Caveo Learning

Corporate Strategy and Learning Center

Understand the 'Big Picture' of Cross-Cultural Learning Initiatives

Posted by Terrisha Singh on May 24, 2017

Global learning mindset.jpgStructuring, designing, and delivering training across cultures is challenging, and an array of factors need to be taken into consideration.

To ensure success of a cross-cultural learning program, it's necessary to understand the "big picture" by analyzing all the external and internal obstacles that could impact the initiative. Conducting a global learning analysis will help manage expectations of key stakeholders, and perhaps more importantly, helps to mitigate problem areas and ensure success of the global learning program.

The big-picture approach is required in detail where soft skills, sales, service, leadership programs, or any subject matter that could have an impact on personality traits, cultural beliefs and systems, and the general ways of working within that environment. Learning & development professionals need to take these big-picture factors into account in order to structure, design, and deliver training successfully.

Of course, the depth of the analysis will depend on the type of program being developed, but in all cases, it's important to understand the dynamics of the local areas and cultures receiving the training. For a primer on analysis and research necessary for a successful cross-cultural learning intervention, read “Four Cornerstones of Successful Cross-Cultural Training” by Caveo Learning's Renie McClay.

Analyze Global and Local Operating Structures

Sometimes the global business structure isn’t completely aligned to support the local business operating structure, and this could also extend to the L&D operating model. Such structural misalignments may not be easily fixed, but it is possible to work around disconnects. Always approach new cross-cultural learning initiatives with recommendations and ideas on how to overcome structural barriers.

10 Best Practices for Translating LearningStart with the global business structure. Gain an understanding of the operating model of the business unit in question, and then determine how that global business structure feeds into the local organization, including reporting lines, business targets, and support structures. Get the global view first, then the local view. This will help trigger clues to any disconnects in the structure. Be particularly cautious with new global-local operating models, as there may be gaps that lead to an incorrectly perceived training problem.

Moreover, understand the global L&D operating model. How does the global structure support the local structure? What is the level of skill and expertise of the local learning staff? Are they empowered to make decisions, or are they dictated to from a global level? In some global learning models, local learning staff are required to gather training requirements from their local business environment. They are then provided with a list of programs available from a global/head office level that they can leverage.

Needless to say, this approach doesn’t always work very well. Local nuances are not always accounted for, and there isn’t always enough support from the head office to aid local L&D staff with implementing programs successfully. In-country staff don’t always have the knowledge or skill to customize programs to suit specific circumstances. If local training facilitators are to be used, learning leaders should put proper support structures in place for them.

After this information is collected, you are in a position to manage the expectations of the key stakeholders. A learning professional should never promise a client that a generic program can be developed and rolled out globally. There will always be elements of customization that will only be revealed through a global learning analysis. 

Apply Global Mindset to Local Setting

Once you have a good understanding of the global business and learning operating models and structures, as well as an awareness of potential performance support gaps, it's now time to learn about the local audience.

Apply a global mindset to the local setting. Analyze the target audience to understand relevant cultural traits, as well as day-to-day operational requirements and structure to determine if the request for learning will be addressing the right issues.

In some instances, local learning staff are simply order takers for the business leadership team. It is advisable for global organizations to focus on empowering local L&D staff with a global mindset and  conducting performance analysis. However, whatever the skillset of the  local learning organization, don’t rely solely on their view of the local setting.

In some African and Asian cultures, being honest about a situation is perceived as disrespectful. Leadership styles tend to be autocratic, and people often sugarcoat problems or are simply too afraid to talk openly about them. Therefore, conduct interviews and focus groups with the intended target audience without any leadership team members present. Where this approach does not work, try using anonymous questionnaires. The primary aim is to uncover:

  • Whether objectives of the learning intervention align with needs, and whether they would be successfully achieved within their environment
  • Characteristics of the target audience
  • Traits of the learning and working environment, and what media, methods, and modes are feasible within that environment

When gathering content for the learning program, employ case studies and content relevant to the setting, structuring content so that learners are able to relate to it. Use the local audience to assist with this content gathering, being very specific with regard to requirements.

Always pilot learning programs in the manner in which you expect to roll out the learning program. This provides further insight into the dynamics of the learning environment. For instance, if designing on-the-job training, pilot the program in the workplace and observe outcomes.

Business stakeholders sometimes fail to see the value of a performance analysis. Provide examples or case studies of learning programs that failed because an initial analysis was not done. Position the importance of providing resources (budget, time, people) to conduct an initial performance analysis.

Finally, remember that a learning program being rolled out globally can have a generic base, with culturally relevant detail added later. This requires instructional designers to carefully construct such a program and design in a manner that that gives the facilitator the flexibility to adjust according to the dynamics of the group. Generic steps may be applicable, but tools, content, exercises, and activities may not suit the environment or the specific audience of learners. 


Terrisha Singh is a senior instructional designer with Caveo Learning. Based in Johannesburg, she previously worked as an instructional designer with Absa Bank, Barclays, and insurance administration firm Silica. Singh is a native of South Africa, and she holds a bachelor’s degree in HR, psychology, and marketing from the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal.

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