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How to Communicate L&D Across Different Cultures

Bob Little 

April 21, 2017

Throughout history, despite developing separately, cultures have needed to interact. This might be for economical (trade), educational (because travel broadens the mind), or political (because of war and its consequences) reasons.

The effects of these three things, along with the ease of worldwide travel and the globalization of business operations, means that any organization – whatever its recruitment catchment area – will now likely include workers from different cultural backgrounds. Consequently, L&D professionals need to consider the cultural and cross-cultural implications of the learning materials that they develop, deliver and recommend.

But what is “culture?” How do you know that a difference in perception or response is purely the result of a cultural difference? Moreover, once you’ve identified this difference as cultural, how can you understand it and allow for it?

This latter question raises issues of cultural competence – that is, someone’s ability to understand people from different cultures and engage with them effectively. As cross-cultural guru Richard D. Lewis states, “A working knowledge of the basic traits of other cultures – as well as our own – will minimize unpleasant surprises (culture shock), give us insights, and enable us to interact successfully with nationalities.”

The ‘Lewis Model’ describes three types of human beings:

  • Linear active.
  • Multi-active.
  • Reactive.

“Linear active people are like Germans and Americans,” says Lewis. “They do one thing at a time, plan ahead and are job-oriented. Multi-active people are people-oriented – emotional. They try to do many things at once and get excited quickly. Italians are good examples of multi-active people.

“Reactive people are the Asians – Chinese, Japanese and so on. They try to make you speak first – to establish what your aims and intentions are, so they can modify their reply to create a harmonious attitude.

“When doing business with people from different cultures we should ascertain to which cultural category they belong. Study the category and respond by adapting – so your behavior corresponds to the people with whom you’re doing business.”

The same principle applies in a corporate L&D context, in terms of preparing and disseminating L&D materials to a culturally diverse workforce, especially if people are geographically remote.

No doubt every L&D professional values diversity, is culturally aware, and understands their organization’s culture. The challenging part is ensuring that the organization’s L&D materials are culturally diverse and that they also present a consistent and coherent message to all workers.

However, the growth of informal learning, as well as the trend toward L&D professionals now acting as curators rather than purely providers of knowledge, has complicated matters in recent years.

L&D professionals generally tend to choose one of two broad policy options:

  • Corporate culture supersedes personal (worker) cultures.
  • A multicultural approach that seeks to inform appropriately and motivate workers of all cultures.

HR specialist Roger Mayo, the director of independent consultancy MT&D Learning Solutions, has run masterclass transnational management events for multinational organizations and has worked extensively with multicultural teams worldwide. He says, “There are many tips and traps to be aware of here.

“Your approach should reflect your organization’s strategy on cultural development as well as L&D. You could establish a small forum of people who act as cultural ‘sensors’ for your material. Simultaneously, you must be sensitive to pitfalls such as jargon and local idioms that may not travel to all cultures successfully. Sometimes a simple phrase can cause humor – or offence.

“Alternatively, you can embrace your organization’s diverse culture by choosing to base learning scenarios, case studies and examples in diverse locations and encourage cross-cultural exchanges. As long as you systematically ensure that each culture is touched from time to time, you should be fine.”

Dr Vla’ka Knihová, a linguist, learning consultant, and senior lecturer at The University of Finance and Administration in Prague, in the Czech Republic, has many years’ experience of teaching people from a range of countries. She believes that, “While cultural stereotypes might be viewed as obstacles to disseminating corporate communications effectively, a more positive approach – using these stereotypes to everyone’s advantage – can be a source of inspiration.

“I’ve been working with Chinese university students in Prague for the last two years. I studied Chinese culture in detail, including the vital concept of ‘losing face.’ In one marketing seminar, the students were asked to prepare a marketing mix for a new educational game. I wanted to be sure they knew how this game worked and, thus, wouldn’t make a mistake and ‘lose face.’

“So, I asked the Chinese teacher, who was present, to explain it to the students. The explanation happened, everyone nodded – which doesn’t necessarily mean what ‘nodding’ means in Western culture – and the students, in groups, soon produced the required marketing mix.

“I’m now convinced that creating a friendly, positive, encouraging, cultural-friendly atmosphere, enabling learners to ask questions to clarify every subtle detail, matters more than anything else when communicating effectively across cultures.  

“Motivation always supersedes cultural issues. The key is to be approachable – even more than you think should be enough.”

But, if all this talk of globalization and cross-culturalism is proving too much, you may not have to worry. One of the predictions for 2017 made by the Financial Times and IE Corporate Learning Alliance is that home markets will become increasingly important. According to head of communication at the Financial Times David Wells, “Political and economic uncertainties around globalization will force HR managers to look increasingly to their home markets for new talent.

“The growth of global trade has created greater price competition. Moving jobs abroad, the introduction of automation, and sourcing talent from a larger global pool have made jobs less secure.

“Moreover, the huge pay gap between people at the top and the bottom of organizations has contributed to feelings of mistrust. Arguably, reactions to this new status quo are being played out with the apparent rise of popular protectionism seen in the UK’s Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump as US president.

“So, with changing regulatory environments in many countries, HR and talent managers may need to look increasingly to their home markets.”

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