The ability to leverage learning programs in culturally relevant contexts is key.
by Deanna Hartley
March 27, 2009
Going global requires learning leaders to grapple with thorny issues, such as the role of local context in content development, solutions to language barriers and finding the right balance between centralized and decentralized learning.
We live in an age in which international boundaries are blurred and multinational corporations abound. The global nature of business dealings and an increasingly multicultural workforce have raised the need to globalize learning. As a result, learning leaders are contending with the sizeable task of standardizing programs across the world, while preserving cultural nuances that advance learning.
“We’re in an era of globalization, and we do have to take into account that corporations and organizations are global [and] that learning and cultural styles differ,” said Charlene Solomon, executive vice president of RW3 LLC, an online cultural information resource.
“While you’re broadening the reach of the learning solutions, you also have to pay very careful attention to the way that people learn,” she said.
Building Cultural Competence
Given the fact that learning styles vary from one culture to another, the ability to leverage learning programs in culturally relevant contexts is key.
“The challenge is: How do you take a curriculum and ensure that it’s developed in a way that’s sensitive culturally to your audience? It’s another layer of issues that the instructor has to be aware of,” Solomon said. “Learning professionals [must] take into account cultural issues at the same time as they think about what type of learner they’re approaching: visual, oral or kinesthetic learners.”
Americans approach learning in a vastly different way than, say, people from Asia, Europe or Africa would. From kindergarten, Americans are taught to stand up in front of a group, make a presentation (a la show-and-tell) and field questions from their classmates. This learning approach is subsequently carried over into college forums and beyond, where lively discussions and questioning is the norm.
“One of the ways [Americans] stand out as good students in school is to raise [their] hand and question the teacher [to demonstrate their] understanding of the content,” Solomon said. “They’re very interactive learners.”
In contrast, learners from some Asian and African countries are comfortable with listening, but rarely challenge the instructor out of fear of appearing disrespectful.
“[It’s important to] adapt the teaching methodologies to the local culture, so if an American is going to [teach] a group of Asian learners, at the very least he will know what to expect,” Solomon explained.
These incongruent learning styles point to a fundamental need for cultural competence to be embedded in the learning function. “Building global cultural competence is becoming a critical business skill,” Solomon said. “[In the same way] you need to understand salary scales [and] compliance [issues] in human resources, understanding culture is as critical [when] interacting with others in the organization.”
Context vs. Content
The primary factor to consider when building global learning solutions is balancing content with the local context.
“You can’t sacrifice the content to deal with local cultural differences [because], if you do, you essentially negate the value of the global program,” said Tom Laubenthal, managing director at ACS Learning Services, a provider of learning outsourcing services.
“What [learning professionals] need to do is make sure there’s enough flexibility in how the program is structured and how it’s delivered through a qualified instructor core to at least be influenced by particular learning needs in a particular location. And instead of ignoring them, try to find a way to accommodate and adapt them without changing the content,” he said.
Accounting firm Ernst & Young provides assurance, tax, transaction and advisory services to clients across the globe. The firm, which employs 135,000 people worldwide, is moving toward a learning model with a single global curriculum.
“An organization like Ernst & Young is quite homogenous. We deliver the same services around the world, we’re organized in exactly the same way, and therefore there was a need for a global learning curriculum that is consistent,” said Riaz Shah, global learning and development leader at Ernst & Young.
However, the curriculum must allow some room for culturally influenced learning-style preferences, Shah said. Learners in some countries may favor a lecture-based program, while others may prefer lively discussions. Those differences can themselves be a source of learning.
“We have to consider the variance in learning styles [and] how to leverage those differences,” said Ed Cohen, chief learning officer at Satyam Computer Services Ltd., an India-based global IT services provider that employs 53,000 workers in 66 countries. Cohen’s job was further complicated in January when the company’s CEO resigned after admitting to falsifying the company’s earnings and assets by more than $1 billion, setting off a crisis of confidence in the Indian outsourcing market.
“Anytime you have programs that center on relationship, human dynamics or management, leadership [or] team building, you have an opportunity to integrate all the cultural aspects and the differences in a very informal way because, instead of trying to pretend it doesn’t exist, you actually magnify it and say: ‘Is this type of thing appropriate in India?’ Or ‘Let’s take a look at South America; would this be appropriate?’” Cohen explained.
Solomon said learning leaders should consider a few factors when building and facilitating learning programs in global settings, including:
• Will participants work better in large or small groups in learning situations?
• Should programs include people from different positions within the organization’s hierarchy, or is it better to have a more homogenous group?
• Should it be an interactive session or a lecture-based program followed by a forum in which people can write their questions?
Being flexible in these delivery factors makes sense in some cultural contexts and enhances learning. While content remains king and a global curriculum should remain largely consistent across borders, there are some instances in which tailoring content to the local context makes sense.
“Having some flexibility in terms of the content might be appropriate in certain circumstances,” Shah said. “[For example], negotiations in Japan are done in a very different way than they are in New York, and a Japanese client might prefer a negotiation to be done in a very different way.”
While delivery can be flexible enough to accommodate the needs of people in certain locations, there also is a need to address local skills and knowledge gaps.
“A number of global companies stay true to the global curriculums but recognize there may be other knowledge or skills that individuals must acquire that are assumed in some geographies — such as Western Europe or North America — but are not present in other locations,” Laubenthal said.
Laubenthal said there are ways to accommodate these discrepancies without significantly altering or compromising the core content.
“[If] you recognize a [skill] deficiency in one geography due to cultural differences — for example, how they deal with negotiation — [it would be advisable] not to ignore those, but to accommodate those perhaps by adding a module to the learning program that does not take away [from] or sidetrack the global curriculum, but does address the local requirements,” he added.
Global organizations, such as GE, recognize there are cultural nuances when implementing learning solutions around the world. But they also realize those nuances cannot become barriers to organizational objectives. Jayne Johnson, director of leadership education at GE, said the company takes a flexible approach to teaching new managers how to handle employee performance without sacrificing the legitimacy of the content.
“In the United States, it’s very easy for a manager to sit down with an employee and tell him or her that they’re having performance problems,” she said. “In some parts of Asia, that’s going to be a little bit more of a challenge.
“So if we have an exercise where they are role-playing that discussion, sometimes [rather than] have them face-to-face with people, we’ll have them back-to-back,” she said. “That way they’re not making eye contact, [but] the Japanese participants will be learning how to have the conversation because it is necessary.”
This flexible, but consistent approach must be emphasized because the local culture must never overly influence the content.
“We have a very strong company culture that will take precedence over the local culture,” Johnson said. “So even in Japan, we expect our managers to have those direct conversations, but we realize that it’s a cultural issue, so we need to hold their hand and teach them how to have those direct conversations.”
In addition to cultural differences, learning professionals must contend with language barriers when standardizing learning programs around the world.
“One of the biggest challenges is language because cultural barriers you can learn about and you can try to design your learning in a way that meets some of those cultural issues, [but the programs] need to be delivered in the language that people are competent in,” Solomon said.
Some organizations expect English proficiency skills, especially as employees climb up the corporate ladder. GE makes translation an option for some lower-level early-leader training courses, but expects its managers to have at least a working knowledge of English. In Satyam’s case, the company provides translators to assist employees in many parts of the world.
“The last thing you want to do is let language become your barrier for learning,” Cohen said. “[Therefore], when we break into discussion groups, we have the employees speak in whatever language they feel most comfortable and we have interpreters [on hand] to assist. We also use interpreters so people can either speak or listen in whichever language they prefer.”
Centralized vs. Decentralized
There long has been debate and analysis on the efficacy of centralized global delivery of learning programs vs. localized delivery. At GE, the learning programs tend to be more centralized, thanks in part to former CEO Jack Welch.
“[Welch] had our audit staff do a study of all the training that’s around our company and found that we had [approximately] 93 versions of presentation skills,” Johnson said.
Upon his request, the company subsequently developed a common curriculum to standardize leadership courses, including presentation skills. Centralized programs can be more cost-efficient because they eliminate the need to pay multiple vendors. A centralized model also ensures a consistent message is delivered around the world.
“The biggest benefit of centralization is quality control,” Johnson said. “We can make sure not only that we’ve got a consistent message, but [also ensure] the content is accurate and updated in a timely manner.”
Still, GE acknowledges the need for flexibility and provides local trainers with some leeway to modify content.
“Our rule of thumb with a lot of the programs we design is that 85 percent of the content will be absolutely consistent across the world. But we give the business 15 percent to play with so they can adapt it to meet their cultural or business initiatives,” Johnson added.
The learning programs at GE are reflective of the work of a global team to ensure that best practices across the world are shared and leveraged.
“You need to ensure you’ve got a global design team because if you miss one pocket of the world, you risk not meeting the needs of that culture in your program,” Johnson said.
Whether centralized or decentralized, learning brings the company’s employees together around shared goals and objectives. And it’s important to remember the role that a personal touch can play in strengthening a corporation’s image. Virtual tools, such as Web radio, video and webcasting, can help build community and engage global employees in learning.
“If you use a medium like webcasting, it actually brings people into community with each other,” Cohen said. “Most e-learning simply ports the classroom into the virtual world. Instead, we decided to find more innovative ways to do it and to get the learning out there.”
Satyam uses a concept known as “edutainment,” in which learning programs are run in a talk-show format.
“People can phone in, text message [or] e-mail their questions, so it becomes interactive between the panelists and the participants,” Cohen explained.