When an organization’s workforce is spread across geographic borders, learning and development (L&D) teams face a significant challenge: developing training content that resonates with a culturally diverse audience. With over 7,000 languages spoken worldwide, each with its unique system of sound, writing and gestures, language is just the tip of the iceberg. Rachel Cary, eLearning consultant with RWS, explains, “Language really goes beyond that. Language contains all the wisdom, values and history that are unique to a culture. Language can actually shape thoughts and emotions, and therefore our perception of reality.”

Employees must be able to connect with the content to effectively understand and retain the material. However, all too often, employees receive training that isn’t in their native language, which can be a barrier to their learning. “While people can become very comfortable conducting daily business activities like emailing or making phone calls in English, when it comes to learning, knowledge comprehension and retention are much better when content is presented to people in their native language,” says Cary.

Catering Content to a Global Audience

Organizations that invest in culturally sensitive training content stand to gain a more engaged and proficient global workforce. There are two approaches to adapting content for culturally diverse audiences: translation and localization. Translation converts words from one language to another, exactly as presented. Localization, however, goes a step further and adapts content (not just the language) to meet the linguistic and cultural needs of different markets.

Cultural Considerations in Training

While translation is a step in the right direction, it is a limited approach on these cultural and logistical levels:

  • Nuances in language: Literally interpreted idioms, slang and colloquialisms can confuse or even offend your learner.
  • Content formatting: Translated written content that needs more characters to convey the same meaning can cause formatting issues on the page or screen.
  • Audio syncing: Likewise, audio that is translated verbatim may not sync up with your content, confusing and distracting the learner.
  • Imagery: A friendly gesture or seemingly harmless symbol in one market may represent something altogether different or distasteful in another.
  • Learning preferences: Some cultures prefer learner-driven, project-based learning, while others want more structure with formal assessments.

Cary says understanding these cultural nuances is vital for effective training in order for the content “to translate into on-the-job knowledge and skills that lead to performance outcomes that align with our business and operational objectives.”

The Value of Localization in L&D

Cultural missteps in translation can lead to confusion, offense or a loss of credibility. Localization is a deeper process that not only translates text but also adapts content to the target audience’s culture, ensuring it resonates effectively. Taking this extra step ensures your training has the same level of efficacy in each market, leading to better business outcomes across the board.

As localizing content is more involved than simple translation, there are some things learning leaders can do to streamline the process and ensure cultural authenticity:

  • Start With the Stakeholders: In order to design content suitable for the entire audience, L&D professionals need to be a part of the plan from the beginning. “It’s important that L&D leaders get that insight into the future business plan,” Cary says. L&D needs to be aware if the content may need to go to other target markets where learners from different cultures or with different languages will need to engage with it.
  • Build in Cultural Flexibility: To create effective global training content, it’s essential to build flexibility into the development process. Conduct background research on the target culture, consult with native speakers and incorporate adaptable elements. In your visuals and multimedia selections, choose easily modifiable and neutral elements that won’t take as much time to alter in the localization process.
  • Utilize Concurrent Authoring: An innovative approach is concurrent authoring, where contributors from the target culture assist in the content development. They can advise on appropriateness, tone and potential pitfalls that might be overlooked by surface-level research. This ensures that the training material is culturally aligned and resonates with the audience.
  • Ask for Feedback at Each Stage: To catch any cultural missteps in the training content, don’t wait until it’s complete — consult people in the target markets throughout the development process. Cary suggests having people in different roles across markets review text, storyboards and drafts, providing feedback for how you can make it more culturally relevant.

The Risks of Overlooking Culture’s Influence

In a diverse global workforce, cultural sensitivity is essential when developing training content. Recognizing culture’s influence on how content is perceived and incorporating flexibility in content development can make a significant difference in the effectiveness of your training programs.

Failure to properly plan for or acknowledge culture’s significance could negatively impact a global business in several ways:

  • Higher costs to edit content post-production.
  • Delayed timelines due to corrections or errors.
  • Inconsistent outcomes across different markets.
  • Confused learners who become disengaged.
  • Lower overall performance across the business.

In today’s globalized world of work, embracing cultural diversity in corporate training is not just a best practice, it’s a business imperative. It’s essential to recognize that cultural awareness extends beyond language to encompass every facet of communication and learning. By proactively addressing cultural differences, fostering inclusivity and leveraging localization strategies, businesses can unlock the full potential of their employees to achieve success on a global scale.

To learn more, visit rws.com/elearning.