Work: A necessary evil for Filipinos

08 May 2003

The following is a simple challenge:

Cite three things Filipinos are doing differently this time that one could use to objectively substantiate even a glimmer of hope that success is in the horizon for our tragic country.

It was a question put forward in supposedly esteemed company -- a discussion thread in entitled "Hopeless" Philippines?. One of the more pertinent responses to this question involved an enumeration of various improvements achieved by the Province of Bulacan in the management of the bureaucracy that provides basic services to the Bulacan public. The points highlighted in the forum are probably subsets of the development plan laid out in the Bulacan Government Website -- not much different from any other "development plans" articulated in most other local government websites.

All of the above accomplishments are, of course, exceptional - by Philippine standards.

From a broader perspective, they are tactical achievements that are routinely expected of any chief executive. In fact, in most advanced societies and organisations, leadership and management of changes such as those above have actually been delegated down to middle management level; i.e. it is integral to the responsibility of any manager to ensure that he/she optimises his operations so that they provide the best service economically in the employment of the resources said manager is entrusted responsibility over.

Optimisation of one's operations includes but is not limited to;

(1) rationalising staff and physical assets;

(2) providing the environment for efficient communication and knowledge management (of which development of an information technology infrastructure is merely a subset of); and,

(3) good old-fashined cost cutting and efficiency enhancement (consultant-speak in the past, common sense today); things like looking for better suppliers/vendors, organising cooperatives, developing/acquiring labour-saving devices, equipment, and systems/procedures.

In other words, these things are incremental changes that result in incremental improvements. More importantly, they are things that any minimally competent manager (whether in private or public service) should be incorporating as part of his/her routine responsibilities. Plainly and simply, a case study of good operations management which anyone would reasonably expect to be part of any operations manager's or administrator's stock knowledge was presented as a response to the challenge:

Cite three things Filipinos are doing differently this time that one could use to objectively substantiate even a glimmer of hope that success is in the horizon for our tragic country.

This little example illustrates mainly the first of (and touches on those subsequent to that) three key points that describe the character of The Filipino Work Ethic:

(1) Initiative to improve quality and efficiency has not been normalised in Philippine society.

A society where tactical initiatives such as the ones described in our example are "normalised" is a society where excellence is deeply ingrained at every level. In such societies, otherwise routinely-expected achievements such as those in our example are no longer trumpeted as exceptional achievement but are taken as a clearly (yet tacitly) understood responsibility of every citizen not to mention their leaders.

(2) Effort is King.

This is the theme behind the challenge issued in that thread.

Calls to action or worse "getting on with the order of the day" echo strongly in our hero-worship society. Hope for prosperity is sustained for the sake of sustaining hope and is even rabidly expected of each Filipino regardless of the existence of any fundamentally different, much less innovative approach to addressing issues and challenges that have consistent track records of undermining traditional efforts. This is analogous to encountering a brick wall on your way to work and choosing to bang your head against it until it collapses instead of figuring a way to get around it. Yes, the Filipino may be a hard worker, but is he/she a smart worker? Does he routinely and matter-of-factly figure out ways to achieve the same results with less effort?

(3) Work is seen to be a necessary evil to attaining material needs rather than as an activity that leads to personal fulfilment.

Secondary to the Trust Factor, this quality of the Filipino Work Ethic may be key to our problem with endemic corruption. Beyond that it could also very well account for our easy-way-out and pwede na yan ("that'll do") mentalities.

The factors that contribute to this malaise are scattered across a broad range of issues -- the legacy of our padrino social relationships, upbringing and filial expectations, etc. -- many of which are encapsulated to some extent under the concept of social capital (i.e., highlighting our lack of it).

At the most elementary level, managing this quality is a two-way street, the change in attitude has to (1) happen from the bottom up (i.e. employees being more active in asserting their need for a work environment conducive to personal fulfilment), and (2) happen from the top down (i.e. people in management roles recognising that there is always a need to factor in personal fulfilment in every task or role they assign to their subordinates). This is nothing new of course but in the context of this specific weakness in the social fabric of Philippine society, it is worth highlighting.

All of the above three taken together provide the cornerstones of any framework to guide efforts to improve The Filipino Work Ethic -- (1) normalise initiative, (2) focus on results, and (3) seek personal fulfilment.

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