While our increasingly global and remote work environments have led to greater innovation and more creative uses of technology for learning, they have also revealed a variety of deficiencies in training and overall learning transfer. These differences are not new — they existed before the pandemic (and even before companies expanded their global footprints). However, they’re getting more attention as businesses focus on the return on investment (ROI) of learning in the wake of rapid transformations, and the value of “time in learning” is being scrutinized. One often overlooked parameter involved with creating quality and impactful learning involves understanding the cultural contexts with which learners approach their own learning and development (L&D).

This is where the discipline of Anthropology may factor in: Specifically, the discipline of learning across cultures. We must be careful not to let our own cultural perceptions influence how we treat learners, but instead consider how the learners’ cultural and regional backgrounds may impact their learning preferences. This does not mean that individuals don’t have their own learning preferences beyond cultural influences. However, we can become better enablers of learning if we take time to understand that cultural impacts exist and may add an additional layer of complexity that can potentially impact the success of learning transfer.

How can we apply this in our corporate, global and remote work environments?

Designing Learning for Diverse Learning Populations

There are two ways to approach cultural learning contexts. The first involves our own perceptions as learning leaders and how we design learning for diverse learning populations (culturally, regionally, technologically and linguistically).

Questions to ask ourselves when we are creating any training experience:

    • Are we aware of our implicit biases and cultural assumptions?
    • Have we identified where specific training examples or scenarios may have the potential for misunderstandings among learners?
    • Are embedded learning examples culturally relevant to learners, while avoiding a slant toward one culture or region in the world?
    • Are we minimizing the use of slang and local colloquialisms in the learning materials? And if we are using abbreviations or acronyms, are we making sure to define them?
    • If English is the language used in the training, are we providing translated learning materials based on the depth and breadth of knowledge that may be needed by non-native English speakers? (Do we know the level of English proficiency our company requires for its workforce?)

Questions to ask ourselves in consideration of diverse populations agnostic of region or culture include:

    • Are we creating learning or using tools for hosting learning content that support colleagues with limitations (visually impaired or color-blind, hearing impaired, etc.)?
    • Are we considering timing of live learning sessions (time zones) and also creating a combination of synchronous or asynchronous learning opportunities if timing is unsuitable for some learners?
    • Is the learning modality designed to be flexible enough to withstand varying methods and tools for learner access (bandwidth, webcams, computer speed, etc.)?
    • Is there a variety of ways for learners to interact with the instructor (mute/unmute, chat, email, polling, learning communities, reference libraries, recordings of sessions, etc.), taking into consideration modalities that allow for more introverted learners to be involved?

Understanding the Cultural Dimensions of Learning

The second way to apply cultural learning contexts involves understanding the cultural dimensions of learning. This is by no means easy. It requires the learning leader to introspect and “be acutely aware of their own culture because their world views cannot be separated from the training that they develop. They should become cognizant of how their own cultural perspectives are represented in the design decisions they make. Furthermore, instructional providers should examine the assumptions they hold about how learners will and should respond, keeping an open mind for potentially unexpected response.”

The Cultural Dimensions of Learning Framework (CDLF) (Table 1), adapted from the work of Hofstede and Hofstede (2005), Nisbett (2003), Levine (1997), Hall (1983), and Lewis (2006), by Parrish and Linder-VanBerschot is useful for understanding the spectrum of cultural differences that impact the teaching and learning enterprise.

The spectrum shown in the CDLF does not address all potential cultural dimensions of learning. However, it does represent a range of behaviors, and the individuals within any specific culture will differ in how strongly they display the tendencies. For example, gender roles and differences in non-verbal communications are treated only indirectly. It is difficult to fully represent a comprehensive framework due to cultural complexity and the impacts of education and training.

The CDLF contains descriptions of eight key cultural dimensions which may provide learning leaders with insights on how to approach learning initiatives based on their knowledge of cultural backgrounds. These include the following: equality vs. authority, individualism vs. collectivism, nurturing vs. challenging, stability vs. uncertainty, more logical vs. more reasonable, focus on causality vs. focus on systems/situations, clock focus vs. event focus, linear time vs. cyclical time.

While not all of the dimensions need to be considered and addressed in every learning design initiative, it may be useful to review the general framework which allows the learning leader to prepare for potential differences among learners (specifically in globally impacting training initiatives). The CDLF may also be used by learning designers to understand and be aware of their own cultural biases.

Overcoming Cultural Awareness Challenges

Though learning leaders can arm themselves with cultural awareness, there are still unique challenges that remain. They include separating learning behaviors that are based on deeply entrenched cultural values against those that may be more superficial. It is easy to make false assumptions when we attribute ways of thinking and behavior to the wrong sources of influence (as these can be attributed to human nature, culture or personality). It is also easy to over-generalize conclusions about a particular culture from a few individuals when their behaviors may be personality-driven. The CDLF may help in avoiding false assumptions. However, it’s important to note that people have the ability to compensate for their own cultural conditioning when they participate in another culture by adopting specific behaviors from that culture.

Given all the challenges outlined above, where does this leave us as the purveyors of learning, instruction and quality knowledge transfer? We can navigate through some of these challenges by increasing our own awareness, challenging our biases and by adding a few key practices to our learning design toolkits. Suggested practices include:

    • Creating flexible learning design using different learning modalities and opportunities from opposite ends of the cultural dimensions to meet in the middle. For example, self-paced learning or sessions that allow learners to add inputs anonymously or through polling.
    • Taking time to research trainees’ cultures and backgrounds and collaborating with leaders and managers who have a strong understanding of those groups to participate in developing or reviewing learning initiatives.
    • Building in a plan to conduct a pilot launch of specific initiatives that can be scaled after initial feedback is provided by a smaller group of representative trainees.
    • Being observant and aware of what is happening during training sessions. How are trainees participating, interacting and behaving? While this is even more challenging in remote learning situations, it’s important to be able to assess and pivot as needed.

While some of this information may be overwhelming, remember that awareness is a key starting point. Start small and keep evolving your learning toolkit. Keep up with learning research and learning modalities, challenge your own assumptions, continue to understand bias and use your trusted network of advisors to compare notes.

As learning leaders, we are all in this together. We can and should continue to learn from each other as we contribute to building the culture of learning at our respective organizations.