Companies readily embrace e-learning to train globalized
workforces, but fail to recognize the impact of cultural
differences on the programs' success. Leaving out cultural analysis
or failing to recognize cultural differences can endanger the
success of globalization efforts.
Would you distribute the documentation for a new software product a
year after the product had been released? Your first response is
likely to be, "No, of course not." But in the world of workplace
learning and performance, companies do it all the time. Global
support for employees and their training is usually an
ASTD and i4cp's ad hoc survey, "The Role of Learning in Globally
Dispersed Workforces," showed that only 24 percent of the surveyed
companies transitioning to a global operation said the transition
was smooth. With respect to preparing their globally dispersed
workforce, 35 percent of companies, or less, taught basic job
skills in the international operation, conducted
orientation/onboarding, or taught industry knowledge to employees.
Only 25 percent addressed cultural differences that affect
management, and, not surprisingly, only 28 percent felt that
learning initiatives in their global operations were successful.
Unfortunately, this trend coincides with overall globalization
efforts (outsourcing, offshoring, and global product development),
where the failure rate has been 70 percent. An important lesson
learned from early globalization efforts, however, was that "it
needs to be done right the first time!" If not, companies lose
money, status, respect, and relationships that were essential to
their success. Such is the case with globalized e-learning.
E-learning has become an important tool for training a dispersed
workforce because of its relatively low cost, variety of content,
and pervasive formats. However, how effective is using e-learning
as a solution when unprecedented numbers of employees are from
different cultures or countries, and at least 25percent of
multinational companies have employees speaking 10 or more
different primary languages? To do it right the first time, any
global e-learning initiative needs cultural analysis.
Globalized e-learning needs to be culturally accessible, such that
all learners are able to achieve the same learning outcomes (the
same amount of effort to acquire relevant knowledge and skills),
regardless of their country or culture of origin. However,
e-learning courses are cultural artifacts, embedded with the
cultural values, preferences, characteristics, and nuances of the
culture that designed them, and inherently creating challenges for
learners from other cultures. These differences range from the
obvious, such as language, to more hidden differences, such as
learning styles, values, and religious influences. The following
cases illustrate the types of cultural adaptation that could or
should be done in different situations. Each one describes possible
solutions and their variations.
Translation refers to the simple act of changing vocabulary in an
e-learning course to that of another language. The actual process
of translation, however, is more complex. An United States - based
software company with employees in India and the United Arab
Emirates (UAE) planned a large upgrade to their software. The
company designed an online course that consisted of screen shots of
new features, comparisons of old features to their updated
versions, and a live one-hour webinar for questions and answers.
Everyone completed the required course, but it took non-Western
learners 25 percent longer.
Successes. The course served its purpose well
because the content was low-context (no hidden meanings,
straightforward, and not likely to be misinterpreted). The learners
also had prior knowledge of the content, and, because they worked
for a U.S. technology company, they were familiar with e-learning
and "American ways." The linear, low-tech web-based course assured
that learners outside of the United States had the bandwidth to
take the course.
Challenges. Course designers
assumed that the course did not require translation and were
unaware of localization practices. The American course contained
several idioms, colloquialisms, and other twists of the English
language that made it more difficult to understand for the
non-Westerners who spoke British English as a second language.
Furthermore, whenever learners completed a section successfully, an
icon for the "okay" hand-sign was displayed, which is offensive in
many countries, not just in India.
Possible solutions. While strict translation into
another language was not required in this instance, the use of
Globalized English is a form of translation that improves learners'
ability to absorb meaning. A cultural analysis using targeted
learners would have revealed these verbal nuances. Globalized
English contains no contractions, uses concise language, and has no
phrases ending with prepositions such as "make up" or "go over." A
simple glossary might have sufficed as a solution, also. Minor
localization, which we will address next, would have eliminated
offensive gestures or icons.
Localization addresses obvious visual and textual differences (user
interfaces) found in other cultures. These include icons, symbols,
gestures, color preferences, taboos, and others. Facing budget cuts
in training and travel, a U.S. corporation designed a finance
course for its Brazilian managers in its content management system
(CMS). However, after several months, reports revealed that
Brazilian learners never completed certain exercises and
consequently, they appeared to be misapplying important financial
concepts in their work.
Successes. The course designers used an
accessible, low-tech platform for providing the course - one that
also allowed them to update the course easily when needed. The
fairly low-context topic of finance is typically well-suited to the
linear interactivity and features of a CMS. However, designers
overlooked critical cultural differences in their design and
approach to teaching - differences that they could have avoided
with analysis and testing.
Challenges. In the course, designers incorporated
too many Americanisms and made assumptions about Brazilian
financial practices. For example, in one exercise, the course asked
Brazilian learners to solve a budget problem based on an example
from the U.S. real estate industry that was entirely unfamiliar to
them. Designers also referred to several American icons that had no
meaning to learners, such as insurance agencies and brand names.
An insult to the Brazilians, who are proud of their Portuguese and
African heritage, was to refer to them in the course as "Latin
Americans." The two biggest oversights, however, were related to
distinct cultural differences. First, Brazilians typically prefer
to develop trusting relationships before putting confidence in
businesses as partners. In contrast, Americans are ready to "get
down to business" immediately. Thus, using an e-learning course
without personal interaction at some level created a trust and
relationship gap between the Americans and Brazilians, of which the
Americans were unaware.
Second, in Brazil, businesses typically have a caixa 2. This "cash
account number 2" contains all money or assets that is kept off the
books, hidden from official records and tax authorities. The
e-learning course did not address this practical day-to-day
scenario encountered by the Brazilian counterparts, which, in turn,
threatened to undermine the financial practices of the company.
Possible solutions. A cultural analysis would have
identified the issue of unfamiliar names and references, the
cultural faux pas, and the irrelevant examples that designers could
easily modify in the CMS. However, course creators overlooked the
caixa 2 and the serious need for relationship building - both
factors that could negatively affect not only learning but also
business success. In fact, the caixa 2 challenge avails itself to
treatment by modularization, discussed next.
Reusable learning objects (RLOs) are alternative activities that
accomplish the same learning objective but that use different
formats, media, or teaching techniques. RLOs can be plugged in to a
course to create variety and to accommodate different groups of
learners or environments. Cross-cultural learning objects (XCLOs)
are RLOs that specifically accommodate the cultural preferences of
different learners, while still achieving the objective of the
Following its assumption that adult learners prefer to resolve
problems based on their own experiences, a well-intentioned U.S.
training department acquired an off-the-shelf training course on
problem solving for the company's South Korean supervisors.
Learners accessed the course via the company's learning management
system. The learners all completed the course as required, but when
a visiting U.S. manager asked them to demonstrate the model they
had learned, none of them could do so.
Successes. The company saved money with an
off-the-shelf course based on knowledge of Western learning
theories. However, the solution only worked for the U.S. employees.
Challenges. The company wasted money with an
off-the-shelf course based on knowledge of Western learning
theories. A cultural analysis would have exposed several cultural
barriers to teaching U.S.-style problem solving to Korean learners.
In addition, buying an off-the-shelf course prohibited the course
from being adapted to the needs of Korean learners. However, if the
company had designed a course in a format that could incorporate
RLOs, designers could have culturally adapted the course in a cost
effective manner. For example, in this course, the problem-solving
model suggested that supervisors gather monthly for a formal
meeting with their managers to discuss their problems.
The problem-solving model condoned in the course strongly
contrasted with the cultural styles, experiences, and environment
of the Korean learners. They were not comfortable with the model's
open and direct approach. In contrast, Koreans would strive to
protect group harmony and protect the chaemyon of HR personnel and
the manager; in other words, they would not complain to their
perceived superiors because they wanted to avoid embarrassing them.
Additionally, the hierarchical nature of Korean society prevents
lower-level supervisors from confronting or challenging their
Possible solutions. Assuming the course had been
designed on a platform that supported the use of RLOs, the cultural
analysis would have indicated the need to adapt the model to fit
the style and culture of the Koreans. An XCLO could have been
plugged in to accommodate the objective of the model - finding a
way in which to expose problems and generate creative solutions -
but be adapted to the Koreans' cultural need for a less intrusive,
anonymous approach, such as using a company survey to expose
problems. This course, however, borders on the need to be created
by Koreans, for Koreans, (a process called origination, discussed
next) because the cultural values are so deeply embedded in the
content that XCLOs might not adequately address the differences.
Origination simply means "start from scratch," but with the full
participation of the learners in the targeted culture. A U.S.
company has great hopes for its new partnership in China. To get
everyone on the same page, the company offered all executives a
course on leadership. The course was interactive and media
intensive with multiple learning modes. The course producers
derived the content from the work of a U.S. expert on leadership
In postcourse feedback, all managers rated the course as excellent.
However, during a meeting between the U.S. and Chinese executive
teams, the Chinese head of operations, who had worked in the United
States, warned that his colleagues would not likely adopt the
methods portrayed in the course. He stated, "Well, the principles
are the same, but how we practice them is different."
Successes. The company took the initiative to
train executives on leadership, the course was well received, and
everyone completed the course.
Challenges. The concepts of leadership, like
several others (negotiation and conflict management), are deeply
imbedded with the cultural values of those who designed the course.
Who leads, and why? Is leadership learned or earned? Does
leadership capability equate to role, status, position, or salary?
The obvious challenge here is whether the course was at all right
for the purpose. In China, a leader's ability to manage
relationships (guanxi) with employees is often valued more than any
other leadership skill because the Chinese culture highly
Possible solutions. In this case, a cultural
analysis would have revealed that the members of the two cultures
practice leadership entirely differently, and thus, would have
required uniquely different training (either by purchasing or
creating a new course created in the Chinese culture). One
advantage, however, that the company possessed was the executive
who had lived in both cultures (a culturally exposed person or
CEP). Typically, CEPs are involved in a cultural analysis, along
with the targeted learners, because they often can identify the
source of cultural differences, explain them, identify those
critical to achieving equitable learning outcomes, and propose
Cultural analysis does not require country-specific experts.
Instead, it requires knowing what to look for and where. In
essence, the characteristics of the targeted learners and those of
the proposed e-learning course must be compared and contrasted. The
Cultural Adaptation Process (CAP) Model illustrates how to research
cultural differences, test proposed adaptations, identify the most
critical adaptations, and then modify courses to the needs and
preferences of the targeted learners.
The advantages of the process are that (a) the research keeps
solutions current, (b) the testing elicits feedback from the
targeted learners, and (c) only adaptations that are critical to
learning are implemented.
Targeted learners. On the learner side, four types
of information are particularly relevant. Such differences
influence content and instructional design:
1. Learner environment reveals cultural exposure, motivation,
techno-literacy, and other attributes.2. Cultural dimensions are
researched categories across which cultures can be compared and
contrasted; for example, individualism versus collectivism.3.
Unique characteristics of learners in comparison with the overall
population show what learners have in common across work cultures.
4. Current research on learning and culture reveals styles and
preferences of the targeted learners and potential adaptations to
The e-learning course. To promote equitable
learning outcomes, courses are modified depending on content,
pedagogical approaches, and types of media used:
1. Content analysis reveals the extent of cultural influence.
Computer courses (Level 1) tend to be culturally neutral. In
contrast, leadership courses (Level 4) are deeply imbedded with
cultural values, ideologies, and worldviews.2. Pedagogical
approaches get more complex as the content does.
3. Media usage also gets more complex with content and pedagogy.
Proposed solutions. Four general types of
solutions align with course complexity - translation, localization,
modularization (XCLOs), and origination. However, each can be
implemented in different ways and to different degrees. The goal of
cultural analysis is to find the most critical yet cost-efficient
adaptations to achieve equitable learning outcomes.
Testing proposed solutions. Methods for testing
solutions include focus groups, surveys, observation, results, etc.
Testing teams may include CEPs, country experts, interculturalists,
web interface designers, etc. The most important members, however,
are the targeted LEARNERS! Proposed solutions are irrelevant unless
the learners confirm or verify their validity.
In "Reading the World" (T+D, February 2009) the author
proponed "cultural synergetic intelligence," or "the ability to
work, collaborate, cooperate, and innovate across cultural and
linguistic barriers and borders [combining] emotional, social, and
cultural intelligence" For all of us, we often "don't know what we
don't know" about culture. Members of all cultures assume that
everyone else understands theirs. Unfortunately, many
characteristics of Americans impede successful globalization -
being very independent (with a dislike for seeking assistance),
time bound, fact-oriented, and confident that "our way" is best.
The business imperatives for training our globally dispersed
workforce lie in recognizing the influence of cultural differences
and providing a long overdue, supportive investment in cultural
analysis. Ignoring cultural differences or maintaining an
ethnocentric view is a direct threat to our globalization success.