The ASEAN Human Development Organisation is born!

March 9, 2021

Readers have asked me in the past few months why I have gone dark. It wasn’t that I had nothing to say. It’s that I was not yet ready to say it.

Here’s the news: the ASEAN Human Development Organisation (AHDO) is being created to promote human development in the workplace across the 10 ASEAN Member States. These are, in order of population: Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos, Singapore and Brunei and they make up ASEAN’s total population of 635.9 million according to the most recent estimate in 2016.

First Steps

On 6th November 2018 the core of AHDO’s founding members met in Jakarta. The first movers represent most of the large growing countries - Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia and Myanmar. The first Board Meeting took place after a conference organised by HRM Asia which had been opened by Indonesia’s Minister of Manpower, Hanif Dhakiri.

Left to right: Joanna Bush (CEO of HRM Asia), Bernadette Themas (General Secretary of the Indonesian Society of Human Resources - PMSM), myself, Le Hong Phuc (Founder and President of the Vietnam HR Association VNRH), Leslie Lim (Honorary General Secretary of the Malaysian Institute of Human Resource Management MIHRM), Pambudi Sunarsihanto (Chairman of PMSM), Swe Swe Than (Founder of Myanmar HR Association – in creation), Aresandrian J. (Executive President of MIHRM), Anh Tho Vu (COO VNHRM), Simon Benjamin (Assistant General Secretary MIHRM).

Now the spark is lit. But don’t look for the AHDO website and don’t bother to google AHDO. You won’t find any official information until the administrative process of for setting up across the region is done, and for a multinational NGO that takes time.

Consider this a preannouncement with the promise of much more to come.

Why a new organisation?

ASEAN is the southern cousin of the two largest workforces in the world. Both China, with its Belt and Road strategy, and India with its Indo-Pacific strategy, are expanding their influence across Southeast Asia and counterbalancing the influences of the former colonial powers.

These influences show why ASEAN needs to build its own model of leadership, including thought leadership. The alternative is for the region to be only market whose workforce is managed according to values and practices invented somewhere else. The next ten years will decide if ASEAN can establish its own model for developing people or if it is a wasted opportunity in history.

AHDO fulfils the need to connect ASEAN’s national HR Associations in the region into a professional community. AHDO works with ASEAN institutions on policy and initiatives and is their dialogue partner in addressing the region’s human development at work. AHDO aims to develop ASEAN’s management identity and culture with a core purpose of improving human development at work. To fulfil its mission AHDO will publish research and white papers, organise conferences and events across the region, work with international organisations and manage regional certification programmes for human development professionals.

Not the same old HR

You find the expression "human development" in the title, not HR.

The HR function is being disrupted by new business models and a lot of workforce growth is in the form of self-employed and results-defined work contracts that aren’t covered by traditional HR. Technology, in particular online learning, social media and artificial intelligence are changing the way people professionals work.

Already today in ASEAN the traditional HR roles and functions defined in Western textbooks do not fit reality. In the future, the profession will not disappear but will shift from administration to leadership, from adaptation to transformation and from generalist people support to a host of new roles and skillsets. AHDO’s mission is to anticipate the future and accompany professionals in this transition in their roles and functions.

The expression human development used in public institutions, aid organisations, education and NGOs but, strangely, human development in companies lacks definition, measurement and application. The expression is hardly ever used in companies.

Instead, what you see are names like human capital, talent, human resources, manpower, labour force etc. But these terms don't really denote the reality of the human dimension of work. Reasons to prefer the term human development for an organisation like AHDO are the following:

  1. ASEAN’s priority is human development: people in third largest workforce in the world, and its most diverse, are developing economically, socially, culturally and politically. Work, together with education, is the means for this development to sustain itself while focusing on common goals and values.
  2. Workers are agents, not resources: they self-develop, make decisions and set goals. People are individuals and need to constantly develop in their work and in life.
  3. Human value at work is not only defined by economic criteria: it is also defined by aspiration, values and meaning. The goals of work include personal development, human rights and the social good. Human capital serves human development – not the other way around.
  4. Human development has scientific and practical measurement criteria defined at a macro-level by international organisations like the United Nations, and at a company level by its management framework that includes human development concepts like motivation, learning, self-determination and satisfaction. These are all measurable.

Why me? 

As founder of the ASEAN Human Development Organisation I would like start with my story of its creation. For me personally, starting AHDO was an improbable enterprise. I was not from the region, I was seventy years old and I frankly didn’t want to lead it myself. But I could see the need, I was convinced that the opportunity was ripe and I saw nobody else taking the initiative. So from the very beginning, my role as founder depended on getting others to lead.

That was not difficult to do, as I found to my surprise. The founders of AHDO, the leaders of national HR associations, saw ASEAN as a necessary next step in their mission and they were willing to contribute time to it.

Presenting AHDO to the Vietnam HR Association

Although I was not leading AHDO, I knew I could bring something to the table as a strategic advisor. I had lived and worked in four of the five largest workforces in the world (India was the missing one). I had been in China during an unprecedented human development rise that lifted half a billion people out of poverty. I had personally witnessed the creation of the European Union at the time when it lifted the immigration barriers for Europeans to work and study in any country they chose (this was a great benefit for my own children). I had been in the USA when mass university education was extended for the first time to a whole generation (my generation). And I have lived and worked in ASEAN for more than ten years – long enough to witness this transformational moment in its history. I see ASEAN from the inside but with an international perspective and I am daily fascinated by the historical rise of the region.

AHDO is an aspirational organisation

China and India are recognised as 21st century success stories for the human development of their massive and poor populations, helping hundreds of millions gain access to the middle class. But ASEAN is doing the same while experimenting with its own balance of economic and human development over a highly diverse set of countries.

ASEAN is an exciting place these days. More than half its population is under 30 years old. ASEAN’s youth see beyond national mindsets and embrace the region, according to a 2015 ASEAN Awareness and Attitudes study among university students. It shows that youth understand and have a positive attitude towards ASEAN and more than 80% of this generation identify themselves as “citizens of ASEAN”.

Economic growth has consistently stayed above 5% in ASEAN and this has translated into higher salaries across all ten member countries. For human development professionals this raises new challenges. ASEAN is no longer a low-cost workforce. ASEAN’s workforce must now become globally competitive through high productivity growth, fast adoption of new technologies, increased innovation and strong enterprise creation. To make that happen human development professionals must work with governments, schools and non-government organisations, learn from global competition and-- something new-- take leadership in setting the pace rather than following others.

What AHDO brings to this aspirational moment is an organisation based on a regional vision, institutional principles and signed commitments. ASEAN human development spans the two pillars of the economic community and the socio-cultural community.

It’s been more than 50 years since the founding of ASEAN, so you would be right to wonder why AHDO was not created before now. My perception is that regional integration was not mature enough to create an ASEAN human development model.

But by 2015 the big bang of ASEAN economic integration provided a trigger and was immediately followed by a jump in cross border trade and external investment in the region. As a result, business leaders started to become aware that they needed to manage regionally for their future growth. In ASEAN traditional HR still has a national mindset but in companies leaders are being challenged by their businesses to develop talent strategies regionally.

To rise to the challenge, human development professionals need to have their own organisation – one that has a purpose beyond the traditional HR function and an open community that includes business leaders higher education professionals, thought leaders, consultants and trainers, NGO’s and – very important – the next generation of leaders.

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