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What happens when the world wants your training program?
My team and I were celebrating the success of a new role-based training program. It featured hybrid delivery modalities and covered our U.S.-based employees. It took countless hours and manpower to create. It was gaining tremendous traction. There was high demand for the program. Then, a call came from our company’s Asia office – they had heard about it, they were excited, and could we work with them to roll out the same program in Asia? Our answer? Of course! We already had the material, at most, all we would need is translation support. So, we proceeded to set up several brainstorming sessions with the Asia teams to discuss how to transfer the program to their region.
The domestic program we created was comprised of a progressive series of e-learning modules that employees would start with, followed by a 3-day instructor-led class, and a variety of supplemental exercises. The e-learning modules incrementally built learner content. The classroom component was also incremental with day 2 building off of day 1, and so on.
We had the Asia teams review the full program. They thought it was great, they wanted it, only – they wanted us to convert most of the program into instructor-led training and reduce the e-learning. What? That request completely disrupted the original program’s design, and, effectively put our group’s development efforts back to the beginning. Not only did we need to translate all the program components, but also – re-structure them. The request defeated the desired ease of scalability of the existing learning assets. So, our first question was – why?
It was then that we began engaging in the discussion of the “culture” of learning in Asia. Despite the rise of e-learning across the world, we held discussions around the “value” that the Asian culture places on the in-person classroom experience, the honor placed on the classroom instructor, and the overall importance of instructor-led training. Chinese learners, for example, ask fewer questions in class, find comfort in group learning environments, and do best in repetitive, rote learning (Loch & Teo, 2017). These were intangible cultural concepts, which we, as a learning team, needed to truly internalize in relation to the delivery of the same program within a different culture.
Not long after, our company’s European office called. They had the same request – they had heard we had a program, and could we port it over to Europe? Aside from the variety of languages into which we would need to translate the content, we felt this was an easier overall ask. So, we sent some of the module content over to the United Kingdom and Germany offices for review.
Again, we were stunned at the results. The UK came back having red-lined nearly all of the reviewed module’s written content! Why? Essentially, because of the differences between “American” English and “British,” not only in sound, but also in complete phrasing, concepts, and words.
In a situation where our group expected no translation to be necessary, we needed to re-write the entire module! And Germany? They understood the US content and felt the translation itself would not be a problem. However, the comprehension of the same financial products which the module addressed in the U.S. were radically different in Germany. For example, some of the material addressed the concept of the use of the credit card products in the U.S., while the German culture generally looked down on the concept of a customer’s use of “credit”, and only used a “debit” type of card (inferring that the customer was not “borrowing” or owing money to others). Again, this posed a new cultural difference which made transferring the existing program content internationally, more difficult.
Reading the Implications
There were implied underlying cultural components that we had not addressed in this transfer of learning assets. Those components had a variety of nuances. Some – simple, yet subtle, such as the language differences between the two forms of English. Others – implied and behavioral expectations within other countries. It is precisely those differences that learning teams may miss in globally scaling their programs. CLO Magazine (July 2004) noted that there are few differences in global skills which need to be learned, yet distinct differences in the learning environments that foster the learning itself. These differences need to be considered early, to reduce future re-design. Those differences change the underlying framework of many modules and program concepts. They also define approach and tone in learning design for international audiences. They can alter how interactivity is structured in e-learning, webinars, and classroom environments. They can even alter how we teach through stories and humor.
Hence, the difference between translation and localization. Localization encompasses the entire cultural environment along with the language. Many companies already use localization in their day-to-day business – in sales, marketing, user experience design, and brand recognition. Global learning teams must also include localization in learning design. A few companies already do this as a natural extension of their globalization efforts. Yet, many, do not. Learning teams typically focus predominantly on learning frameworks, such as ADDIE or SAM, in developing learning content. They need to equally focus on global consistency, marketing, and localization methods.
One Size Doesn’t Fit All
Learning teams may view content in alignment with the business regions of their company. For example, a company may have an Asian, European, South American, Australian and/or African/Mid-Eastern region. Learning teams (if they even exist globally) may be organized within each of those, with actual team members scattered across the region. Broad regions may contain a wealth of sub-cultures within them, resulting in further considerations for learning designers. Chinese learners vs. Indian learners vs. Indonesian learners – each group has subtle cultural learning design differences. The products the company offers, or skills being taught, may be the same globally, yet, how we educate our learners on those same products needs to be designed differently.
Introducing the same learning concept in distinctly different cultures requires a truly global view of learning programs, the company’s business, and an understanding of global audiences. It changes the speed-to-market and scalability of international learning programs. It requires learning designers to take a highly multi-cultural customer-centric view of programs and content.
Any Localization Expert Will Do, Right?
It depends – how much does your localization expert understand about learning reinforcement and learning theory? Most of the localization experts we have partnered with were excellent at marketing and user experience design, but far less familiar with adult learning principles, and long-term retention and reinforcement of materials. Ideally, it is a partnership between the learning designer and the localization expert with deeper discussions around desired outcomes. Get to know your localization partner and get a better understanding of what they know about adult learning.
KYC – Know Your Customer
KYC is a currently trendy acronym for “Know Your Customer.” It is typically used in the financial industry in validating customer identity and transaction compliance. Many sales, marketing, and account support teams use this term to better understand their customer needs. KYC for learning teams is equally essential in global learning program design. This goes beyond simply understanding the audience. Teams that truly understand their customers dig deeper into the customer’s environment, actions, and thinking patterns. They observe customers to find the non-verbal motivations behind their actions. Learning teams need to do this as well. This goes beyond the needs and gap analyses that are typically performed at the start of learning program design. This aspect of understanding the learner, or “knowing your customer,” is critical in global program design. It is deeply interwoven with localizing program content. Sit with the international team as they take customer calls and observe, walk with the international team as they go through their day and understand their world, and talk to their managers to get a feel for the skills gaps, as they pertain to that culture. Your domestic assumptions about the product or process being taught may change.
In global environments, you should not assume things operate in the same way. This will lead to better international learning program design.
Pay Now, or, Pay Later
These additional resources add time and budget to the development of any learning program, two factors in desperately short supply in most organizations. Teams that know their programs are likely to expand globally, need to build those considerations into program design in its earliest stages. If localization staff are not available, many teams will need to stitch together a number of resources that can help along the way. Partnering with those resources early and having rich discussions about methods for introduction and retention of learning concepts, which resonate within the other culture, are essential.
If You Build It – They Will Go Off and Modify It and Possibly Lose It
Let’s say, you are in that perfect world, and your learning program gets designed and implemented with global success. You are still not done. You will need to establish a framework with international teams for the curation of the now highly fragmented pieces of your original program. Let’s say your domestic content changes. What type of governance will you put in place for the global content to follow suit? How will you monitor that international teams have not changed your content to the point that your company’s products or processes have been incorrectly represented? Who keeps things up to date in each region and how often?
I know your head is hurting to even think about the scale of this. It is big, unwieldy, and complicated. It can get bureaucratic and ugly. It can get lost in the cracks of the myriad of changes that occur within large organizations, particularly, departmental and staff changes. You need a service-level agreement (SLA) upfront with international teams addressing how you will handle future modifications. It all comes down to being proactive early with those global teams.
Ultimately, we semi-solved the problem of expanding our learning program globally. We gave the material to the global learning teams to re-write as they saw fit, without altering product basics. That solved the localization problem but created a learning assets consistency and maintenance problem. It was the best we could do given the circumstances of demand and time-to-market. We did implement an SLA with those international teams, which we discussed and agreed to at the start of our partnerships.
Throughout the experience, we learned a lot about our business of learning. We learned a lot about our company’s global businesses, products, and people. We learned how to continue to do things better. In the end, which becomes the most resonant lesson for us all.
Loh, C.Y.R. & Teo, T.C. (2017), Understanding Asian Students Learning Styles, Cultural Influence and Learning Strategies, Journal of Education & Social Policy, Vol. 7, No. 1, March 2017
CLO Magazine. (2004, July 30). The International Corporate Learning Landscape.
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