Top 5 Myths of Intercultural Training
By: Dean Foster
Dean Foster Global Cultures, & Executive Strategic Consultant
Business is done differently in different cultures. That premise set the stage for what was considered a novel idea 25 years ago: intercultural training. At the time, few mobility programs on the planet were spending money on this service. Now, intercultural training is seen as a necessary investment for managing, retaining and ensuring the success of transferees.
Over the past few decades, different myths and ideas have developed around cultural training – what it is, how it should work, etc. In the hope of dispelling some of these, here’s a short-list of what I regard as the top five myths, which have been gleaned from my many years providing intercultural support and training.
MYTH #5: CROSS-CULTURAL TRAINING DOESN’T WORK
Like all services in an open marketplace, some cultural training programs are very good; some are very bad, with all sorts in the middle. We do know that good cross-cultural training provides the most efficient, pre-emptive way of developing the broadest set of culturally appropriate behaviors required for personal and professional success abroad when compared with other kinds of possible interventions (such as passive and informal information access, coaching, etc.), and certainly when compared with no support or training.
In our organization alone, we know that clients who come to us with early/pre-mature return rates of 30% without cultural training drop that rate to less than 5% with cultural training. Considering the costs and problems associated with early returns (the inability to adjust to the culture being the primary reason for early returns), this represents a massive success story for good cultural training.
On the other hand, if the training is poor in design, delivery, content, goals, etc., the outcome will also be poor, and clients might still not experience the benefits in cost savings, productivity, and profit. There are established criteria that should always be evaluated when looking for a good, successful cross-cultural training program, and these should include a variety of delivery modalities (face-to-face, online, Skype, etc.), high trainer and training resource certification and development standards, professionally created training materials, on-going, after-training support options, measurable performance improvement assessment, etc.
Like any service, do the necessary homework and research to ensure that the program(s) you purchase will do the job: producing culturally-aware, effective individuals.
MYTH #4: YOU CAN LEARN ANYTHING BY READING
Training refers to the practice of allowing for face-to-face interactive cultural learning, with qualified and certified trainers instantly available for questions, answers and positive support. These professionals work through scenarios with program attendees that turn “head knowledge” into implementable behavior, a critical requirement for a successful program.
Coaching, another intercultural support, is different from training in that it is not pre-emptive; coaching is typically an intervention used to address issues once they’ve occurred. Good training should minimize the need for after-the-fact coaching, by providing the information and skills needed to prevent issues from arising in the first place.
Passive learning, such as reading books, working with web-based tools, listening to lectures, having conversations about another culture with individuals who’ve “been there”, etc., can all be somewhat helpful, but without training, these interventions result in passive knowledge at best. There’s no real meaningful behavioral change. All of these interventions bring some value, but they should be considered supplemental or extracurricular to actual training.
MYTH #3: YOU CAN’T HAVE A GOOD PROGRAM UNLESS THE CROSS-CULTURAL TRAINER IS A NATIONAL OF THE COUNTRY BEING EXPLORED
Good cultural training requires up-to-date, culturally-correct, and relevant information, delivered by trained and certified interculturalists. This means that the best people to deliver cultural training need to possess insightful, meaningful and verifiable information for their audience. This person may not be a country national.
There are some cultures, for example, where speaking openly and honestly about one’s culture to non-nationals, can be very difficult, especially if negative or problematic issues need to be addressed. In these cultures, nationals may feel the need to present only a “positive image” of their country to non-nationals, play down differences and minimize potential problems. This is not helpful to program participants who need accurate and unbiased information.
On the other side of the cultural spectrum, there are some cultures where nationals speaking to non-nationals about their culture may feel compelled to highlight only those issues which make them uniquely different, challenging and difficult for any “outsider” to understand. Again, this kind of cultural agenda is not very helpful for a program participant.
Most effective cultural training programs are best delivered by a training team, led by a senior experienced intercultural trainer with significant life and work experience in the host country, PLUS a country resource professional: either a country national and/or a national of the program participant’s culture with significant and recent (within the last year) life and work experience in the new host culture that mirrors the program participant’s issues. Typically, the senior intercultural lead trainer provides the objective information, and the country resource professionals provide the subjective perspective.
MYTH #2: LANGUAGE TRAINING IS FAR MORE USEFUL THAN CULTURAL TRAINING
We need to remember that the language of business around the world is NOT English: the language of business is the language of the customer, and that means that ultimately, in China, you’ve got to speak Mandarin; in Brazil, Portuguese; and in France, French. If you don’t, and your competition does, they get the contract.
However, the language of global communication in most global organizations is some form of “Global English,” which means that non-English speakers do need to develop business-level English competency to compete globally. And that’s my pitch for language training. Now is it more important than cultural training? Probably not, unless you’re the non-working partner of an assignee in a location where no one speaks English in public.
When it comes to the assignee working for a large global organization, chances are the language of day-to-day communications in the workplace is English. 1 in 4 people around the globe speak English at what’s considered a “useful level.” And while speaking the local language is always an advantage, fluency in a local language can take a long time, and getting there can be difficult and expensive. However, cultural fluency can be developed quickly and is easily implementable, providing immediate returns on the investment being made in its development.
MYTH #1: IT’S TOO EXPENSIVE
I’d like to think that with all we’ve already said, it would be obvious that the costs associated with delivering intercultural training are miniscule when compared with the costs associated with a failed or under-performing assignment, a missed business opportunity or a mismanaged international project.
Nevertheless, we hear this myth expressed so often, that we just need to reiterate: cultural training is no more or less expensive than any other kind of training. It can be based on a per-head basis (or a group discount), and fees can vary depending on mode of delivery (webinar or classroom, etc.), but the cost for cultural training is exactly the same as the cost for any other kind of similarly formatted training.
So the issue isn’t really the cost: the issue is whether this kind of training is valued or not. And it’s been my experience that when working in the 21st century, the price paid for cultural ignorance will always be more than the cost of training to prevent it.