Sep 192014

WE KNOW this by now, and we acknowledge this fact: overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) are indeed the new heroes of the country.

Despite unrest in the overseas markets where they work, their contributions to the economy continue to increase unabated. The Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) estimates that for the first half of this year alone, their contribution to the national coffers by way of inward remittances has reached $12.7 billion, some 12 percent better than in the same period last year. This despite the fact that many of their traditional work places in the Middle East have been in intense conflict situations, and notwithstanding the forced repatriation of thousands of their colleagues from these strife-torn locations.

The Philippine Overseas Employment Administration estimates that today, there are about 2.3 million Filipinos working abroad at any one time. This is equivalent to a fairly large city in the Philippines, something just under the size of present-day Quezon City. However, the demographic impact is more telling than just the mere numbers suggest.

Most OFWs are the sole breadwinners in the families; the father, mother or eldest sibling, working abroad to support family in the Philippines. This means that about 2.3 million families are directly affected by the OFW phenomenon, assuming that one OFW worker belongs to one household back home. At least 10 percent of all Filipino households know what it means to have one member of the family abroad, a staggering amount by any measure.

The sad tales are familiar.

Money mismanagement is one of them, mainly because the breadwinner is too far away to oversee how the finances are being managed. Juvenile delinquency is another, since remote administration of discipline tends to dissipate with distance. Thus, OFW children are supposedly prone to indiscipline, brought about no doubt also by their financial affluence, relatively speaking. Money to spend with little or no authority figure to have a say about matters usually result to a bad thing, at least as the anecdotes about OFW families go.

The Philippines is a very paternalistic culture. This is just a fact. We like closeness and face-to-face interaction. This goes whether the interaction is within family, social organizations or work groups. This brings me to where I think the failings of many global organizations in the country today lie.

“Matrix management,” or similar styles of running organizations by any other name, is the in-thing with global companies today. Seen as “best practice” abroad, they think it works just fine in the Philippines, without any adaptation. And this has often proved to be anything but the best.

This type of management is not unlike the typical OFW family. The leader figure is remote and not onshore. Just as an OFW dad might be based in Jeddah, a matrix manager may be somewhere in New York.

Given enough face-time interaction—what with iMessage, Skype, FaceTime, Viber and all of these things these days—the remote family management style might work. But there is no substitute for the father being closer to home, where he can actually look after the family, give them words of advice, and correct when correction is needed. So, too, could remote leadership. After all, that is what e-mail, video-conferencing and WebEx are there for. But just as remote families often produce juvenile delinquents, matrix organizations also give rise to a lot of dysfunctional employees.

It’s a choice in the end, and mostly economics dictate. OFW families have no choice, there is no money to be had otherwise. Matrix companies, too, believe that they save money by remote management and centralized structures. So just as the country has to live with the OFW phenomenon – the good and the bad, the corporate world too must deal with the consequences of remote management—the good, the bad, as well as the ugly.

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Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on September 20, 2014.

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