Re­wards flow in the rugged trop­ics

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Rear View - By IAN GRAYSON

WHEN some Aus­tralians start a new job in Pa­pua New Guinea, the first thing they do is book a ticket on the next flight home.

Life in the steamy, trop­i­cal coun­try can be a shock to many who don’t come pre­pared for its unique so­cial and busi­ness cli­mate. Poverty, in­fra­struc­ture prob­lems and a sense of iso­la­tion can of­ten be too much for some to bear.

But for those who per­sist, the re­wards and job sat­is­fac­tion that fol­low can be sig­nif­i­cant. In­deed some en­joy it so much, they vow never to leave.

For ter­ri­tory man­ager with Aus­tralian com­pany Pronto Soft­ware, John Woolfield, do­ing busi­ness there has be­come a long- term propo­si­tion.

For the past 10 years he’s looked af­ter the com­pany’s PNG client base, com­mut­ing ev­ery fort­night from his of­fice in Bris­bane. Pronto sup­plies en­ter­prise re­source plan­ning ( ERP) soft­ware to a range of gov­ern­ment and private- sec­tor or­gan­i­sa­tions in the coun­try.

Be­fore join­ing Pronto, Mr Woolfield lived in PNG for eight years, work­ing for a heavy ma­chin­ery com­pany in­volved in the min­ing in­dus­try, and he’s de­vel­oped a clear pic­ture of what it takes to make a suc­cess of work­ing in the coun­try.

‘‘ It’s a fas­ci­nat­ing place for peo­ple who have an open mind,’’ he says. ‘‘ But some peo­ple can’t han­dle things that are too dif­fer­ent. If some­one’s spent all their life in Toorak, they may well have some is­sues. But oth­ers who per­haps have been ex­posed to other so­cio- eco­nomic con­di­tions should be able to come to terms with things.’’

PNG’s six- mil­lion strong pop­u­la­tion re­lies over­whelm­ingly on sub­sis­tence agri­cul­ture for its liveli­hood. In­deed, ac­cord­ing to gov­ern­ment re­search, only 18 per cent of res­i­dents live in ur­ban ar­eas.

Be­cause of PNG’s rugged ter­rain, vast ar­eas of the coun­try are yet to be ex­plored by western­ers. Out­side the cities and towns, in­fra­struc­ture and ser­vices are sparse at best and of­ten non- ex­is­tent.

For most for­eign work­ers, it takes some time to ad­just to such con­di­tions. Add the bar­ri­ers of lan­guage and a lack of knowl­edge of lo­cal cus­toms and the learn­ing curve be­comes even steeper.

‘‘ Some com­pa­nies will fly peo­ple up ( from Aus­tralia) for a week so they can see what it is like be­fore they ac­cept a new job,’’ says Mr Woolfield. ‘‘ It gives them an idea of what life will be like for them.’’

He says Pronto’s de­ci­sion to run its PNG op­er­a­tions re­motely from Queens­land, with staff mak­ing reg­u­lar vis­its to clients, made com­mer­cial sense for a range of rea­sons. The cost and com­plex­ity of set­ting up a lo­cal of­fice, to­gether with the chal­lenges of find­ing suit­able staff made the ex­er­cise sim­ply too dif­fi­cult.

By op­er­at­ing on a fly- in, fly- out ba­sis, com­pa­nies such as Pronto can pro­vide the staff they need as and when they are re­quired by their lo­cal cus­tomers.

On each two- week stay, Pronto staff tend to base them­selves in a ho­tel, or oc­ca­sion­ally in an apart­ment for stays of longer du­ra­tion. Be­cause get­ting around ur­ban ar­eas can be a chal­lenge, clients tend to pick staff up from their ac­com­mo­da­tion in the morn­ing and re­turn them af­ter work.

When it comes to do­ing busi­ness in PNG, a lot can hinge on the way in which in­di­vid­ual re­la­tion­ships are es­tab­lished and fos­tered. ‘‘ Busi­ness is very much re­la­tion­ship ori­en­tated,’’ says Mr Woolfield. ‘‘ The lo­cal peo­ple’s abil­ity to re­mem­ber names and faces is part of their cul­ture, and mem­o­ries can be quite long.’’

For­eign work­ers and busi­ness peo­ple should re­alise that it will take some time to es­tab­lish key re­la­tion­ships and get a feel for the way in which for­eign­ers should be­have when in the coun­try.

‘‘ Be­cause I had al­ready lived there for eight years I knew the rules and my way around,’’ he says. ‘‘ I didn’t have to have a third party to point me in the right di­rec­tion. But if you are new that is one thing you’ll re­quire.’’

While he’s never felt at risk while work­ing in PNG, Mr Woolfield says it is a mat­ter of us­ing com­mon­sense and be­ing aware of your sur­round­ings at all times. While there is a level of an­i­mos­ity to­wards for­eign­ers work­ing in the coun­try, by be­ing cir­cum­spect it’s pos­si­ble to re­main safe at all times.

‘‘ It comes down to how you play it.’’ he says. ‘‘ If you dis­play your wealth and your power, then you could look at that as mak­ing your­self a tar­get. You just need to know the lim­its, and you don’t go to places un­less you are com­fort­able.’’

De­spite the chal­lenges, Mr Woolfield says the per­sonal sat­is­fac­tion that comes from work­ing in and con­tribut­ing to the com­mu­ni­ties within PNG is sig­nif­i­cant. For an in­ter­est­ing and vi­brant place to work, the coun­try is hard to beat.

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