Consider the following case: A European company sells a new
telephone system to an Asian client with the condition that they
will provide one day of on-site training for the equipment. The
instructor arrives 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 and is met with no
response. To be safe, the instructor asks each student if he
understood everything. Everyone says that, yes, they understand.
Three weeks later the equipment provider gets a call from the
customer. The customer is irate and says the equipment is not
functioning properly, and the technicians were never given
If the instructor had been more culturally aware, he would have
known that in many Asian cultures trainees are unwilling to stand
out when asked if they understand the instruction. Instead, he
should have either asked the students to practice and demonstrate
what he taught them or divided them into small groups and assigned
the groups to come up with questions they'd like to have answered.
It is not uncommon for Western-trained instructors to
unintentionally embarrass a student by demanding a direct answer
when the student was trying to indirectly answer the question in
order to save face, because the instructor did not explain the
concepts sufficiently for the student to understand. Learning some
of the core cultural differences in instructional design and
delivery is critical in today's global learning environment.
Factors to consider when training across cultures
Differences in cultural values of instructors and students on
dimensions such as hierarchy, individual versus group orientation,
and 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
When designing, revising, or delivering training materials to a
cross-cultural audience, it is imperative to understand how
cultural differences in instructional and learning styles and in
social customs and business practices affect both individual and
group performance. Even the best and most adaptable trainers cannot
avoid the fact that instruction is embedded with the cultural
assumptions of the designers and facilitators.
Tips for successfully training across cultures
The variations of learning styles can undermine even the best
trainers. Most trainers and facilitators learn through trial and
error how to be most effective when working with colleagues and
instructing associates from other cultures.
But in order to avoid the risks associated with trial and error,
trainers and facilitators can acquire and apply specific skills to
help them succeed when training people of diverse backgrounds.
- Recognize how your own implicit cultural assumptions affect
your performance and effectiveness as an instructor, instructional
designer, or business associate. For example, do you begin with a
formal presentation or with a simulation?
- 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 you want participants of
different ranks within an organization to take the program
- Assess your own traits and skills with respect to those needed
for success in cross-cultural settings. For example, do you think
the use of humor adds to or detracts from the effectiveness of
- Practice culturally appropriate learning and instructional
styles and business protocols. Should you call on people directly
or have them respond in groups? Should you go to lunch or dinner
with the students?
- Learn how to adapt existing materials and methods to the
culture of the participants - including multicultural audiences.
Are 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
ASTD Field Editor Neal Goodman is president of Global Dynamics;
2010 ASTD, Alexandria, VA. All rights reserved.