I spent a few years doing cross-cultural training for corporations. It was fun and I can see why people enjoy doing it. What can beat getting paid to talk about obvious cultural differences and give people a few nuggets of advice that make their life easier?
However, not everyone thought it was such a great thing. Getting a company to use their budget for something ‘soft’ like cultural training was hard enough – showing that it was actually worth the money is another thing. Now that I’ve had a bit of time outside of that world, I think the business was right to question the value they were getting.
The mainstream model of cultural training is to bring in an expert to talk to either an individual or a small group. The expert generally comes equipped with a full slide deck and a thick notebook to leave with participants. There has been some effort to digitize this experience in recent years, but the model is largely the same. Companies will pay upwards of $2,000 to a training company for this kind of training for an individual and even more for a small group.
Here are some of my more pressing doubts about this model and why I don’t think cross-cultural training has been worth the investment so far.
1. Anyone can be an expert
The barrier for entry into this field is extremely low. If you’ve lived in another culture for some time and can talk with people reasonably well, you are qualified in most situations. There are certifications, but none of them are universally expected as a standard and the field is largely filled with amateurs who rely on personal life experience (this was me, too).
2. Knowledge is a very small part of learning
The Kirkpatrick Model says that there are five parts of learning: Knowledge, Skill, Attitude, Confidence, and Commitment. 95% of all training out there is focused on knowledge. Here’s a list of do’s and don’ts; try not to make a fool of yourself. Very little time is spent on the other four parts which are essential.
For example, you may know that indirect communication is used in India, but have you ever actually tried to build the skill of using it? Do you look at it as an inferior form of communication? Do you know when it is the right time to use it? Those are the questions cross-cultural training should answer.
3. Are we finally over the one-day session?
How much longer can we believe that setting a person down for 8 hours in a conference room right after they get off a plane is not a good way to learn? True learning happens through experience and reflection that takes place over a longer period of time. It should involve peer learning and mentoring. It shouldn’t just be a knowledge dump or a mobile app.
4. Everything you will learn in a one-day session, you will likely figure out on your own
One of the great myths of cross-cultural training is that you need the trainer to teach you things that you would otherwise never get. That’s simply not true. A great trainer will give you a helpful framework and keep you out of immediate trouble, but most people can figure out these things on their own. Anyone with a honestly reflective attitude and inquisitive mind will learn much more than could ever be taught in a single session.
5. The myth of the national culture
Most of the training knowledge that is given is based on the idea that international borders create a magical barrier around attitudes and customs. As just one example, you could spend a lifetime learning about the cultures of India. The people of Tamil Nadu are very different from the people of Rajasthan. The people who work in the IT world are different from those who are in manufacturing. Many national boundaries (like Iraq) are extremely artificial and it is damaging to view the world through that lens.
It is ridiculous to think that one person is capable of being an expert on more than a handful of these very distinct subcultures. A real trainer should either have considerable experience with that exact group of people, or else only teach the tools needed to learn about it yourself.
6. Cultural Training is still a Western Construct
Nearly all modern cultural training can trace its foundation back to Geert Hofstede’s research in the 1980s when he categorized every country based on 5 universal elements of culture.
Hofstede’s work was incredible and gave us great strides in cultural understanding, but it also brought some baggage along with it. Who else but a Western European would assume there is a neat systematic way to categorize every nation in the world? We ate this up in the West because it gave us charts and graphs and looked very scientific. Now we could explain down to the decimal point how different India and France were when it came to fatalism.
The first reason we should be wary of relying too much on this system is that using these constructs can give a false confidence about cultures. Just because you know there is high power distance in Japan does not mean you know the right way to act there, or understand all the other nuances that are going on behind the scenes.
Second, this is a natively Western way of looking at cultures. There hasn’t yet emerged to a large extent any native Indian, Chinese, Japanese, etc. way of looking at cultures that uses something other than the scientific method to examine what makes us different.
Third, there are obvious biases built into the dichotomies. Based on the wording, one would naturally assume the best culture is direct (not indirect), masculine (not feminine), long-term oriented (not short-term), and show restraint rather than being ‘indulgant’. And which cultures do those describe? Shock! Western Europe.
When you tell someone they come from a place with a large power distance, are they immediately supposed to be ashamed of that? Or if you tell them that their communication style of indirect creates misinterpretations, are they supposed to apologize?
Check out Dean Foster’s article on Cross-Cultural Training Myths from someone who has been in the industry for a long time on many other issues that need to be worked out.
So what is worth the time and money?
- A mentor who has demonstrated a deep understanding and empathy for the target culture
- A community of learners including people native to the culture who can stand outside it
- A focus on skill, attitude, confidence, and commitment as opposed to only knowledge
- A long-term focus to learning that encourages people to observe and come to their own conclusions
- An admission that we don’t know everything about every culture and there is a lot left to learn
- A departure from nationalized generalizations
- A more nuanced understanding of cultures that doesn’t try to make everything fit into a model
- No more Powerpoint slides
There is a better path for cross-cultural training. Whether or not we will walk it remains to be seen. If you are interested in taking this discussion further, put your name in the box below and we can all talk about making something better.