Cross-cultural training poses a myriad of challenges for instructional designers and facilitators beyond what they encounter on domestic initiatives. In cross-cultural learning environments, people bring different values and viewpoints based on their background, and it’s crucial to avoid offending or distracting them from the training at hand.

There are four foundational concepts that can impact the effectiveness of cross-cultural training efforts: global mindset, knowledge, design and delivery.

Global Mindset

The first step in preparing to create or deliver cross-cultural training is introspection. Global audiences include people with different values, religious beliefs, managerial perspectives and upbringings, and you need to first evaluate your own perceptions. For example, in some cultures, they would never call a manager by their first name; in the U.S. culture, addressing a manager by their first name is routine. One of the mindset shifts many people need is how to show respect to company managers and others when working across cultures.

There are two important components of a global mindset: What it means to be a good global citizen, and how we can personally improve or expand our mindset. It’s important to view other cultures non-judgmentally; as different, rather than better or worse. We are exposed to different cultures on television, and perhaps in our neighborhoods, workplace, classrooms, and when traveling. All of these are helpful in expanding our knowledge of different cultures, but only when we make a deliberate effort to expand our knowledge and comfort of differences.

When expanding a global mindset, ask questions when appropriate and inquire about cultural celebrations, holidays and traditions. Read up on cultural intricacies and business practices. Look for ways to be inclusive, whether it is in conversations, invites to lunch or coffee, or intentional outreach to colleagues and acquaintances. Be open to trying new things.

Deliberately expanding your cultural understanding means honoring what you encounter. Accept and acknowledge differences, and strive for understanding.

Know Your Audience

Preparations for developing or facilitating global training should include the various audience analysis points of a typical domestic training program, but deeper. There are several aspects to consider in global audience analysis that are not as critical for domestic initiatives. One of the most obvious issues is around language skills: confirming that the target audience speaks English (if used in training) is not as simple as merely asking your local contact. Ask follow-up questions to get a better handle on just how fluent they are with speaking, verbal understanding and reading. Find out if a fluent participant will be present at the classroom training event, and request their assistance as an informal translator.

Some audience analysis items to consider:

  • Environment: Consider weather, facility, power and elements that can occur unexpectedly.
  • Time and Calendar: Time zones, daylight saving time, and local holidays can confuse even seasoned global facilitators. TimeAndDate.com is a helpful resource.
  • Communication: Determine what titles to use, guidelines to managerial hierarchy and introduction customs.
  • Technology: Have a tech backup. Store everything in the cloud, and be cautious about sharing flash drives. Check for readability if showing a presentation on a different computer, and watch for LMS or system differences.

Design Training with Global Intent

Reading, writing, listening and speaking are different skills, so don’t presume that each participant can do all four well in their non-native language. Use simpler language, enhancing handouts and PowerPoint decks with extra context and content. Where you might otherwise use short bulleted text, write out multiple sentences. Provide handouts in advance, and encourage learners to read through and ask questions. In short, give them every opportunity to understand what you mean to say, to help improve comprehension. This often means adding more content to materials than normal. Make sure to communicate learning objectives, using them as a roadmap through the course. It helps with non-native speakers to track where you are and where you’re going.

One of the biggest differences between cultures is interaction and engagement methods. Don’t rely on one method, like role plays or case studies; employing a variety of methods will increase the odds of successful engagement. Also, plan for contingencies. If your design includes role-play, for example, include a backup plan in the design. Doing as much as possible in their native language is preferred. For example, they can discuss and answer questions in their native language, and then report to the group in the classroom language.

Leverage informal learning options. Discussion of content among learners can lead to better understanding and adoption, and this is especially relevant when the training is created and delivered by folks from other cultural backgrounds. Following up after a training event (lunch and learns, meetings to discuss adoption or barriers, success stories, discussing scenarios) helps to increase connections and stickiness. Likewise, mentoring can be a valuable tool as a bridge to adoption and closing knowledge gaps.

Delivering Training Across Cultures

In addition to having a global mindset, two valued characteristics for a global facilitator are flexibility and adaptability. It is challenging to manage differences in classrooms and unexpected things that invariably come up.

For example, Terrence Donahue, corporate director of learning for Emerson Electric, sends a short introduction via video before the session. He introduces himself and the course, and prepares participants for any pre-work. On the day of the training, he stands at the door and greets everyone as they enter. He is creating a comfortable and safe environment before the training even begins.

Ask questions of an in-country contact prior to the session regarding manager sensitivity, gender practices, lunch, breaks and attire. Look for relatable topics to make conversations and connections at breaks and meals, like recent festivals, music, sports, geography, or places of interest.

Delivery Tips

If you are speaking to a group from a different culture, state your intention to not offend and apologize in advance for any missteps you may make. Research cross-cultural meanings and translation in advance, and avoid idioms and metaphors that don’t translate well across cultures, like regional sports.

Don’t merely lecture; facilitate learning. Have a deep knowledge of the subject you are facilitating, and don’t count on the knowledge being in the room. Have things to contribute – there are cultures where that is extremely important, and they may ask you direct questions to go deeper and expect you to know.

Be aware of your pace and effective communication, and plan and practice giving clear instructions. Allow additional time for students to process and understand. Create a safe place for questions, but understand that they still may not ask any. Have a person or two in the audience, an “ally” if you will, who is comfortable with asking questions or for clarification. Be sure to have a tolerance for side conversations; they may be helpful for participant understanding.

Keep in Mind 

Cross-cultural training cannot be learned reading an article or book or doing it once. Increasing the sensitivity to the topic is a great start. Learning new things with every training event or rollout will continue to enhance understanding. When it comes to training other cultures, it is a continuous learning and experience journey. The more you learn, the more you find you have yet to learn.

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