4 considerations for cultural training

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Cultural training is having a moment, and it's easy to see why. Many individuals, organizations, and communities are living and working across cultures and are discovering gaps in their knowledge, capacity, and competence. However, not all cultural situations are the same, and cultural training programs are not one-size-fits-all, so before you dive into training, we recommend that you consider these questions:

Why do you want cultural training?

Do you want to promote global awareness and soft skills across your company? Are you trying to maximize the power of diversity on your global teams? Are you looking for a solution to turnover among your expats and repatriates? Are you entering a new market, experiencing an influx of students from a particular region, or confronting situations that you suspect have a cultural angle? Or, are you reacting to a public relations blunder and think sensitivity training will do the trick?

Whatever your motivation, it is important to clarify your objectives before moving forward. This will help you hire the right person and articulate your concerns, so they can effectively design your training program. Getting on the right track may take more time at the front end, but it ensures a greater return on your investment in the long run.

What are you willing to invest?

Speaking of investment, it helps to know your budget – not only in terms of money, but in time and energy. For example, are you envisioning a single "lunch and learn" or can you make space for three full-day workshops? Are you happy with an off-the-shelf solution, or do you seek a customized approach that gets to the heart of your organization's unique needs? How willing are you to engage in conversations with the trainers or let them talk to your employees to get a better sense of your pain points? Do you have time for post-training debrief and follow-up?

Trainers can usually present their material in various formats, so they need to know from you how much time is available. Do keep in mind that it is a question of trade-offs: You won't get the same impact from a half-day training as you will from a year-long program.

Are you willing to change?

Rarely does a training spark a radical resolution to a community or company's cultural problems in one fell swoop. Leaders may want their employees to be more culturally competent - and may even be willing to provide the time and money to do that. Still, they often fail to consider how this might require (or spur) changes and reactions within the organization.

It is not uncommon for the cross-cultural training process to reveal latent, systemic issues. For example, while addressing a virtual team's cultural communication pitfalls, it may emerge that their manager is resisting the very improvements the team needs. This resistance may be a personal issue or may be linked to still deeper organizational problems. This awareness creates a critical moment for the organization: If it tries to address all the issues simultaneously, the training can become unwieldy. But if deeper issues are ignored, employees may become disillusioned or may even regress, and the training may not bear the expected fruit.

While it is not necessary to unpack your entire organizational culture just to do a cross-cultural training, it is important to consider institutional barriers to change. It is also important to be honest with yourself and with the trainer as you uncover the real source of the problem and as you consider the extent to which the team or organization may be able to change. This openness is critical so that everyone works with realistic expectations. Above all, it is important to distinguish between immediate to short-term mission-critical goals (such as learning how to work with coworkers and clients in a new overseas market) while staying mindful of the big picture (like making progress towards addressing bias or developing global competence).

Do you have support?

It is our firm belief that if cultural training is worth doing, it is worth doing right. Even with the best intentions, this is hard to do without getting relevant leaders and stakeholders on board. You'll need to identify who is going to lead the training project (the search for the trainer, the problem identification, the needs assessment, etc.), who is going to approve the training and its payment, who is going to review or assess the training's impact (and how), and who is going to communicate the training's value to the participants. In small companies, this may be a single person; in large, siloed companies, this may prompt a scavenger hunt. Don't rush this stage, assuming everything will work itself out. It is vital that the people who need to be on board are on board before you launch a training.

Getting started

Once you've reflected on these questions, you'll need to locate potential trainers. It's natural to start with people whose expertise matches your situation. For example, if you are opening an office in Poland, someone who knows about Poland could be very useful. If you're improving your multinational staff's ability to work together, you might want an expert in global teams.

However, training isn't just a matter of having knowledge, it is a question of being able to effectively and meaningfully transmit that knowledge in such a way that the listeners not only hear it but do something productive with it. When you interview potential trainers, you'll want to ask about their training techniques and learn what their process and style are for building and delivering a training program for an organization like yours. To get the most out of it, look for a trainer who is a partner – and consider how you can be a good partner in return.

At Hahn Cultural Consulting, we feel that the best way to start a training is to start a conversation. We look forward to connecting with you and listening to your needs.