This is part of our ongoing series, Interviews with Learning Leaders.
Imran Cassim is senior manager of global learning and development for MTN Group, a mobile telecommunications company that operates in Africa and the Middle East. Imran has been with the organization for 15 years in various learning roles, and he currently heads up the company's corporate university, MTN Academy. Imran specializes in leadership training and hopes to find the magical elixir that will guarantee learning retention and prove ROI for learning professionals. He holds a master’s degree in leading change and innovation from York St John University.
What are some specific challenges serving a global learning audience?
One is working with a multitude of languages and levels of skill and knowledge. Trying to find a middle ground is tough, and ensuring a basic standard is even tougher.
Bandwidth is a challenge in some of the emerging markets, so trying to run WebEx or virtual learning sessions is not as simple. We have invested in improving infrastructure and have telepresence rooms that are designed to look as if you are sitting across the table from a person, even though they are in a different country. It is like a video conference room on steroids. We have this in some of our operations, but not all. This again curtails the ability to offer the same standard across the footprint.
The main challenge is proving ROI, and by that I mean isolating our impact directly to the bottom line, which is probably any person in learning and development's greatest challenge. We have found that the irony with ROI measurement is we spend more time before the solution than after. Setting up clear metrics and expectations of line managers and sponsors on the impact they expect to see once the program has run makes ROI analysis a whole lot easier. It obviates the usual retrofit scramble that plagues most learning professionals after being asked to do an ROI study.
You train audiences in many countries. When designing training, how do you make it relevant across borders?
We have to look at balancing the lowest common denominator with the highest expected outcome we seek. We also have to be mindful of imagery we use—uncovered hair or bare legs on ladies don’t go well in the Middle East. I was once chastised for doing a training video after I crossed my legs and partly showed the soles of my shoes to the lady sitting next to me. She wasn’t offended, but viewers were, and they wrote in. Ensuring diversity in your examples and being unbiased in storytelling or role plays is critical. Depending on the level of staff we are addressing, language translation may become necessary.
When it comes to designing culture/values/diversity training, forcing a view never works. What does work is taking people on a journey of exploration of their personal values, culture, and diversity, and then moving toward organizational. After all, it usually means that our personal values are no different than the organization's. Just stating it doesn’t make it easier to express; discovering that your personal values are no different than the business is a lot more fulfilling, and complying with those values is a lot easier than mere compliance out of fear.
An example of this is we have five core values—leadership, relationships, integrity, innovation, and what we refer to as “can-do.” We do a vision values workshop, where we take people through activities to identify what their core values are and what is important to them as individuals. The things they say are often aligned with the same values of the family, community, religion. We can transcend those into being very similar to the organization values. There is less dissonance between organization values and the individual. It is an easier transition.
Are there any trends in the telecommunications industry that have training implications?
Digitization, and the world of social, mobile, and cloud have tremendous impact. Anyone can log onto the Internet and learn almost anything through a wiki, a MOOC, or good old Google, but ensuring that what they learn is aligned and of benefit is the biggest problem. How do we ensure what our people are consuming is not just wasted scrap learning. We may have to spend more time curating and qualifying content, as opposed to creating it.
What are the major challenges in delivering cross-cultural training?
Again, cultural sensitivities and mannerisms are important to understand. For example, Nigerian folks love to get into animated and often heated discussion, and if you don’t rein in the discussions, no matter how exciting, your entire session could be thrown off track through an arbitrary debate. I remember training a leadership class and we had a 20-minute debate on the definition of GDP. Understanding tribal issues and protocol in your classroom is equally important if you have a chief in your class. A friend once couldn’t understand why no one spoke until a particular gentleman spoke and almost everyone deferred to his point of view. At the tea break, she discovered he was a local chief, and everyone looked to his point of view out of respect.
Your activities need to be equally designed with sensitivities in mind. An activity where folks give one another a backrub may be considered a treat in some instances, but in the Middle East, a male touching a female and they are not married is a definite no-no. So a simple tweak to that activity of splitting the folks apart solves that problem. Humor is always welcome, but again, you have to be aware of what may be acceptable or not. I often err on the side of self-deprecating humor, as it’s safer.
Generally, I’ve seen that fishbowl activities and role plays don’t necessarily work in some instances, as some folks do not wish to be seen as “making a fool” of themselves. But if everyone is made to feel safe, you can make it work. So more effort should be spent up front on ensuring everyone feels safe, even if it’s just reputational.
What are some global challenges specific to eLearning?
Same as above, and no death-by-click-next and talking heads. We leverage video to make it more interesting. People seem to be more receptive to video content than converting PowerPoint and audio and clicking. But again, our bandwidth is an issue. We work at using less jargon and keeping simple verbiage to accommodate different language skills.
How do you measure training impact and results?
We currently use Metrics That Matter as a baseline predictor of ROI (through KnowledgeAdvisors). The prediction of ROI is done through surveys. We ask questions at the end of a course, two months later, and then ask managers their view of the employee attending. We are always looking for a correlation in the data around what people feel they will change and how that change will impact the business. We also ask both the employee and their manager about the support received and given after the workshop, as very often folks may want to implement the learning but don’t have an opportunity to do so.
We are also implementing a set of talent development standards this year to see how our solutions directly impact our strategic goals. On certain high-value and big-impact solutions, we do a deeper-dive evaluation on impact. We focus more time up front and with the pilot to be able to evaluate outcomes before rolling it out to the business. I will say, though, that the most important thing is to set metrics up front. If you say training call center agents will improve net promoter score—if a customer would recommend us to someone else—by 2 points, then measure that. Execs prefer specifics to saying participants will be better at customer service after the training.