13 January 2019

Why You Need to Invest Now in Intercultural Training

Global Skills / Globalization
intercultural training



Is intercultural training relevant in 2019? Has the world outgrown the need for intercultural training? Since the start of the new millennium, we have undergone a complete transformation in learning and development. Back in 2000 intercultural training meanwhile probably meant a four or five-day excursion to a luxury venue before traveling off into the unknown for three years. So what does it mean today?

The evolution of intercultural training

Intercultural training has evolved and developed unrecognizably since 2000. A new industry has developed – eLearning – to bring cultural concepts to a new generation; new delivery methods – virtual in particular – have taken the learning to new places.

But while the world and the vocabulary we use to describe it (globalization, digital transformation etc.) have changed, have the concepts and theories that form the foundation of intercultural training evolved? Do they still describe the reality of working across borders?

The birth of a new field

Anthropologist Edward T. Hall was among the first to try and classify cultural difference, writing in the early 1950s. He was trying to make sense of a world devastated by two world wars and wanted to find a way for Americans to interact with nations they had never really spoken to at an ordinary business level.

Edward Hall’s research was the first to document cultural differences in a practical way. In The Silent Language, he identified high vs low context communication styles giving international business people a key to unlock the challenges of communication with people from other cultures.

Measuring cultural difference

Geert Hofstede is a controversial figure. In the late 1980s, he re-interpreted an internal management survey conducted by IBM as part of a company-wide performance review. Using this data, he identified four dimensions that could differentiate national groups. He was the first person to put a concrete score against cultural difference.

The controversy is largely based on his methods.

  • The survey was not anonymous, and participants knew that their managers would see the results. Many academics consider this data polluted and not usable. Hofstede dismisses this – as the survey was not intended to highlight cultural differences, he claims, the results are still valid.
  • In the 1970s IBM was a company dominated by white men in their 30’s and 40’s – extrapolating this data to be representative of an entire nation seems to be a very generous interpretation of “average.” Again, Hofstede suggests that this means that the only variable is culture – gender, age, education and profession are largely the same throughout the sample.
Further reading
  • IBM is a largely US-based company. Although Hofstede could analyze 175,000 surveys, a disproportionately large segment of respondents were from the US. In some countries, only two or three people responded to the survey, yet their data was given equal statistical weight to the tens of thousands who responded in the US.
  • Hofstede published in 1991, which for students of world history, was a tumultuous year – the USSR collapsed and its influence on the world receded for a long time. Eastern European and North West Asian countries started to discover a way to assert national identity in a way free from Soviet influence – clearly a 1970’s survey could not account for such a dramatic societal change.

Whether you accept his methods or not, Hofstede introduced us to the concept of measuring culture against a series of dimensions. Nearly every piece of theory or conceptual work used in intercultural training owes its existence to Hofstede’s foundation. Even contemporary interculturalists such as Erin Meyer or Andy Molinsky owe their starting point to Hofstede.

Googling intercultural knowledge

Towards the end of the first decade of the millennium, eLearning hit intercultural training. For 50 years, intercultural training had largely been about knowledge transfer: the internet was young and unreliable, travel to distant countries was not common.

For someone moving to Asia they needed a country expert to discuss the complicated political system of South Korea, explain the hierarchical company structure in Japan, and show how to hand over a business card in China.

eLearning and Google rendered this approach untenable. Why would you devote a day and large amounts of money to something that a Google search could do for free, or an eLearning coursse could offer at a reasonable price?

Most eLearning platforms invested in upgrading their initially clunky interface to take advantage of better download speeds and browser standardization to give rich content in an attractive shell. Suddenly cultural knowledge was democratized and accessible to anyone without any real effort.

Don’t Do “Do’s and Don’ts”

But with a wider audience came greater scrutiny. Those needing intercultural competence quickly recognized that knowledge was insufficient.

Do’s and don’ts reduce people to one-dimensional cut-outs and take the individuality out of relationships.

A German manager will not be offended by an Indian asking about his or her family; A Singaporean procurement manager will not be insulted by an American who does not offer a business card with two hands.

They may be offended if you assume that because they are German they don’t have a sense of humor; because they are Singaporean they are willing to be swayed by personal gifts. Both stereotypes are based on false assumptions about cultural difference.

We know that there are different traditions and traits in different countries, and we expect outsiders to be a little odd at times. These little faux pas were the focus of intercultural trainers because they were obvious and visible. They gave credibility to their message. However, they did not help business people bridge the gap.

Further reading

In many ways, they emphasized cultural difference and became a self-fulfilling prophecy: expect this to be hard, expect people to be offended, expect them to struggle with your sensible behaviors.

This means that cultural training of the 20th Century was just not equipped to deal with the reality of modern business.

To make matters worse, both trainers and businesses became disconnected with part of the equation: the “intercultural” part was fine, but they neglected the “training” part.

Too few intercultural training sessions benefited from the advances in instructional design. Learning methods and adult learning theory were ignored. Intercultural training no longer was able to achieve the ambitious objectives it set for itself, and those attending the training became disillusioned.

The threat to the validity of intercultural training

But there is a bigger challenge to intercultural training. There is a growing suspicion in a globalized world that intercultural matters are no longer relevant. We know so much about people on the other side of the world and we travel so much that cultural behaviors in the workplace are converging towards a generic. Does cultural training still speak to a smaller world?

So, there are two clear challenges facing the intercultural field:

  • Are the concepts still valid?
  • Is there a way to deliver intercultural training that achieves its objectives?

Are the concepts still valid?


A linguist, Prof. Adrian Holliday, in the 2000’s claimed that intercultural training was racist. He accused it of othering – of creating a paradigm that encouraged people to see the world as “them vs us.” His view was that national culture was a myth, invented by scaremongering trainers.

However, he has since had to pull back from this dramatic stance. It is self-evident that people brought up in China have a different attitude to some professional concepts than people brought up in France. We can observe objectively that cultural difference is real.

Organizational structure, attitude to time and risk, communication styles and leadership are all areas where there is a measurable difference in attitudes based on cultural background.

Secondly, it is increasingly clear that despite globalization, regional attitudes are becoming more defined. Nations in Europe are reasserting their national identify more forcefully: the Catalonian and Scottish independence movements are clear examples; the populist movements in USA, Brazil; heightened nationalism in Russia.

It appears that as markets and business become more global, we are reverting to a more clearly defined national cultural identity, with the associated behaviors, attitudes and values. Intercultural training is even more important to show that you are serious about business in a particular country, that you respect their local identity and that you want to build long term partnerships.

Is there a way to deliver intercultural training that achieves its objectives?


…But It Needs to Change

  • eLearning is not effective. To learn how to communicate with other humans, you need a human being.
  • Traditional training does not work. Too much time is spent repeating information and facts: the time-to-benefit ratio is unbalanced.
  • Combining traditional training with eLearning leads to repetition, overlap, contradiction and confusion.

We’ve established that there is a need for intercultural training, but we’ve suggested that the traditional approach isn’t sufficient. We need to refocus intercultural training.

The first dramatic change that needs to happen, and is in fact happening now, is that intercultural training needs to be based on developing skills, not sharing facts.

Skills can be measured and be developed and can grow. Facts are forgotten.

In fact, we can go further. Society, and therefore culture has evolved. Hofstede could not have predicted the impact of the internet, but we know that it has revolutionized the way we live.

Pre-internet research data on culture cannot stand up to the scrutiny of Google, Facebook, LinkedIn or Snapchat. We must take a more flexible view of culture, going beyond national culture to examine what unites us.

Intercultural training must facilitate the construction of shared cultures – ways of doing or conceptualizing work together. Ways that are not a compromise, but a new, better way that meets the business and personal needs of all.

Blended by design

Secondly, live training needs to be supported by digital content. Trainer time is comparatively expensive, so we need to use it effectively. Using a trainer to discuss the population of a country or recite the key political parties is not an effective use of time. Even asking the trainer to explain the underpinning theories is not the best way.

Theories, concepts and facts are best placed online. With a well-designed platform, these theories can be explained, tested and applied to practical situations without engaging a trainer. But then the live trainer comes to provide their expertise to coach the learner. The learner can get feedback, can be challenged to go beyond comfort zones and can take their skills to the next level: using the trainers expertise to the best effect.

Building live training separately from digital content gets the worst of both and doesn’t empower either the trainer or the learner to discover practical learning.

To be effective we need holistic instructional design that treats blended learning as completely different from traditional or eLearning approaches.

Josh Bersin’s research into the Modern Learner has shown that adults consume learning in a different way since the internet digitalized our lives. Learning that starts life as a dinosaur can only become extinct!

Learning to learn

Thirdly, all learning must be grounded in learning theory. Whether digital or live training, understanding how adults learn, remember and apply knowledge and skills is a pre-requisite for effective instructional design.

Further reading

Those involved in designing and delivering training must be able to justify each moment of time a learner invests in learning by tying it directly to a concrete learning objective and practical outcome.

How can you decide if your intercultural training provider fits the bill?

There are some specific questions you can ask any provider of intercultural training to ensure you are getting the best quality training outcomes and equipping your business with intercultural capacity:

  • What is your approach to adult learning theory?
  • How do you measure the success and impact of your learning?
  • How do you link digital and live training? Were they intentionally built to complement each other?
  • What are the qualifications of your in-house instructional designers?
  • What is your view of intercultural theories and principles? What is your foundational concept?

The current world situation is often described in terms of VUCA: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. Intercultural training promises tools that help us to decode some of the challenges of working in a globalized world that has become more unpredictable. But it can only achieve that if it done effectively and an in informed way. Intercultural skills are highly valuable as organizations look for competitive advantages in increasingly diverse markets, but before you invest, make sure you know that your provider can match their promises with tangible outcomes.

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