TEM Lab: Finding Myanmar

By Darren Watkins, Guest Writer

While preparing for our 2015 Myanmar TEM Lab experience, my teammates and I received the same question each time someone asked us about our summer plans. “Myanmar? Where is that?” Rare was the person, even at Thunderbird, who quipped “Oh, Myanmar. I thought we still called it Burma?” or “Ah cool, the place with all the Pagodas.” To be honest, I had a similar knowledge level of the country prior to undertaking research. North Americans have limited exposure to the country and a superficial understanding of Myanmar is the most to be expected in the US. Laos? Heard of it. Thailand? Beautiful beaches. China and India? Of course. Myanmar? Nope.

Robert looks out of the pagoda on the top of the famous Mandalay Hill
Robert looks out of the pagoda on the top of the famous Mandalay Hill

Myanmar, known as the “Golden Land,” shares a border with each of those countries, as well as Bangladesh, and is a where the Sub-continent meets East Asia. The centuries long history of cultural and economic exchange with its neighbors, 124 years of British colonial control, and forty-nine years of military rule has shaped the country. Although predominantly Buddhist, the geographic location and over 135 ethnic groups make defining Myanmar in a few descriptive sentences unsatisfying and ultimately impossible. I implore you to visit to this romantic, mystifying country to witness the stunning Pagodas, sample endless varieties of street food, meander through traditional markets, and pass the time watching golden sunsets on a beach far removed from the ordinary.

Our team, Marissa Burkett (MBA ’15, US), Robert Calkins (MBA ’15, Canada), and myself, Darren Watkins (MBA ’15, US) initially applied to spend our summer in Nepal on the TEM Lab project working with a prominent Nepalese business school. The devastating April 25th earthquake made it clear that what Nepal needed was urgent humanitarian assistance and the work we were slated to do must be postponed until the country can rebuild. Winrock, our host organization, Professor Finney and Charles Reeves drew upon their networks and quickly found us a summer home in Yangon, the largest city in Myanmar.

The team is marked with their destination stickers and ready to travel to farm visits.
The team is marked with their destination stickers and ready to travel to farm visits.

The project was to work with the Myanmar Livestock Federation (MLF) and assist in their transition from a government run organization into a true business association. Our initial task was to analyze how the MLF and their sub-associations function, use our findings to conduct trainings and offer recommendations to further develop the organizations. One of the MLF sub-associations, the Myanmar Livestock Resources Department Research Association (MLRDRA), had three members of their leadership working for Winrock and were our primary point of contact for the five week project. 

The federation consists of 12 industry specific associations, 15 state or divisional bodies, hundreds of township associations, and has over 13,000 members. Our initial discovery period led us to focus our efforts on four associations that would benefit the most from organizational development trainings In the end we chose the MLRDRA, Dairy, Broiler Chickens, and Mandalay Region associations.

A monk leaving the pagoda passes construction wire and skyscrapers, a juxtaposition of old and new Myanmar.
A monk leaving the pagoda passes construction wire and skyscrapers, a juxtaposition of old and new Myanmar.

Our experiences with these associations provided a fascinating glimpse into how organizations in emerging markets operate. This is particularly interesting in Myanmar, where business associations have only recently gained autonomy from the government and are beginning to navigate and interact in the global marketplace for the first time. Their primary struggles have been adapting to new found independence while still managing government interactions, providing consistent services to members, and reacting to increased competition from regional players in South-East Asia. Much of the leadership we met with expressed a desire to embrace globalization and see their neighbors in the region as examples of how a country can improve their economic standing, and thus quality of life, in a single generation. Eager as they may be to run headlong into this endeavor, many of the same members conceded that they currently lack the resources and skills to undertake this transition effectively.

Through field visits, workshops, interviews, and secondary research we developed an understanding of each association’s capacity and determined areas to focus improvement efforts. Due to the heavy monsoon rains and the subsequent flooding, as well as various external factors beyond our control, we worked heavily with the MLRDRA and Mandalay Region while only having limited contact with the Dairy and Broiler executive committees. We developed individualized organization plans for each association that included association descriptions and history, assessments, achievements, and actionable recommendations. These plans will serve as a foundation for the associations to build upon as they increase their activities, engage increasing numbers of stakeholders, and legitimize their position as the primary point of contact for future international interaction. We presented the plans to the associations and MLF at their office in Yangon, and are eager to follow how the associations develop in the coming years.

Darren made new friends wherever he went.
Darren made new friends wherever he went.

As our tenure in Myanmar wound down, the bittersweet feeling that comes with any pending departure overtook us. We were happy to be returning home, even to the 110ºF weather, but could not shake the sadness we had leaving our wonderful counterparts and beautiful Myanmar. No longer could Marissa venture on beaten paths riding an electric scooter and shop for longyis (traditional Myanmar clothing) with her new Myanmar friends. Robert will now have to wait until his next visit to further explore Yangon with aimless freedom. For me, I will miss many things that I became accustomed to during our five-week stay. The food, the rain, and the teak markets will creep back into my mind as I readjust to life on campus and begin my career search. The longing for these tangible connections to Myanmar will undoubtedly fade with time, but the kindness of the people and the excitement inherent in an emerging country are what I, and my teammates, will undoubtedly cherish forever. 

To learn more about the team and project, please join us for our final presentation on Tuesday, August 25th in Yount 100 at 1:00pm or check out the team’s blog.

Marissa looks out on the great Irrawaddy River from her electric scooter in Bagan.
Marissa looks out on the great Irrawaddy River from her electric scooter in Bagan.

The Thunderbird Emerging Markets Laboratory (TEM Lab) is a capstone course at Thunderbird that engages a team of  MBA candidates with a client in an emerging market. A team spends seven weeks working on each project: one week of preparation on campus, five weeks of full-time onsite work with their client and one final week of debrief on campus. Projects are tailored to the business needs of the client and provide sophisticated data and market analysis, strategy recommendations and practical, effective plans for sustained growth.

Alina Buzgar

Alina Buzgar

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