The ATD 2016 International Conference & Exposition is food for my brain—and even for my soul. I do not always remember names, but I remember the conversations—the specifics of learning and development (L&D) in a particular country or field, how to develop an ecosystem, implementing coaching or mobile learning programs, and the career questions we are all asking. Talking with such a diverse group, I begin to see similarities and differences. I value this because I help people understand how culture affects their work and how to use it as an advantage. The whole conference is a learning experience, not just the speakers or workshops.
On a personal level, participating in the conference allows me to benchmark my own professional development globally. What are my skills gaps and where do I want to grow? It also keeps me in touch with what’s going on in the United States, my country of origin. What are the current trends? Where is L&D going in the future? What are the expectations of practitioners in the field? What would be expected of me if and when I return? I get answers to these questions and more from all sorts of people to build a multifaceted picture.
Marketing professionals have known this for a long time. Look at the websites for global brands such as Pepsi or Coca-Cola and see how they design them differently for different countries. In the case of learning, culture can make the difference between good training and great, and sometimes between bad training and good.
Understanding the cultures of training participants helps us create more effective training. What do we need to know? We’ll answer this in two ways. The first uses generalized concepts so that we can quickly compare the differences (or similarities) between cultures. This is called a culture-general approach. The second is the culture-specific approach, which looks at a culture and identifies what is important to the majority of the people in this culture, common behaviors, and unique aspects.
The Culture-General Approach
A culture-general approach to learning uses concepts expressed as two ends of a continuum and compares cultures on that concept. Let’s use the task–relationship continuum as an example. Some cultures, such as the United States, lean toward the task preference, whereas others lean toward relationship, and many fall somewhere in between. Some characteristics of the task end of the spectrum include being time-conscious and “on time,” having a single focus at a time, valuing accomplishment—anything that can help people accomplish more, faster. Cultures that place more emphasis on relationship have a more fluid concept of time, are better at multitasking, take time to build relationships, and don’t mind people “interrupting.”
This means that what is considered “good training” will be judged differently, as will the facilitator. For example, the facilitator in a task-leaning culture can schedule a brief amount of time for participants to get to know one another, introduce herself briefly, be focused on accomplishing the whole agenda, expect participants to mostly be on time, and start and end at the stated time.
In a relationship-leaning culture, the facilitator needs to provide more time for the participants to get to know both her and one another, and expect personal conversations with many of the participants—even, perhaps, a meal together after the workshop. She must also recognize that variable start times are acceptable, help participants get back in a timely fashion, and start when most are there, which may require a different training agenda.
The Culture-Specific Approach
The culture-specific approach to understanding cultural differences looks at culture from the inside and asks what is important to, or particular about, that culture. This can affect content, as well as design and delivery. For example, if you are creating a leadership course, do you know what is considered good leadership for your participants, or what assumptions they start with? It varies across cultures. Do you know which leaders to use as examples?
Culture affects all aspects of training: needs assessment, design, development, implementation, and evaluation. ATD has recognized the importance of this in our globalized L&D world.
Where to Learn More
What have your experiences been in training across cultures? What similarities or differences have you encountered? What experiences have you had that you don’t understand? Join my ATD 2016 session, Training Internationally: Effective Design and Delivery, and let’s discuss.