We Have to Teach in Context!


Apple-butterfly

What we learn has to “fit” with what we know.
It has to be appropriate for where we live and work.
Part of learning is to apply the new to the old, integrating the two.

A client called us, saying they had hired a young woman with an MS in Intercultural Communication to design courseware for them. The objective of the courseware is to improve participants’ job performance, in this case, to make them more effective and efficient at servicing international customers.

“We had a lot of hope for intercultural communication training. But we’ve been doing it for nearly two years now, and we are very disappointed with the results. We have seen no bottom-line impact on performance.”

In reviewing the courseware, I found that it in many ways it was very savvy, but appeared to have been taken nearly verbatim from the woman’s graduate studies. The exercises and activities were designed for master’s students in intercultural communication, and had not been adapted for customer service representatives!

We heard from another client recently that had invested three years developing a curriculum to improve the intercultural competence of their global staff. A diverse group of their international employees attended professional development classes in intercultural communication, and an elite group at head office developed a standardized curriculum to be used worldwide. One of the main objectives of this effort is to be able to better resolve conflicts and misunderstandings more effectively.

So what’s the problem? Everyone loves the new curriculum. However, they leave the program feeling no better equipped to resolve conflicts. They love the tools they’ve learned, they enjoy the trainers, but they don’t know how to use the new tools and skills in a real situation!

THE PROBLEM IN BOTH SCENARIOS
What do these two scenarios have in common? In both cases, the training designer was replicating a graduate-level education course—designed for professionals—and repurpose it, as-is, for skill building. And that just doesn’t work! I’ve seen it far too often in recent years, and it’s a distinction we really need to make. Doctors graduate to practice medicine and to help their patients learn healthy lifestyles; they do not generally teach patients how to be doctors.

Professionals need skills they can use on the job, and that includes cross-cultural skills. But those skills must be taught in context, via application and practice in simulated and, eventually, real situations.

SOLUTION ONE
In the first case, Cultural Detective was added into the client’s existing customer service training. Leveraging pre-existing company-specific case studies and audio-visual scenarios, we used the Cultural Detective Worksheet and Values Lenses to supplement the debriefing. In this way, the need for intercultural skills became more evident and was linked to job success for the customer support engineers. In addition, all practice of cross-cultural skills was integrated with the practice of vital job skills.

We retained many of the exercises and activities included in the original, separate cross-cultural curriculum. However, we wove them into the customer service training to supplement, amplify, and deepen learning using the Cultural Detective Method. Once cross-cultural skills were grounded in the business at hand—the purposes of the employees’ work (customer service)—they made all the difference in the world.

This client reported to us a 30% increase in customer satisfaction that they directly attribute to Cultural Detective.

SOLUTION TWO
The second case is still in process. I very much admire the quality of the curriculum and the incredible coordination it has taken to get so many trainers in such diverse locations “up to speed” with the material. Yet, they are starting to realize that although the training has been well-received, staff is not able to use what they have learned once they are back on the job. Yet with so much investment, they don’t want to completely redesign. And they don’t want to be dependent on outside material.

I advised them to weave into their curriculum a simulated conflict scenario, one that could be worked on and revisited throughout the training. In this way they do not need to completely redo their superb design, and the training they have already provided will still be useful. The difference? The revised curriculum is grounded in their reality and will allow staff to practice cross-cultural skills in simulated situations. That way, when they return to work, they will know when and how to apply the cross-cultural skills and tools they have learned.

SAMPLE DESIGN
Let’s look at a typical training curriculum, and then look at how easy it is to weave Cultural Detective into the existing design. Let’s say on Day One they teach what is culture (Iceberg, observable behavior linked to underlying values) and D.I.E. (learn to Describe before we Interpret and then only with culturally appropriate information, to Evaluate). On Day Two, they teach intention/perception and cross-cultural adjustment (culture shock).

Instead, they might start Day One by introducing a case study involving an everyday challenge. Having introduced the context, trainers facilitate learning as planned in the original curriculum (Iceberg and D.I.E.—Description, Interpretation, Evaluation). After doing so, however, they return to the case study, the professional context, and explore: how do values apply to this case study? What are the Evaluations that I am making, based on what Descriptions? From there, it’s a very easy introduction to the Cultural Detective Method, which this client has already licensed and, therefore, is welcome to use.

On Day Two, intention/perception can be taught as part of the debrief of the Cultural Detective Worksheet for the case study. And, the same case study can be used to ground teaching around culturally-appropriate service or cultural adaptation. From there, as they facilitate the remainder of the designed curriculum, they can provide staff the opportunity to speak with the individuals in the case study, in a simulated environment, and to use CD Values Lenses and the CD Worksheet to help them better understand their own values and worldviews. Finally, staff can use the CD Worksheet Method to facilitate a resolution to the case study—harnessing the advantages of diversity rather than navigating around or ignoring them.

If you’ve licensed the CD Method, you know how versatile it is. But what you may not realize is that Cultural Detective doesn’t need to replace other methods. Often, if you put Cultural Detective at the core of what you are already doing, you’ll find the rest supplements it quite naturally.

Always remember, adults tend to learn best in context; they want to know why something is important to know or do. If adults learn to use and apply intercultural tools in situations that replicate real life, they’ll be much more likely to employ them when the need arises.

6 thoughts on “We Have to Teach in Context!

  1. This is also the challenge in any classroom with students not focused in Cross Cultural studies. I try to do it in a “natural” way to show them that we are always exposed to culture from many approaches. In fact one example that I always use is to ask: where do you keep your pijama?. Here is quite common to answer under the pillow… when I ask why, people realize it is because of their parents and then I explain what heritage means for our cultural behaviour.

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  2. An international business traveler should always learn at least a few words in the language of the culture he is visiting. This effort will be accepted and appreciated in all countries and cultures. Basic understanding of a language can also mitigate any cross-cultural misunderstandings.

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    • Thank you for your input! I so agree, at least about the first part, cross cultural trainer. Demonstrating respect for the local place is important, and a few words of the local language can go a long way. Re: your second point, ideally it’s true, but I’ve known quite a few people whose use of a foreign language actually gets them into trouble, because they use the style of their home culture, lacking knowledge or expertise about how to adapt to the local values and behaviors. My guess is you’ve seen this as well? Language ability and cultural fluency are definitely not one and the same 😉

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  3. This blog is great, because it provides a quick introduction to the topic and then the bulk of the content is on SOLUTIONS. I also love the review of the DESIGN, great tips and good information. “Always remember, adults tend to learn best in context; they want to know why something is important to know or do.” <– this reminds me of my favorite language learning platform – Fluenz.com, they customized it for people who speak English and then explain the new language, using descriptions that reference "just as how in English…." or "in contrast to English, in Mandarin verbs are not conjugated…." They explain things (in English) even in advanced classes. They also focus on adult learning styles, instead of how children acquire language skills. Anyway, I digress! I can't agree more, and I love seeing parallels of language learning and intercultural skills.

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