One of the real benefits of training is the opportunity to meet people from diverse backgrounds, but the variations of learning styles can undermine even the best trainers. All instruction is embedded with the cultural assumptions of the designers and facilitators.
Instructional personnel who are responsible for the design, revision, and delivery of courseware in international settings, or for international trainees in the corporate headquarters, need to understand how cultural differences in instructional and learning styles and in social customs and business practices can, and do, impact individual and group performance.
Most people learn the long and hard way—that is, through trial and error—how to be most effective when working with colleagues and instructing associates from other cultures. This trial-and-error method is costly, time-consuming, and frustrating for all involved. Take this case study, for example:
A new telephone system is sold to a Middle Eastern client with the condition that one day of on-site training will be provided for the equipment. The instructor flies in the night before the training and the next day, reviews the user's manual with the attentive and respectful technicians. At the end of the day, the instructor asks if there are any questions or concerns about the product. There is no response. To be safe, the instructor asks each student if he or she understood everything. Everyone said yes, they understood. Three weeks later, the equipment provider gets a call from the customer, who is irate because the equipment is not functioning properly, saying that the technicians were never given sufficient training.
Had the instructor been more culturally aware, he would have known that in some Middle Eastern cultures, it would be unlikely his trainees would be willing to stick out when asked if they understood the instructions. It would have been wiser for him to either ask the students to practice and demonstrate what he taught them, or break them into small groups and assign the groups to come up with questions.
Rather than taking the risk of trial and error, there are five important skills that can be applied to ensure success when training people of diverse backgrounds. Trainers first must ask themselves, "What unique challenges do we face when instructing across cultures?" To answer this, they must do the following:
Recognize how their own implicit cultural assumptions impact their performance and effectiveness as instructors, instructional designers, and business associates. For example, do they begin with a formal presentation or with a simulation?
Identify specific situations where misunderstandings are likely to occur in the design and delivery of courses across cultures or other working situations. For example, do they want participants of different ranks within an organization to take the program together?
Assess their own traits and skills with respect to those needed for success in cross-cultural settings. For example, do they think the use of humor adds to or detracts from the effectiveness of training?
Practice culturally appropriate learning and instructional styles, and business protocols. Do they call on people directly or have people respond in groups? Do they go to lunch or dinner with the students? Should they invite students to join them for a meal?
Learn how to adapt existing materials and methods to the culture of the participants—including multicultural audiences. Are the students more familiar with an inductive or deductive learning style? Are they more comfortable with rote memory or interactive exercises? Are all the examples in the local currency and measurements, or in the instructional designers’ currency and measurements?
Differences in cultural values of the instructors and students on dimensions such as hierarchy, individual vs. group orientation, and comfort with risk-taking, play a major role on the eventual success or failure of a program. Other major factors include linguistic competencies, familiarity with the use of new technologies, and the preferred communication styles of students and instructors.
I have seen far too many cases of Western-trained instructors unintentionally embarrassing a student by demanding a direct answer when the student was trying to indirectly answer the question to save face, because the instructor did not explain the concepts sufficiently for the student to understand.
The use of slang and acronyms is to be avoided at all times. Trainers must be conscious of the local colloquialisms they use. In one course, I observed an instructor from Kentucky who told the class of 40 international trainees, "Yous all did great on the test." The students were befuddled because they did not know anyone named "Yousall."
Learning some of the core cultural differences in instructional design and delivery is a critical skill in today's global learning environment. The use of e-learning increases the chance of unintended negative consequences since the instructor cannot see the non-verbal cues associated with misunderstanding.
Neal Goodman, Ph.D will conduct a session on the topic of this article for the Training 2010 Conference and Expo. His presentation is entitled: "The Impact of Values on Training Success: Cross-Cultural and Generational Challenges." He writes a column, Going Global, which is a regular feature on the Training Magazine Website. He is president of Global Dynamics, Inc. He can be reached at 305.682.7883. For more information, go to www.global-dynamics.com.