As a practitioner-scholar who consults with and researches Vietnam-based businesses in addition to teaching Vietnamese business students, I am well-placed to see the staggering differences in Vietnam versus the Western business milieu in which I began my career.

From divergence in how conflict is managed and understood, to differences in how aspects of strategic thinking are emphasized and prioritized, there are enough dissimilarities between business in the West and my adopted homeland to scratch an itch I have for cultural novelty in my own ever-evolving understanding of global business.

At a recent Business Executive Network event, one of the keynote speakers made an observation regarding what they thought to be the inadequate preparation of business school students for the realities of the business world on the part of the Vietnamese education system.

With that critique in mind, and as a university lecturer currently teaching Management 101 to 18-year-old business school freshmen, I was curious to know what my students’ perceptions were of how much the Vietnamese education system had indeed readied them (and would continue to ready them) for their impending business careers.

On top of that, I was interested to know what my peers in the Vietnamese business community could do to expedite the closing of any such gaps through practical workplace experience among budding interns and new job market entrants.

The two most common areas of concern that students identified were critical thinking skills and soft skills (particularly interpersonal and communication skills).

Vietnamese secondary education is heavily geared towards theoretical knowledge, rote learning, and a classically lecture-heavy form of teaching, with limited or no student interaction, class discussion, or feedback. Knowledge is disseminated in a unidirectional manner from teacher to student, as opposed to a co-constructive process of dialectical exchange and feedback. 

While this educational emphasis has advantages in students’ ability to retain large amounts of conceptual information (the “what”), it doesn’t lend itself to practically engaging that information (the “how”) or understanding its deeper meaning or nature (the “why”).

As any business leader knows, a propensity for linear, uncritical thinking is a non-starter in a successful managerial career. And yet, for my students, this was the very mindset to which they were accustomed as a result of their education. When a teacher says ‘Jump!’, you don’t ask ‘How high?’ You don’t ask anything. You just write ‘Jump!’

Likewise, the aforementioned emphases on rote learning and theoretical knowledge aren’t especially strong foundations for students to develop soft skills. My students identified limited or non-existent opportunities in their high school education to exchange perspectives among peers, give presentations to classmates, engage teachers in dialogue, and socially interact during class time.

All of this left many of my students with the impression that it was going to be a tall order to transition to a business world in which qualities like Emotional Intelligence, strong communication skills, giving and receiving regular feedback, and developing effective bonds with co-workers are all prized assets among successful employees. Such concerns seem obviously well-founded to me. If good soft skills are as important as business leaders and scholars (rightly) claim that they are, and the nature of Vietnamese secondary education doesn’t nurture these attributes, then that is a hole that ought to be plugged.

In my own capacity, I strive to make my classrooms as interactive as possible, with a focus on team-based activities and classes structured to encourage an exchange of feedback among students, lively Q&A sessions, and presentations in which students can collectively dissect ideas and make meaning of them through their own unique lens. I challenge my students to critically rip apart anything I’ve told them, or anything they’ve read in the textbook, if it doesn’t happen to sound right to them, or if they have an alternative or novel view to present.

I’ve also encouraged them to use the practical experience of teamwork to better understand the social dynamics among their teammates, and to use this as a dress rehearsal for the kind of interpersonal skills that will be in hot demand on the job market.

This has all been something quite different for them, and I’m hopeful it will bear fruit in some substantive sense. But I’m but one man. I would encourage those of you in the Vietnamese business community to think about what avenues you might adopt in getting young new hires more comfortable with critical thinking and better positioned to develop their soft skills.

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Tim Burrill
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