Training Across Cultures

Friday, July 25, 2014

What are the unique challenges faced when training across cultures?

Case study:

A new telephone system is sold to a Middle Eastern client with the condition that one day of on-sight training will be provided for the equipment. The instructor flies in the night before the training and the next day reviews the user's manual with the attentive and respectful technicians. At the end of the day the instructor asks if there are any questions or concerns about the product. There is no response. To be safe the instructor asks each student if they understand everything. Everyone says yes, they understand.

Three weeks later the equipment provider gets a call from the client who is irate because the equipment is not functioning properly and the technicians were never given sufficient training.

What happened?

One of the real benefits of training is the opportunity to meet people from diverse backgrounds, yet the variations of learning styles can undermine even the best trainers.

All instructional personnel who are responsible for the design, revision, and delivery of courseware in international settings, or to international trainees at the corporate headquarters, need to understand how cultural differences in instructional and learning styles, along with social customs and business practices, can impact individual and group performance.

Most people learn the long and hard way, through trial and error, how to be most effective when working with colleagues and instructing associates from other cultures. This trial and error method is costly, time consuming, and frustrating for all involved. Yet there are some important skills that can be applied to ensure success.

All instruction is embedded with the cultural assumptions of the designers and facilitators. The first thing we must do is ask ourselves about the unique challenges we face when instructing overseas with trainees from other cultures. To answer this we must do the following:

Recognize how our own implicit cultural assumptions impact our performance and effectiveness as instructors, instructional designers, and business associates. For example, do we begin with a formal presentation or with a simulation and why?


Identify specific situations where misunderstandings are likely to occur in the design and delivery of courses across cultures or other working situations. For example, do we want participants of different ranks within an organization to take the program together?

Assess our own traits and skills with respect to those needed for success in cross-cultural settings. For example, do you think that the use of humor adds or detracts from the effectiveness of training?

Practice culturally appropriate learning and instructional styles and business protocols. Do you call on people directly or have people respond in groups? Do you go to lunch or dinner with the students? Should you invite them to join you?

Learn how to adapt existing materials and methods to the culture of the participants, including multicultural audiences. Are the students more familiar with an inductive or deductive learning style? Are they more comfortable with rote memory or interactive exercises? Are all the examples in the local currency and measurements or in the currency and measurements of the instructional designers?

Differences in the cultural values of the instructors and students on dimensions such as hierarchy, individual versus group orientation, and level of comfort with risk taking play a major role in the eventual success or failure of a program.

Other major factors include linguistic competencies, familiarity with the use of new technologies, and the preferred communication styles of students and instructors. I have seen far too many cases of western trained instructors unintentionally embarrassing a student when asking for a direct answer. In these cases, the student usually is trying to indirectly answer the question to save face, because they don’t understand the instructor’s explanation of the concepts.

The use of slang and acronyms are to be avoided at all times. We must be very conscious of the local colloquialisms that we use. In one course, I observed an instructor from Kentucky tell a class of 40 international trainees, “Yous’all did great on the test.” The students were befuddled, because they did not know anyone named Yousall.

Learning some of the core cultural differences in instructional design and delivery is a critical skill in today’s global learning environment. The use of e-learning increases the chance of unintended negative consequences, because the instructor cannot see the non-verbal cues associated with misunderstanding.

If you have any case studies or examples of best practices, I would be happy to receive them and share them with the other readers of this blog. Please send them to me at

Neal Goodman, PhD, is president of Global Dynamics. He can be reached at

About the Author
Neal Goodman is an internationally recognized authority on globalization, global mindset development, and cultural competence for global corporations. His programs have helped hundreds of thousands of corporate executives to be more effective in international settings by learning how to apply a global mindset. Global Dynamics, the company he co-founded in 1983, designs, organizes, and implements programs that support global mindset development, cultural competence, global team building, global leadership, virtual workforce effectiveness, and diversity and inclusion in leading Fortune 500 companies that wish to succeed in the global arena. As CEO of GDI, he leads a team of more than 400 innovative, cross-cultural experts from around the globe to create in-person, blended, and web-based solutions for his clients.
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