Culture Resource Centre

COLUMN: Knowledge Transfer Across Cultures

Knowledge Transfer

Whether you are instructing professionals in multicultural classrooms, training multicultural teams, or lecturing culturally diverse or international students, these three activities share at least one major challenge: differing instructing styles and learning styles due to culturally diverse backgrounds of the trainer, instructor or lecturer on the one hand, and the professional, team member and student on the other hand.

Some failed ‘Knowledge Transfer Across Cultures’ business scenarios:

  1. An Australian IT company contracted an external Australian training company to facilitate software design training local professionals in Indonesia. After completion of the training the locals took over the software design. It became soon obvious that the new software tools, techniques and procedures had not been understood and/or followed through; the software design performance suffered and clients complained. The project was cancelled and taken back to Australia at an enormous cost of time, effort and money.
  2. A Governmental organisation facilitated technical training for a group that included both Pacific Islander and Australian participants. The Australian trainer relied on learning via animated group discussions and interactive exercises: the participants from Pacific Islands required time to reflect on their learning and gather their thoughts before participating. By the time the Pacific Islanders were ready to contribute, the Australians had already jumped in with their ideas. The trainer negatively judge the participation and contribution of the Pacific Islanders.
  3. An International organisation organised training for a virtual team in planning procedures for an outsourcing project. The Indian team members preferred to learn through sharing their feelings and experiences in small breakout peer group sessions rather than the US team members’ preference via practical applications. The Indian team members complained about the poor quality and professionalism of the American trainer: they argued that the group learning was hampered by the lack of sharing of experiences and reflection and that the training was a waste of time since the learning outcomes were poor.
  4. During an adjunct lecturing appointment for an international MBA series in Hong Kong, I talked to one of my Australian colleagues: she questioned the impact of her teaching because class debates around business scenarios did not seem to generate any useful learning outcomes “nobody is willing to challenge anything and they all look to me for the answers”.

I strongly believe that culture and learning style are linked and that learning style relate to a direct interchange between people and learning settings. Hofstede (1991) argues that although learning is a universal activity around the globe, research shows that the link between learning styles and culture is significant: a country’s culture shapes its peoples’ preferred modes of learning through their socialisation experiences (1). According to Kolb (1984), learning involves the totality of human activities: feeling, reflecting, thinking, and doing. Individuals are thought to develop specialised abilities (concrete experience, abstract conceptualization, reflective observation, and active experimentation) and preferences for such activity and these are called learning style (2). Interesting research by Yamazaki (2005) combined a number of cultural typologies from different academic disciplines and Kolb’s four learning styles (3). Yamazaki found for example that cultures that seem to have a cultural orientation that includes high context, collectivist, dependent and high uncertainty avoidance show stronger preferences for feeling and reflecting learning abilities (according to management literature Asian, Middle Eastern and South American cultures seem to display some of these orientations), whereas cultures with a cultural orientation that includes low context, individualist, independent and low uncertainty avoidance cultures show a stronger preference for thinking and acting learning abilities (Anglo and Northern European cultures seem to display these orientations).

I remember vividly taking my first exam in a reflective Asian culture – a professional training course with a Singaporean University business department early 2000: the unspoken expectation was that the participants should be able to show rote learning capabilities and be able to reproduce theoretical knowledge. Being from a culture where you are expected to conceptualise and apply knowledge in different situations, I was prepared to demonstrate my new knowledge by analysing case studies and applying problem solving skills. During the exam however, none of this was required and I found myself having to reproduce long theoretical definitions that I did not necessarily memorise in such detail.

Taking Into Account Differing Instructing Styles and Learning Styles across Cultures

Many organisations recognise the value of knowledge transfer via quality training delivery to their staff or students. However, it would make good (business) sense to take into account different instructing styles (methods and techniques) and culturally diverse learning styles in order to maximise successful knowledge transfer across cultures. We have designed a ‘Cross-cultural Knowledge Transfer’ workshop activity that we use when we facilitate training workshops for trainers, instructors or lecturers to prepare them for better knowledge transfer to culturally diverse groups. The workshop activity builds on Yamazaki findings and we try to connect culturally preferred learning styles and applicable instructing methods and techniques.

For knowledge transfer to be effective across cultures:

  • the training needs to tap into each one of the key learning abilities feeling, reflecting, thinking, and doing.
  • the training method needs to take into account cultural preferences towards ‘feeling‘ and ‘reflecting‘ learning style (techniques such as storytelling, sharing of experiences, lectures, video, and rote learning to name a few) and ‘thinking‘ and ‘action‘ learning styles (e.g. interactive presentations, brainstorming, action planning, assimilation, case studies, debate, discussions, and role-plays).

By identifying the most effective and productive instructing style(s) for culturally diverse audiences, organisations whether they are involved in instructing internal staff, external training organisations, or universities and colleges, will more likely achieve the required learning outcomes and maximise the investment.


  1. Kolb D.A. (1984) ‘Experiential Learning experience as a source of learning and development‘, Prentice Hall
  2. Hofstede G. (1991) Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind (1991, newest edition 2010, co-authored with Gert Jan Hofstede and Michael Minkov)
  3. Yoshitaka Yamazaki (2005 ), Learning styles and typologies of cultural differences: A theoretical and empirical comparison, International Journal of Intercultural Relations

Joost Thissen is a Founder and Partner of the Culture Resource Centre.
Contact Joost directly at:

Tags: , , ,
Categories: Cultural Column.

Leave a Reply