More and more training and development programs are being exported from the West to Asia with little appreciation or accounting for the fundamental differences between Western and Eastern approaches to learning and development.
Lets examine one recent case: Kay had just returned to her hotel in Beijing exhausted and dismayed. The excitement and enthusiasm she had for delivering her first program in Asia had been shattered in a day like no other she had experienced.
Kay was in Asia to deliver a program on successful global leadership. She was selected to deliver this program because she had helped design the course and had presented it successfully many times back in the United States. As her company was developing operations across Asia, it was decided that the training and development team would roll out some core courses in emerging markets with the hope that new talent could be developed. This would be the first of several offerings across Asia, but now all Kay wanted to do was to return to headquarters in Cincinnati.
As she reviewed the day, she could not figure out why things were so out of sync. She always prided herself in getting trainees involved in her courses. She developed an informal and easy-going style in which she was more an equal to her students and not their superior. She began the class that morning by trying to get the students to identify the qualities of a global leader. She was met with silence, so she called on a student to give her an answer and the student looked embarrassed and finally said in a low voice that a global leader must possess great wisdom. The rest of the class was silent, and she felt very awkward. Throughout the day, every attempt to engage the students was met by a reluctance to speak up, with the exception on one young woman who began to monopolize any attempt at discussion. Kay allowed her to speak because at least there was one person engaged. By the end of the day, she felt that this one student was making herself the center of attention to the exclusion of the other students.
What went wrong?
The Western approach to learning is one of discovering: seeking new knowledge, innovation, and change. Students are expected to learn to learn; instructors facilitate the learning but the emphasis is on self-discovery and an open discussion of ideas. An Asian approach to learning and development is based on achieving a more perfect social order based on tradition (Confucius), learning the truth from a master, following the right path, and maintaining harmony between opposing realities; students are expected to listen and learn. Asking questions and sticking out may result in negative outcomes from both the instructor and the other students. If pressured to give an answer it is likely to be in the affirmative to avoid any loss of face.
So what if you need to present information in an unfamiliar culture? Here are 10 tips:
- Find a cultural informant. This could be someone from, or in, the country or region who can review your course content and delivery style and make recommendations on how to adapt the program to the audience without losing the goals and success factors. It may even help to have a local trainer co-facilitate.
- Enroll in a course on instructing across cultures. A good course will teach you the fundamental differences in instruction and learning styles and offer tools and strategies for effective instruction across cultures.
- Arrive in the location at least one full day prior to training. This will allow time to overcome jet lag, meet local training coordinators, learn about the local culture, visit the training site, and scout for any logistical needs and support.
- Have a local leader introduce you to the class and talk about your accomplishments, experience, expertise, education, and publications if any. This will do more to establish your credibility than anything you could imagine.
- Engage all the students by having them hold discussions in small groups to ask and respond to questions. Asking individuals to speak up may have unexpected and negative consequences and can help avoid a single individual monopolizing the group discussion.
- Learn the communication styles of the participants regarding silence, verbal, vocal, and nonverbal communication. Avoid slang, jargon, and acronyms since the trainees might not understand these and might feel embarrassed about asking for clarification.
- A little formality can go a long way. Use your title if you have one. Someone with a PhD should be called Dr. not Kay.
- Arrange to have a closing ceremony or banquet if possible and make sure you have certificates to hand out. And by all means, arrange to have a group photo with you in it to share with the group at the end of the program or sent after the program.
- Learn about the culture you are visiting. There are websites that have the front page of most major newspapers in the world. It would be wise to check on the local news before you start your trip. See www.global-dynamics.com/resources for more information.
- Maintain a paradoxical curiosity, knowing that things will be different, and welcome the differences as a learning experience, not a threat to way of doing things. When in doubt, ask. It is always better to ask and be interested in any differences that might arise. Every culture seems like a paradox to outsiders. Each culture has evolved to its current stare of affairs and has much to teach us if we are open to new ideas. This can add to our global repertoire of behaviors.
If you have any case studies or examples of best practices in training and development across cultures, please send them to me at email@example.com and I would be happy to share them with the other readers of this column.