Meetings in Bangladesh can run 12 hours at a stretch, wandering from point to point like a rudderless boat, while aides scamper about with armloads of files and the conference room rings with telephones. Often they end, not when the work is done, but when everyone involved is too tired to continue.
The chaos is an example of an acute problem for developing countries:
The Western world often thinks of foreign aid as wheat stocks and fertilizer plants. But developing countries require more than tools. They need the skills to use them.
The third world is "littered with the decaying remnants of superbly conceived and implemented projects," says Walter Cork, a director of Coverdale, an international management training company. "There's a mass of evidence that these projects are decaying away simply because there isn't the expertise and skill and confidence to be able to run them."
Coverdale is currently running a World Bank-financed project to train over 1, 500 government managers in Bangladesh. The techniques they teach could be applicable to many third-world management problems.
For instance, many donor nations fail to adapt to local conditions when teaching management. In many projects, representatives of the donor nations take management practices that worked in their country and try to apply them to the developing country.
"Well, that doesn't work," says Norman Bramble, manager of the Bangladesh project. "The true substance for us is the minds of the participants -- their strengths, their awareness of learning."
Take the Bangladeshi managers. Coverdale officers say they are competent and have a lot of good experience. But, they add, the government hands them an impossible job, then cuts their funding 10 percent every three quarters and barely pays them enough to get to work every day.
They have spent their working lives dealing with one crisis after another. As a result, says Bramble, "they are very good at contingency, last-minute planning. It's easier to plan a meeting with all high-level people tomorrow than it is three weeks ahead."
Coverdale removes these managers from their daily work, puts them in small groups, and gives them a job -- such as organizing and classifying all the training programs in village agricultural centers.
Then the managers work on "themes" often new to them:
-- Do you have a systematic approach to getting things done?
-- Have you clarified the objectives so everyone knows the job's purpose?
-- Can you recognize and take advantage of each other's strengths?
-- Are you consciously learning from what you're doing?
Different management problems crop up in different countries. In Bangladesh, authority and leadership are much more important than in the US.
"We have these senior guys coming on the course, and they're supposed to sign checks. They cannot delegate that. so they have their minions coming in during coffee breaks with files up to herem . . .," says Norman Bramble.
For the idea to stick, the managers themselves must decide that signing checks can often can be farmed out to underlings.
"Our concern is that they are aware of who's initiating what and how things are being handled," says Walter Cork.
Once the Bangladeshis learn to examine the process they go through to do the job, the battle is mostly won.
"They actually have many more tools than they ever realized with which to be effective," says Gavin Duncan, Coverdale vice- president.
Instead of management-by-shooting-from- the-hip, which they have learned from years of daily problems, they see the need to look forward and manage for the future.
Norman Bramble, for instance, one day visited a course graduate and encountered a Bangladeshi meeting run amuck. Phones rang. Visitors tromped through as if it were a bus station waiting room. The senior official took him aside and complained about the mess, saying, "People bring in these big files and they don't stick to the topic and they wander way off when they want to talk about this and that. You think I should give them the purpose of the meeting before we begin?"
Bramble had the reward of all teachers: seeing the idea get through to his pupil. "I think it might be worth a try," he said.