never had the international aspirations of China at a similar stage in its economic development. When negotiating across borders in English, Vietnamese dealmakers were as likely to be dealing with Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, or European counterparties as with Americans or Brits.
While the average Vietnamese is likely to be very modest and humble on a personal level, Vietnamese as a people are extremely confident in their ability to overcome any obstacle – or outlast any adversary – by drawing on their cultural attributes and collective strength. Vietnamese managers are taught to cultivate pragmatism, independence, and patience.
Ambitious young Vietnamese grads aren’t flocking to Western business schools or attending international networking events with copies of the Harvard Business Review tucked under their arms. Instead, they’re reading Vietnamese-language business magazines, watching business videos on YouTube, and attending business events that are solely for Vietnamese.
The current Professional Skills Training situation
Professional skills training in Vietnam has generally been seen as a solution to a specific performance or sales problem – not a learning organization issue. If a big American client or a Senior Manager from the headquarters in France identified a front-line problem, trainers would be located who can teach staff how to rectify the specific problem. But these trainings are generally short-term, one-off, and viewed as a pure expense.
Vietnamese professional skills training has not taken up a lot of managerial bandwidth during the pandemic environment. Most senior people equate professional skills training with English language competence and they expect new hires to walk in with the required IELTS scores.
Most organizations train new hires to do specific jobs, and not much else. Managers don’t see onboarding, professional skills training, or career development as an organizational responsibility, but rather as a matter of personal initiate.
In the Covid19 world, training is considered an extravagant expense AND a health risk.
Future: A more customized Vietnam-centric approach to Skills training.
The future of professional skills training in Vietnam will move beyond English language proficiency as local managers struggle to keep up with the surge of overseas interest.
As more Western firms and foreign investors pour into Vietnam, international commerce moves from a specialty to mainstream. Domestic Vietnamese firms and locally based branches of giant Multi National Corporation’s (MNC’s) are both going to start reassessing their L&D needs as a new type of globalism replaces the crumbling US-centric model that had held sway since the end of World War 2.
The good news for international trainers is that the needs of the Vietnamese managerial work force will be roughly analogous to the training that used to be offered in Shanghai and New York. The trick will be aligning international best practice with local needs and sensibilities.
The three big categories of soft-skills training will stay relevant, but with different focus and emphasis.
• Leadership and teamwork. Vietnamese managers are expert at working with one another, but their style comes off as ad-hoc and piecemeal to outsiders. As international partnerships increase, so too do the risks of misunderstanding and culture gaps.
• Strategic planning and critical thinking. Planning needs to be more aggressive, nimbler, and more goal-oriented. Vietnamese plans have a tendency to be very tentative, open-ended, and just plain vague. At the higher levels, planning will be less about managing the pace of foreign incursion and more about leveraging the resources and capabilities of overseas partners.
• Problem solving and creativity. Vietnam has little interest in following either Western or Chinese models – which is a perfectly valid decision. Local leaders, however, haven’t always done a great job providing their own suitable solutions. Deciding to move ahead slowly and see how the situation develops just isn’t a viable option in a more competitive international business environment.
What’s called for is a basic skills package with Vietnamese characteristics.
Every Vietnamese firm is going to need cross-cultural business capacity, either for profitable expansion or to defend against other local firms with access to new overseas markets, capital, and technology.
But the “one-size-fits-all” solutions that have worked reasonably well in the past just won’t cut it in a richer, and more competitive Vietnam. A few years ago, international business meant big overseas brands looking for factory capacity or distribution of finished goods. In the post Covid economy, Vietnamese managers will have to add value and raise productivity using international partnerships and deep multicultural relationships.
Vietnamese business leaders don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but they do need a plan for skilling-up their new hires, front line executors, and top-level planners.
About the Author:
The opinions expressed are those of the author.