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Business Across Cultures: Education at the Mother's Knee

Culture is often defined as ‘the dominant set of behaviors, values, beliefs, and thinking patterns we learn as we grow and develop in society’. Culture determines how we view others and ourselves, how we behave, and how we perceive the world around us.’ This definition closely equates learning and education to cultural development. Education, both parental and institutional, contributes directly to the breadth and the strength of our personal cultural beliefs. Through change and development in educational systems both formal and informal, do cultures evolve although usually on a generational or semi-generational time scale.

It is certainly possible for a visiting executive to land at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport, be driven to a large downtown hotel, spend a week holding meetings in large office buildings on Jalan Sudirman, and fly out of this country with the perception that Indonesia possesses a high overall level of education along with an international standard business culture. Concurrently, foreign investors operating in Indonesia may find it difficult to find even high-school graduates to staff their offices and sites outside of urban areas and therefore consider Indonesian human resources wanting. As discussed below, this discrepancy in perception can be attributed to certain realities in the Indonesian educational system along with demographics and population movements in modern Indonesia.

Indonesia has made great strides in developing its primary education system in the last 30 years. According to the decennial census, the percentage of Indonesians with no formal schooling has dropped from 19 percent in 1990 to under 10 percent in 2000. However, even today almost 70 percent of Indonesians who attend school do not receive a high-school diploma. To turn these statistics around, that means that less than 20 percent have finished high-school, and the percentage of Indonesians throughout the country with advanced academic or university degrees falls well below one percent of the population according to the Government of Indonesia census information available on the Department of Statistics website.

With a population approaching 220 million people, however, Indonesia still possesses millions of university graduates. The trendiest and most prestigious job prospect among prospective graduates is to land a position in a large multi-national company. This naturally attracts university graduates to seek work in the urban centers and this is the reason that the visiting foreign executive may gain the impression that Indonesia has outstanding human resources capabilities. The best of the best are found in the offices and hotels of Jakarta as well as other urban and tourist areas throughout the country.

In many aspects, the Indonesian public education system is below international standards. Articles appear in the local newspapers almost daily describing circumstances where students have inadequate facilities, face difficulties in accessing the educators, or encounter non-budgetary school fees. It is the conventional wisdom among many that a large percentage of Indonesian teachers are not well trained and that the national curriculum lacks the ability to produce graduates capable of filling upwardly mobile employment positions in the modern business sectors.

For these reasons and others, it is important that the foreign professional working in Indonesia accord those who have obtained graduate or postgraduate degrees with the respect that they, and Indonesian society, believe they deserve.

One-half of one percent. That number should be a constant reminder to all managers working in Indonesia that their highly educated staff have worked and crawled their way through the Indonesian educational system to join an elite group. Other Indonesians respect a university graduate because of the degree, not necessarily because of any actual competence. Foreign managers in Indonesia must realize that countries where 50 or 60 percent of the population goes on for tertiary education is the exception rather than the rule.

Once again, however, it is the reality that many universities in Indonesia offer less than international standard educations. It often happens here that an expatriate engineer or other technical employee finds himself working with an Indonesian co-worker who possess on paper the equivalent of a master's degree in engineering or other technical field and find that the technical competence and knowledge of that co-worker is less than he would expect for a similar degree holder in his home country.

Cultural barriers arise when foreign personnel decide that their Indonesian co-workers do not possess the required technical competence for their positions. At that point, whether it is consciously or subconsciously, the expatriate often telegraphs this disdain to co-workers. Often this is demonstrated through a reluctance to listen to the opinions of the Indonesian team, through sarcastic comments, or even through body language. Regardless of one’s personal opinion of the competencies of their Indonesian co-workers, it is important that they show respect to well-educated Indonesians by listening to their opinions as long as they hold a position in their office, company, or factory.

The educational level of the population of Indonesia is in flux. There was a steep and very encouraging increase in widespread primary education during the administration of former President Suharto. Unfortunately, the economic crisis in the late 90s caused a derailment of that progress. A significant portion, how large is still unknown, of primary and secondary school students dropped out. A large percentage of those people have not returned to their studies. This has a number of possible effects on the economic recovery of Indonesia. We are beginning to see larger numbers of less educated Indonesians reach the age of majority and join the work force. I predict that this trend will continue, that the ability of the Indonesian economy to absorb a less educated work force will be stressed, and that the 2010 census will show a drop in the overall educational level of the workforce for the first two-thirds of this decade.

A related issue involves the dismantling of the national birth control program. BKKBN was an award-winning program that reduced births per woman by a large percentage over the last 30 years. Regional autonomy and the rising cost of imported birth control products have caused a sharp decline in the number of Indonesian families actively practicing planned parenthood. This is expected by many to produce, if not a ‘baby boom’, then at least a ‘baby bump’ in the population demographics. Considering the realities of the Indonesian educational system, this change in the need for capacity in the school systems may well act like a tidal wave moving through the overstressed system, expanding and contracting, leaving devastation in its wake.

However, all is not lost. There is a growing realization of the importance of this issue as seen in the comments of the major Indonesian political parties and figures that educational development will be a primary focus of the successful presidential candidate’s term in office. As always, political will and financial resources will continue to affect the development of education in Indonesia.

Fortunately, the government of Indonesia does not stand alone in addressing this need. International donor agencies, USAID among others, have dedicated large amounts of funding to address the important issue of educational development in Indonesia. Even the United States president, George W. Bush, who on a brief visit to the island of Bali in 2003, stressed the importance to the world community of developing the educational system in Indonesia, donated US$ 150 million to address that need.

In conclusion, I am going to underscore once again the importance of learning and education to the development and change of any culture. Many of the growing pains that Indonesia is currently experiencing have been seen in other now more developed countries. For instance, the protective labor structure currently being implemented by Indonesia is reminiscent of some of the United States' experimentation at the beginning of the last century as well as Australia’s situation several decades ago. Further, we need only look north to Malaysia to find an example where education has significantly altered business culture. A previously ethnocentric and agrarian society has been transformed through education and political will to a society where patrimonial bureaucratic authority and substandard international business practices are only remembered by the older generation of business managers.

There is no miracle cure, but then there is no secret to success either. It just comes down to allocated funding, determined will on the part of the political elite, and a desire to create a better world for the next generation on the part of Indonesia’s parents.

This article was generously contributed by George B. Whitfield, III when he was a Technical Advisor with Executive Orientation Services.