How to ensure cultural and workplace readiness for digital learning

Online or digital learning is increasingly viewed as the most effective way of training a diverse and dispersed workforce, but one size rarely – if ever - fits all. While some learners will embrace the self-directed nature of eLearning, others will resist it in equal measure. This often has nothing to do with the content and methodology, but more to do with how the organisation has presented, launched, promoted and embedded their shiny new programme. These stages are especially important when ensuring that the programme fits the cultural and professional context of employees worldwide.

Langdon Winner coined the term Mythinformation, in reference to “the almost religious conviction that a widespread adoption of computers and communications systems, along with broad access to electronic information, will automatically produce a better world for humanity." And this can be applied just as readily to online learning. It may be prevalent and widely available, but that doesn’t mean that it’s going to work miracles.   

So how do you approach digital learning in the global workplace? 

  1. Internationalise your offer - this means stripping out all cultural markers and creating neutral content.  This is great for consistency in that all your learners will have access to the same content. It’s also the cheapest option as there is no tailoring of content is required. However, you also run the risk that by trying to speak to everyone, you speak to no one and the result is a ‘vanilla’ solution.
  2. Localise your learning content – this can be more expensive and you risk losing the consistency.  But it should be more targeted and engaging for your learners – and therefore more effective.
  3. Develop a blended solution – combine online learning with face-to-face and virtual classroom or consider using forums and social learning. Trainer involvement drives engagement and but adds both cost and the risk of digression and inconsistent delivery. 

Once you’ve determined the best solution for your organisation, consider the needs of your global stakeholders and learners. Review your content and approach through three lenses: context, culture and language.

Context

Familiarise yourself with your learners’ specific environment and consider factors such as legal requirements, local infrastructure, availability of tech, working schedules and time differences.  

For example, in some developing countries internet users have gone straight to mobile, making it paramount that any digital learning solution be mobile first. Conversely and perhaps surprisingly, smartphone ownership in the UK isn’t as high as you may expect and so access to desktop terminals is essential for employees to complete their learning.  

If you are including virtual classroom as part of your blend be mindful of multiple time zones and be aware that you may be blighted by power cuts in some parts of the world.

Culture

Cultural diversity can add richness to any global learning project but it also brings a myriad of challenges.  Perhaps the most obvious challenge is to make sure any images you use are culturally sensitive so be mindful of gestures or clothing that might cause offence.  But dig a little bit deeper when it comes to culture and bear in mind the following factors:

Geographical proximity doesn’t always generate positive relationships.  A recent blended virtual training project brought leaners together from two distinct ethnic groups within one country still affected by civil war from the last century.  Ice-breakers were avoided so as not to create unnecessary ill-feeling and other discussion activities were managed very sensitively.

Work/life balance means different things in different cultures and this can impact expectations as to when eLearning takes place. Whose time, as well as what being on time means, differs across cultures; in some cultures, learners will happily complete at least some of their workplace learning in their own time whereas in other cultures there is more reticence.  In parts of central Europe, Friday afternoon is almost considered part of the weekend and so scheduling virtual training at those times isn’t well-received.

Attitudes to hierarchy can impact learning styles and expectations. The UK and US are amongst the most individualistic and egalitarian cultures in the world and so the concepts of personalised, autonomous learning work very well.  They will also respond well to competitive elements within a learning programmw. However, in more hierarchical cultures such as Japan or Korea, there is a collective expectation that everyone is carefully guided through an identical programme. As digital learning developers, we must be wary of bias stemming from our own learning culture.

Language

If you plan to deliver the same content in multiple languages, ensure that your base text is as simple as possible for screen space considerations. For example, Spanish language takes up to 20% more screen space than English. Arabic script may require you to position navigation elements and images differently.

And if your training is going to be in English, which English are you going to use? There are many more speakers of English as a second or third language than there are who speak it as a first language. If you are targeting the former, avoid using colloquial, idiomatic language – the part of English closest to culture – and ensure that your rubrics are in plain English.   

Practical next steps

If you want to ensure that your global workplace is ready for digital learning, follow these simple tips:    

  • Engage with global stakeholders early in the development stage to ensure that the training is relevant and effective across borders and cultures. The more time spent at this stage, the more effective the final product will be.
  • Be open and transparent around timing and time expectations: when do you roll out, and what is expected of the learner? What are the deadlines and when will the training take place? 
  • Position your new learning solution carefully so that employees see its benefits and application.  Demonstrate that you have buy-in from senior managers through involving them in the product launch and perhaps introduce learning champions across your business who can act as a support and encouragement. 
  • Think carefully about how you get feedback from your stakeholders. Make sure that the questions you ask are open enough to gather feedback that is useful. Avoid questions that will give you information that you already know, or that will guide people to saying what you want them to say. Also consider the cultural dynamics of feedback, particularly in cultures that place a strong emphasis on preserving harmony and saving face or conversely where giving positive feedback is considered unnecessary.
  • Finally, be flexible and ready to adapt to find the most effective approach for your organisation. Not all training works the first time around.  

This blog post is based on a recent presentation at the CIPD Learning & Development Show. Find out more and view the presentation here.

Andy Johnson Image

Andy Johnson

Andy Johnson is the Director of The London School Online. He is passionate about applying new technologies to produce bespoke training solutions and helping organisations adapt to the changing language training market.

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