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When exploring the art of transferring knowledge across cultures, imagine you are training professionals in (F2F or virtual) multicultural classrooms, or lecturing culturally diverse or international students. These activities share at least one major challenge: dealing with differing learning styles due to the culturally diverse backgrounds of the professionals and students.
In our practice we have had the misfortune to come across some rather poor attempts.
An Australian IT company contracted an Australian training company to facilitate software design training to their local professionals in their Indonesian subsidiary. After completing the training, the Indonesians took over the software design. It soon became obvious that the new software tools, techniques and procedures had not been understood or were not followed through. As a result the software design performance suffered and clients complained. The project was cancelled and taken back to Head Office in Australia at an enormous cost of time, effort and money.
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 the Pacific Islands required time to reflect on the learning and gather their thoughts before participating in the group discussion. By the time the Pacific Islanders were ready to contribute, the Australians had already jumped in with their ideas. Therefore, the trainer negatively judge the participation and communication styles of the Pacific Islanders.
An International US based organisation organised training in planning procedures for an outsourcing project to enhance the performance of a virtual team. The Indian team members preferred to learn through extensively discussing their ideas and sharing experiences in breakout room small group sessions. The US team members’ preference was very much to focus on immediate practical applications. The Indian team members complained about the poor quality and professionalism of the American trainer. They said for example that the group learning was hampered by the lack of sharing experiences and reflection, and that therefore the training was a waste of time since the learning outcomes were poor.
Learning involves the totality of human activities such as feeling, reflecting, thinking, and doing. Individuals can develop abilities such as concrete experience, abstract conceptualisation, reflective observation, and active experimentation – and these can be linked to learning styles (Kolb 1984). 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.
As a result of these findings, Yamazaki (2005) combined a number of cultural typologies from different academic disciplines and Kolb’s four learning styles. He found that cultures that have a cultural orientation that includes concepts such as high context, collectivist, dependent and high uncertainty avoidance show stronger preferences for feeling and reflecting learning abilities. Asian, Middle Eastern and South American cultures seem to display some of these orientations. Cultures with a cultural orientation that includes concepts such as 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.
Many organisations recognise the value of successfully transferring knowledge via quality training delivery. To start with, the training or lecture needs to address each one of the key learning abilities feeling, reflecting, thinking, and doing. However, it would make good (business) sense to explore different instructing methods and techniques to address the culturally diverse preferred learning styles in order to maximise the outcome.
Organisations and universities will more likely achieve the required learning outcomes -and maximise the return on investment- when they master the art of transferring knowledge across cultures by identifying the most effective and productive instructing style(s) for culturally diverse audiences and their preferred learning styles.
Hofstede (2010) Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind (co-authored with Gert Jan Hofstede and Michael Minkov).
Kolb (1984) ‘Experiential Learning experience as a source of learning and development‘.
Yamazaki (2005 ), Learning styles and typologies of cultural differences: A theoretical and empirical comparison, International Journal of Intercultural Relations.
Joost Thissen, Partner & Interculturalist
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