How This Vietnamese Company Burned Down The Traditional Management Playbook
Nestled amidst Hanoi's vibrant lanes, Amber Online Education, a company providing online learning experiences for titans like Samsung and LG, was on the cusp of crafting its own metamorphic tale. A tale not just of business reinvention, but of throwing out the entire playbook of traditional management. We traveled to Vietnam to visit them and learn from their remarkable transformation journey.
Progressive organizations in Vietnam
Eager to learn from Vietnamese pioneers, we arrive in Hanoi. At the airport, we are welcomed by Teal Unicorn founders Cherry Vu and Rob England, two pioneers who have supported several dozen Vietnamese firms on their radical journeys of reinvention.
Based on their stories, these are exactly the kind of transformations we are always on the lookout for.
But at Corporate Rebels, we're not looking for second-hand stories. We want to visit these pioneers and talk to the employees, the founders, the CEOs. We visit these highly progressive organizations to learn about the nuts and the bolts.
One of them: Amber Online Education.
Throwing out the traditional management playbook
Upon entering the office of Amber Online Education, we meet part of the team for an in-depth exploration. The conversation starts with the story of The-Anh Nguyen, CEO of the company.
Back in 2018, The-Anh dreamed of transcending the traditional management hierarchy. He sought a world where employees weren't merely cogs in a corporate machine. In his view, each individual at Amber was a potential entrepreneur, capable of influencing the company’s direction.
The-Anh: "I envisioned a workplace where everybody was taking initiative, nobody had to listen to a boss, and people could develop themselves and their talents. Our traditional management style didn't promote any of that."
The big question, as usual: how?!
Creating the space for reinvention
The bold transformation started with an equally bold decision. CEO The-Anh decided to step away. He moved to a house in a remote area in the mountains for a duration of 4 months.
The aim? To step away from the operational side of things. To create space. Both in his mind and in his organization.
Instead of The-Anh calling the shots, Ms. Thuy Hang Huynh (who had successfully transformed Vinh Duc Real Estate in the years before) joined the organization. She picked up an important mentor-like role to guide the organization through its radical reinvention.
It was a bold and daring decision (and far from easy) to make for The-Anh. Stepping away from your company and fully trusting others to take over your role while embarking on such a transformation is not something many others would dare to do.
It takes guts to overcome any doubts, fears, and ego, for sure.
During this reflection period, they decided to ditch 80% of their client work. Not just to create thinking space, but also to reinvent the products and services they offered to their clients.
The radical revamp
The space they created has truly set them free. In just 4(!) months of listening, reflection, and challenging the existing norms, the bulk of the changes were made.
In this blog post, I’ll dive mostly into the mechanics of the transformation to help you get a good understanding of the practical changes that were made.
However, it’s important to share that such changes would never have been made if the entire team at Amber wasn’t fully committed to redefining what work looks like.
They knew they wanted to create a more human, more inspiring, and more meaningful way of working. They also knew that it would be extremely challenging, uncertain, and tough to get there.
Nevertheless, they boldly and fearlessly embarked on the journey.
Dissecting the transformation
A lot can be learned from Amber. Below, I’ve listed some of the most powerful changes they made (in chronological order).
1. Using transparency to move from top-down to peer-to-peer
The walls of Amber began to narrate stories. Kanban boards, brimming with tasks, progress, and challenges, made every corner lively. As far as the eye could see, these simple 'to do / in progress / done' boards helped the many teams to collaborate through the power of transparency.
The mornings would kick-off with 15-minute stand-ups. To coordinate tasks, to share challenges, to support each other to overcome obstacles.
Communication channels were simplified. All communication moved to one tool and one tool only: Facebook. An unusual choice, yet so quintessentially Vietnamese. They embraced full transparency here too - every victory, every setback, shared in real-time.
The introduction of this so-called 'open management' wasn’t merely about tracking tasks, but about promoting collective responsibility and engagement.
No longer would information trickle from the top down. This change was an important starting point. As of now, teams started to run the show.
2. Simplifying processes
Next up: using the power of 'value stream mapping'. In case you're not familiar with it, let me explain.
Value stream mapping is a tool that allows you to see the entire process of how a product or service flows from start to finish. It helps identify areas of inefficiency, waste, or delays in this process, so that they can be improved.
The ultimate goal is to streamline processes, reduce waste, and deliver better value to the customer.
To make it more vivid, imagine you're planning a road trip. Before you start, you lay out the entire route on a map, marking all the places you'll stop for gas, food, rest, and sightseeing. As you study this map, you might notice some detours that are unnecessary, or places where you're stopping too often and wasting time. By re-planning the trip based on this map, you can make your journey more efficient and enjoyable. That's essentially what 'value stream mapping' does, but for business processes.
Staff at Amber used this tool to paint a clear canvas of its operations. Once the picture was painted, they could simplify processes like an artist removes unnecessary brush strokes.
This collaborative effort helped them to radically simplify how they worked.
Beyond its technical veneer, value stream mapping was Amber’s philosophical stand against operational opacity. By streamlining processes and eliminating waste, it wasn’t just about efficiency, but about empowering every employee to shape the company going forward.
Every voice, every suggestion, mattered. The improvement exercise itself garnered motivation and team spirit.
3. Finances: Opening the closed doors
In a bold stride, company financials were laid open. Employees huddled, not just around coffee machines, but around financial statements, learning how their efforts shaped the bottom line.
On a monthly basis, profit and loss overviews were shared with everyone. As with all other information, the company's internal Facebook page was the channel.
By opening their financial books, Amber wasn’t just being transparent; they were investing trust in every team member. By equipping everyone with the tools to understand financial data, they created a workforce that thought collectively about the company's financial health.
4. Replacing individual bonuses with profit sharing for all
Moving away from the dated paradigm of individual bonuses, Amber acknowledged research showing the well-known pitfalls of such systems: unethical behaviors, siloed thinking, and a myopic focus.
By eliminating them, they fostered unity over rivalry.
To strengthen this unity even further, they introduced a profit sharing scheme for all. Thirty percent of profits would be split among all staff members. By tying everyone’s incentives to the company’s success, Amber unleashed a truly collective spirit.
Every win, every achievement became a collective celebration.
5. From top-down to peer-based salaries
Now that several important changes had been made, it was time for the next bold step. This time, it was time to reinvent salaries and make them fully transparent. A touchy and tough subject in any organizational transformation.
To let go of even more of the traditional management practices at Amber, they decided to remove top-down salary setting from the company entirely. Instead, they moved into a system of peer-based salaries.
Let me explain it in a nutshell.
Each staff member assesses their direct colleagues on a few job-related skills. They use the concept of Shu-Ha-Ri for this. "Shu-Ha-Ri" is a Japanese martial arts concept that describes the stages of learning to mastery:
- Shu (守): "Obey" or "Protect" - This stage is all about learning the ropes, understanding the basics, and strictly following the guidance of a mentor.
- Ha (破): "Detach" or "Break" - In this phase, the individual has gained some experience and begins to experiment, explore, and refine their skills, often while still under the guidance of a mentor but with more independence.
- Ri (離): "Separate" or "Transcend" - At this level, the individual has achieved a deep understanding and mastery of the craft, allowing them to innovate, teach others, and perhaps even redefine the discipline.
In short, Shu, Ha, and Ri can be understood as development levels apprentice, practitioner, master, respectively.
The process roughly looks like this:
- The main skills required for various jobs in the company are listed
- Peers assess their direct colleagues on these skills and whether they believed them to be in the Shu, Ha, or Ri level
- All assessments are openly shared
- Pay is based on the average assessment of your colleagues
- Salaries are made fully transparent and reviewed on a regular basis
Simple. Bold. Powerful.
Of course, in the beginning the process of assessing each other's skills openly was daunting, uncomfortable, and challenging. However, after a period of a few months, the process started to feel more and more valuable to those involved.
When we asked staff members how they felt about the process now, they were very clear:
"This process has been a huge eye-opener for me. It helps me to better understand my performance, skills, and most importantly, what my development opportunities are."
The reactions we gathered are a testament to its value. Amber’s innovative approach to salaries reflects a deeper belief: that peers best recognize value, not bosses. This wasn’t just about pay; it was about respect, recognition, and equality.
Reinventing the management playbook
Amber's radical reinvention has brought about significant improvements. By opening up information and communication, as described above, they facilitated a powerful transition from top-down to peer-to-peer management.
Staff have observed notable enhancements in engagement, motivation, and personal growth.
Simultaneously, clients are more satisfied, productivity has surged by 266%, and employees relish greater freedom while assuming increased responsibility.
Cherry Vu and Rob England from Teal Unicorn, along with CEO The-Anh Nguyen and the entire staff of Amber, can take pride in their radical workplace transformation.
This is an organization that didn't merely adapt but entirely reshaped its ethos, serving as an inspiration for organizations worldwide.
Want to meet The-Ahn Nguyen?
Want to dive deeper into the story of Amber? We’ve got a unique opportunity to meet with Amber’s CEO The-Anh Nguyen in next week's community event.
Exclusively available to members of the Corporate Rebels Academy. Join now. Click here.