Risking the Development of a Culturally Competent Organization to a Passive Virtual Tool is Naïve, Costly and Dangerous.  The Real World Requires Real Training.

By Dean Foster, President and Founder of DFA Intercultural Global Solutions, LLC.


There is nothing more real, more visceral, more in-your-face than a moment of cultural misunderstanding.  The discomfort and disorientation of culture shock can vie with vertigo as one of life’s more distressing experiences.  And fewer things are more painful than a family crumbling under the stress of adjustment and adaptation to a new world, for the family and for the HR organization responsible for their international relocation.  This is the real world, not a virtual conceptual one, and training for it requires real-world, in-your-face training, not a seductively convenient, and let us add, cheap, experience.

The development of virtual learning is a major step forward in bringing information to many, quickly and inexpensively.  There is no denying the advantages that virtual learning provides, but even the best providers of virtual learning admit that with this advantage of front-end low cost comes the hidden danger of back-end expense.  Every legitimate provider of quality virtual learning will always advise that virtual learning works best only when it is integrated into a larger system of real-life training that includes real-time, trainer/educator-driven sessions that allow for the exploration of personal reactions, reflections, and most importantly, the building of internalized behavioral skills in response to information learned. 

Passively accessed information may look appealing, especially to the organization that wants to be seen as offering something intercultural more than it wants to be accountable for the development of real skills.  It's politically convenient to make the user responsible for the learning, but the reality is that every dollar spent on such training is a dollar spent more on PR and not on the development of global skills.  Leaving the choice to the individual as to whether or not they choose to access passive online information puts the corporate strategy - assuming there is one - of developing a culturally competent organization able to compete in the global millenium, at risk.  After all, if the tool isn’t used, and if it doesn’t really develop the skills required for global success when it is used, then the organization isn't really developing its cultural competencies, is it?  Research shows that, unless mandated – a difficult and questionable strategy to enforce - most people never access the virtual tools and training that they are offered.  You read that right: never.  Why would an organization throw money away on a tool that most people will never use, and which, if and when it is used, does not provide the skills required?

Cross-cultural competency does not result from an injection of information about a particular culture of interest.  Cross-cultural competency is not what happens after listening to, reading, or interacting with, information about how to behave in a particular culture in a particular circumstance.  Usually sleep is what happens when one listens to, reads, or interacts with passively accessed information like this.  The truth is simply this: training is not an information dump.  If it were that simple, one could learn a language by merely listening to a CD, or a culture by merely reading a book.  It doesn’t work that way.  One can read about how to exchange business cards in Japan, how to negotiate in Brazil, how to resolve conflict in Russia, but until one is required to actually stand up and exchange a business card with a real Japanese colleague, sit down and practice a negotiation Brazilian-style, or work through a tense disagreement role-play with a Russian associate, the behavioral skills needed to manage each of these situations will never be developed.  Any money being spent on on-line experiences claiming to build these skills is being wasted on a feel-good charade.  And while there is little return for the money being spent on these tools, the greater cost to the organization comes down the road with employees working globally who don’t have the required global competency skills to do so, because their training was insufficient, irrelevant, but admittedly appealingly low-cost, and deceptively easy to implement. 

Let's get real: there's nothing more real-world than the need for your organization to compete successfully in the global millennium.  That means there is simply no wiggle-room for cultural behavioral ignorance.  So if an organization is serious about developing culturally and globally competent people, and to getting the maximum out of every dollar spent in this effort, then real-world training is what's required.  Real-time, trainer/educator driven training focused on the development of skills and behavioral change in response to the real-life, hands-on challenge of wrestling with cultural differences.  This requires in-your-face interaction with live, real-time professionals from these cultures, who are accountable for developing the behaviors - not just dumping information - that will give your people, and your organization the competitive advantage in the global world.  That sort of skill does not come from a convenient event.