Cross-Cultural Learning Delivery
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Do people learn differently around the world? Does culture affect learning style? The answer is, “Yes”
to both questions.
This is the common challenge for all global companies: How do companies deliver the same training program and consistent message on a global basis while taking into account different learning styles? In order to answer this question, we will look at some cultural problems that must be overcome and then address appropriate methods of learning delivery.
Culture is shaped by a multitude of circumstances and influences. Culture and how people learn is an integral part of growing up, and is influenced and internalized by the way in which parents, teachers, colleagues and friends, pass on information and encourage the way it is processed.
Why is this important? Instructors who are responsible for the design and delivery of courses in global companies need to appreciate how cultural differences and social customers can impact individual and group performance. Most instructors learn the long, hard way through trial and error. The trial-and-error method is costly, time consuming and frustrating for all involved.
Let’s look at some examples of how culture impacts learning:
General Learning Delivery Problems:
The biggest “no-no” is to believe that having learning material translated to the local language is sufficient in taking care of the cultural problem. It is not the language that is the problem; it is the way the material is delivered.
In many non-U.S. countries, participants like to get handouts. Provide handouts ahead of training so that they can read it and have an idea of what will be discussed. They will also have something to refer back to and read and re-read over time.
Using visuals is good in presentations ---- remember “a picture is worth a thousand words”. However, be careful about the use of colors. An abundance of green connected to a humorous slide could be offensive to Muslims to whom green is considered a religious color. It is also the national color of Egypt. Purple is the color of death and funerals in Brazil and Mexico. The use of red carries negative connotations in some Eastern European countries --- however, red is a happy/good luck color in China.
Avoid all slang, idioms, colloquialisms and acronyms. In doing so, the instructor will become aware of just how much he/she actually uses them in everyday conversation! Examples: “piggybacking” is offensive in Israel because a pig is unclean. “Sacred cow” used in a joke or in a derogatory manner will insult Indians to whom cows are sacred. “Barking up the wrong tree”, “when pigs fly”, “ready, fire, aim” will not be understood and make for awkward interruptions in training while trying to explain them.
Avoid U.S.-centric references in training. Using only U.S. companies and U.S. acknowledged experts as examples will reinforce the perception by non-U.S. participants of “typical American arrogance”. In your examples try to refer to country specific companies and experts. Do your homework ahead of time.
For Asian learners group solidarity is important. Instructors need to emphasize group work in which the group, rather than the individual, is at the core of the activity.
Japanese will often nod their heads. This does not necessarily mean they agree. It only means they understand what is being said.
Direct eye contact with one or two participants for long periods of time can embarrass them as they believe it is an invasion of privacy. Instead instructors should try to look from one side of the room to the other while addressing the group.
Be careful about encouraging open discussion and debate. Usually any kind of open debate or disagreement ruins group harmony so participants are more likely to keep their opinions to themselves.
Be careful about calling upon a participant to answer a question. Answering a question can mean a participant risks showing off to other group members, resulting in a collective “loss of face”. Participants don’t want to gain face for themselves nor do they want to contribute to others losing face.
Posture and facial expressions can be important when presenting to groups. In Japan an instructor can be given low evaluations if he/she slouches or smiles too much even though participants may state that the content of the presentation was excellent.
Generally, people in Asia are used to and comfortable with a lecture type of format and do not particularly enjoy role-playing or experiential learning.
Latin American Examples:
Instructors may find that Latin American participants profit more from concepts presented from a “big picture” standpoint. Therefore, they should try to ensure that each new topic is presented so that they see the whole picture first.
Because language differences can be more of a problem in South America, simplify your instruction. Don’t use synonyms --- for example don’t use the word “compensation” and then later in the session use the word “pay” to mean the same thing. Stick with the same words throughout the session.
Restate your main points several times using the same words. As above, try not to use synonyms.
Do not digress into a secondary topic and then switch back to the main topic. This confuses participants with poor English capability. They have difficulty following a switch in topics.
An instructor presenting in Finland noticed that throughout his speech the participants sat expressionless, hands folded, and not moving one inch. The instructor figured he was doing a terrible job. To him their body language translated to boredom. He found out later that this was their way of showing respect ---- absolute focus and dedicated listening to the expert.
Be careful of answering a question with a question. In some European countries the instructor is expected to be an expert and would never ask a participant to provide the answer.
Southern Europeans love to talk and discuss everything, especially in a group setting. They do well with role-playing and experiential learning methods. An instructor needs to allow more time to accommodate this style of learning.
African/Middle Eastern Examples:
Don’t be lulled into thinking that, because some countries are economically Westernized, they are also westernized culturally. An Arab’s wealth may buy him all the material goods of Western success, but on another level, he may still have the conservative mores or customs of his father. In some Middle Eastern countries, a friendly question “How is your wife?” can end up making an enemy forever.
Follow formality protocol. Instructors in some cultures have higher social standing than in the U.S. In these cultures, sharing a good laugh or having dinner with the group creates too much familiarity.
In many parts of Africa it may be seen as confrontational for a subordinate to ask a question of a person of authority in front of the subordinate’s peers.
Understand up front when it is/is not appropriate to have managers and subordinates in the same training sessions. In some cases the subordinates will either not participate at all or will agree with everything the managers say.
If instructors become aware that Islamic students value oral repetition, they should ensure that, especially at the start of the session, this approach is incorporated in some way in the classroom.
Learning Delivery Approaches:
We have looked at some of the cultural problems associated with training in different countries. Let’s now address appropriate methods of learning delivery.
Learning delivery definitely needs to be adapted to each local culture. This can be dealt with in several ways:
1) Spend time and money on training several people at corporate to be experts on both culture and learning delivery for all countries in the company.
2) Have a local training company in each country take the core content and adapt it to “fit” that culture. The corporate instructors can then deliver the training.
3) Have a local training company in each country take the core content, adapt it to “fit” that culture and actually conduct the training.
The problem with Option #1 is that it is expensive and time-consuming. Option #2 can be expensive as local companies are being asked to develop customized courses --- not selling one of their “off the shelf” programs. The upside is the assurance that training material will be appropriate for each country. Option #3 is the most expensive. The upside is that local instructors can speak the same language as the locals and use local examples to explain concepts. However, none of these options allow for any involvement or participation in designing delivery methods by local, in-country employees. And we all know that participation in a process creates a sense of ownership.
Instead, a hybrid option might the best solution. This would involve local training companies adapting the core content of the material to each country culture. The company’s local employees would then deliver the training. The company may have one local employee instructor per country. These employees would be trained at corporate as far as course purpose and deliverables are concerned. They could either be from local HR or, if there is no local HR available, another local function. Actually, it would be best if the instructors were local company management. That would reinforce the corporate message that the training is important and valued by management.
This hybrid approach creates a bond among all the company’s global instructors. A global team could be formed to discuss how well the courses are being received by participants in each country. There could also be discussion/feedback on additional courses that could be developed based on local need. In this way, there is a sense of global ownership in training.
Perhaps with local employee instructors on the worksite every day, employees would practice the concepts learned better than if the instructors were to “fly in” and “fly out” from corporate.
A final note:
With cultural intelligence, training in different countries cannot only be effective but deeply satisfying. Given the increased importance of global communication within companies, it is critical that all company employees be sensitive to cultural and learning style differences. For the head of corporate learning/development, the very success or failure of the company’s next training program could depend on it.