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East Meets West in Training
Thursday, February 02, 2012
East Meets West in Training
Neal R. Goodman
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
A little formality can go a long way. Use your
title if you have one. Someone with a PhD should be called Dr. not
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
Learn about the culture you are visiting. There
are websites that have the front page
most major newspapers in the world. It would be wise to check on
the local news before you start your trip. See
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 firstname.lastname@example.org and I would be happy to
share them with the other readers of this column.