Herbert Wenk 62
The law of communication:
"If you want something, you must first give something which is of value to the recipient".
Knowing your wants is easy. But knowing whom to adress, what you might have to give back and why it is of value is much harder. This is the central problem of 'communication'.
This is why most people are quite reluctant to open up, to share, to ask. Maybe it is some sort of pride?
We encourage you, your friends and family to join in, ask a question, search for information, reach out to others and together lets help all in the developing world to a better life.
Being an advisor in Africa helping small companies to improve is a very interesting experience. You are alone, in the neck of nowhere, amongst a group of people you hardly know with a high variety of skills. Entangled in an invisible net of dependencies and agendas of their own you have no chance to understand within the limited time frame of the few weeks you are here. But you are expected to produce results. You are the expert!
Quickly you will realize that all the nice theories you are so fluent with to improve a business won’t help you much and will just draw some blank stares and nodding heads. No insight – no action!
The solution I found is to watch the environment with ears and eyes wide open to find examples there which can help to put the main principles into the heart of stories that resonate with my clients as they are closely associated to their everyday lives.
The picture below shows the yard of a small private vocational college in Uganda. You will agree that the dozen or so students and their teachers didn’t have much of what you would term a good teaching environment. Making ends meet with the few resources available always was on their minds. Money always was short. School fees never fully paid. State or community rightfully concerned with the quality of schooling, very reluctant to invest. Connections to other donors non-existent.
The bench you see below the tree was our meeting point in the evening. This college was privileged as it did possess a water tap with good drinking water. As you can see, during the day this tap was kept under lock and key until the evening when preparing evening meals. Night falls fast in the tropics. Suddenly from the dark, a young girl approached our group carrying a big yellow jerry can. Her eyes to the ground she curtsied to the college’s director who just waived her on towards the tap. She quickly obeyed, filled her jerry can with water and silently vanished back into the night.
Nobody showed signs of astonishment. So this scene must have been quite common.
In my mind I followed the girl back to her home. Her mother surely was waiting for the water to cook the evening meal, for drinking, to clean her children, have them brush their teeth, clean the dishes, whatever you can do with a mere ten litres of water. But did the girl fill the jerry can to capacity? What if the can had some tiny holes in it so some water ran out during her walk back home? What would her mother say? What would she do?
The next day I spoke to the team about these thoughts and asked what they would consider an appropriate reaction. This is what they proposed:
Buy a new jerry can The mother has no money to do this!
Instruct the girl to fill up to capacity Yes! Let her understand the need for water
Find the holes Yes! This is easy. Feel wetness outside
Plug the holes Yes! But different holes - different plugs
Everybody was happy that such good solutions were found.
But when I projected the story onto the college’s situation, substituted the girl’s home with the college and the water with the money needed to run it, it quickly became clear, that here other strategies prevailed:
Focus on what you have -> Not interested in what you miss or loose
Adaption to scarcity -> Accept the losses and try to muddle through
Look for other income sources -> Convince other donors or NGO’s to support you
It is not, that these strategies are bad. But they are completely different from the ones found in the case of the real jerry can. Shouldn’t they be combined? The challenge is what it means to “fill up to capacity”, to “find the holes” and to “plug the holes” when it is not water, but money that flows away uncontrolled? A balance is needed between focussing on external sources for new income and optimizing the internal processes to minimise unwanted losses.
Controlling the internal money flow is to document its movements with the aid of receipts, bills, contracts etc. in a chronological way. Given the actual situation of the college, the simplest solution we found was a spike to spear the paper slips as they come.
So the numbers can be transferred to the Journal at a convenient time. An Excel sheet emulating an American Journal was developed as the first step to computerize the process in order to see, where the “holes” are.
Based on the requirements we learned, today, several years later, this Excel sheet has developed into VIMS, a free database application which covers the major requirements of a vocational institute with a focus to shield the complicated mechanisms of bookkeeping as much as possible. So that also people with only basic understanding of bookkeeping can find and “plug the holes” as easily as with the leaking jerry can.
For this college in Uganda, simple things such as a story about a leaking jerry can which can make you to think about your organisation in a new way, a spike to bring order and structure into your paperwork, a little Excel sheet as a first step towards automation have become the stepping stone to success. Today, it is recognized as one of the most innovative institutions in the region and a high quality place for learning and making a difference.