Despite the increasing reliance on virtual modalities to deliver learning to employees around the globe, certain development experiences still have to be conducted in a face-to-face setting. When traveling to far-flung destinations, what should learning professionals expect?
In 1871, Sir Henry Morton Stanley, then a reporter for the New York Herald, embarked on an expedition into central Africa to find famed Scottish explorer and missionary David Livingstone, who had ceased communication with the outside world for some time. After several months of searching, Stanley found Livingstone in what today is Tanzania, greeting him with the famous — and perhaps apocryphal — line, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”
This quickly became a catchphrase in the English-speaking world, which was engrossed by Stanley’s stories of exploration in mysterious geographic regions and encounters with people of very different cultures.
Even today, when technology and globalization have demystified so much of the world, the idea of interacting with civilizations quite distinct from one’s own holds a certain fascination. And whether for business or pleasure, more people are experiencing this phenomenon than ever before.
In companies with global reach, learning professionals can expect to either develop or deliver learning for a foreign audience. Thanks to technology, and the Web in particular, many if not most of these development programs are distributed virtually. When time, distance and cost are factored in, this method is generally preferable to face-to-face training.
However, in some instances, there is no substitute for going to a foreign locale and demonstrating or explaining a concept in person. If you find yourself in this situation, pack your bag, grab your passport and read on.
When Is Live Learning Necessary?
There are certain situations in which face-to-face learning events are always called for, regardless of the company in question. One example is the opening of a new office overseas. Instructors should be there in person to help orient new employees on the fundamentals of the company: mission, values, structure and so forth. This not only gives them the skills and knowledge they need, but it also demonstrates a real commitment to the venture on the part of the organizational leadership.
Yet, beyond a few circumstances, the drivers of most live learning experiences are subjective. For instance, for insurance provider Allstate — which counts programmers in Belfast, a call center in Pune, India, and a service center in Manila among its overseas operations — people skills necessitate face-to-face training.
“Clearly, in situations where they need a fair amount of context, they need [live learning],” said Karen Scott, senior manager of the human resources education department. “In the work that’s being done for us in Manila right now, talent acquisition is one arena in which people need a lot of conversation time with instructors to understand the rules of the road for recruiting in this country. Those kinds of things don’t translate well unless you have situations to go through and some Q&A.”
On the other hand, at energy solutions firm Dresser-Rand, which has plants and offices in France, Germany, Norway, the Netherlands and other European nations, highly technical subjects such as making parts for a compressor require live learning.
“Anything to do with that needs to be face-to-face,” said Jeff Grenzer, Dresser-Rand’s global training and development director. “I think some of those soft skills things should be done online. Gone are the days when you stick someone in a classroom for two or three days, unless it’s really technical. A program like that is just not going to work. It’s a very busy time, and companies are very lean.”
Thus, there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong answer about what learning should be face-to-face. Decisions about the kinds of learning experiences that will be live or virtual will come down to business priorities. Generally, the more a company wants to make sure its overseas employees really “get” a particular skill or concept, the more likely it is to spend the money to send trainers.
The Journey Begins
When traveling thousands of miles away to teach an audience of people who come from a very different background, it’s understandable to be nervous. After all, plenty of things can go wrong when you’re training a group of employees whose life experiences and values are similar to your own. Adding a different culture and language into the mix only further complicates things.
At the same time, it is these differences that make the experience so exciting. Think of it as a learning opportunity — remember, that’s the business you’re in — and soak up the local color.
For Scott, one of the most interesting aspects of a two-week training trip to Manila was the traffic.
“The traffic is god-awful — the worst I’ve ever seen anywhere,” she said. “In terms of their driving rules, I don’t know what causes people to stop because they don’t too often. They kind of ignore stoplights and stop signs. But they do seem to have an ESP because they don’t seem to run into each other. During the time I was there, which was a good couple of weeks, I didn’t see any accidents, except one, which shocked me given the way the traffic is. Coming from an insurance company, I thought that was interesting.”
Perhaps the most disorienting thing about the trip for her, though, was the time difference — not just the change in time zones, but in the hours worked.
“The time may have been as much of a culture shock as anything else,” Scott said. “If you’re not a person who’s used to working from 8 p.m. until 6 a.m. on a daily basis, and you land over there after a 21-and-a-half-hour flight and have to do a quick change to night hours, that takes a little bit of adjustment.”
For Grenzer, one of the most interesting differences was the work routine of European personnel.
“One of the interesting things from a pure business standpoint was that Europe has a very tight-knit, old culture that’s often set in its thinking,” he said. “That’s really no surprise. But they don’t want influence from North America — specifically, the United States — because we’re looked at as working too hard, demanding too much and asking for major miracles every day.
“In what I do, it’s not a 9-to-5, or even an 8-to-5,” he added. “I get here first thing in the morning, usually between 7 and 7:30 a.m., and then I’ll look up and it’s 6:30 or 7 at night. That’s just the way it is. [But in Europe], at 9 a.m. folks are in their offices working. At 11:59 a.m., it’s time to break for lunch. For the most part, it doesn’t matter what they’re doing or who they’re talking to. They’re going to take their time for lunch. It’s the same thing at the end of the day. Don’t expect to get in touch with anyone at 5:01 p.m. If you wanted your business done, you should have called at 4:45 p.m. You have to understand that it’s a strong culture. And I don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon.”
So what does this have to do with training? Well, the societal attributes of these and other overseas locations will impact when, where and how they like to learn. By better understanding the people, learning leaders can grasp how to best deliver development programs to them.
Face-to-Face Training Experiences
For people in European countries, this means training should be conducted face-to-face as much as possible, as they’re very sociable.
“Face-to-face training is very big in Europe,” Grenzer explained. “They look at that as being personable, and they have a very personable culture. If you look at the Europeans compared to people in the Asia-Pacific region, it’s complete night and day. In Asia-Pacific, they’d rather have everything online if they could. The Europeans are coming along, but they still have that personable mindset. They like the classroom environment and the interaction. They do some of the online learning because sometimes they just want the training as quick as possible. But they like that human touch.”
Because people in the APAC region are more receptive to technology, they’ll be less likely to demand live learning. Still, that doesn’t mean they can’t benefit from these experiences, if structured correctly.
“We honestly did a lot of the same things we would have done back here,” Scott said of the learning she developed and delivered to the Manila audience. “We employed blended learning, so they had a combination of workshop and online experiences. Actual scenarios and situations that they would experience on the job resonated with them. Bringing them as close to the real experience via scenarios really registered the most with them.”
Incorporating interactivity into face-to-face training programs is critical for engaging the audience and ensuring knowledge retention, regardless of the region the learning is taking place in, Grenzer said.
“Giving people 25 PowerPoint slides and saying, ‘God love you and God help you,’ just isn’t going to work anymore. Basically, you’re setting up employees for failure that way. I don’t even use PowerPoint slides in the presentations I do. I like the interaction. I like to see what’s going on. We’re going to talk, I’m going to write some things down on the board, I’m going to use handouts, and then you’re going to tell me how you’ll take this information and apply it today. That’s one of the things I make sure they tell me before they leave the class: what they’re going to do and what result they think they’re going to get, and then we follow up on that.”
He added that at Dresser-Rand, live training events are followed by learning team activities to make sure the content sticks with participants.
“Once you’ve got them face-to-face, don’t just let the training die after you let them go. There’s Q&A time, but one of the things you have to have — and we’ve been doing more of this over the past 18 months — is learning teams. We’ve presented this information, you’ve had some Q&A and now here are some current issues and problems and even a case we’re working right now. What we want these teams to do now is interact and work across functions and even across geographies to come up with what they think are solutions to real business problems.”
We’re Not So Different After All
Despite real cultural distinctions, learning audiences overseas generally are very receptive to face-to-face training experiences. Moreover, most people find that citizens of other countries aren’t really that different once the surface is scratched a little.
“When you get to know them and get over the cultural differences, it’s OK,” Grenzer said. “You have to understand that if you want them to stay late, you need to let them know. Most of the time, they’re fine with it. They just want to know.”
Additionally, cultural gaps are narrowing due to technology and globalization, the very same forces that are making learning programs more expansive than ever. For example, Scott found the Filipinos shared traits with her own children.
“I actually have a daughter who’s 23 and a son who’s 27,” she said. “The employees we have manning the service center in Manila are primarily in the age range of early to late 20s. I did get to spend a lot of time with them during breaks and going out when we finished working. I got to know them quite well, and I really felt like a lot of their frames of reference were not unlike those of my own children. Technology has a lot to do with it. I think between text messaging, cell phones, IM and the Internet, there’s a lot of connectivity between kids in that generation among various countries.”
“One of the things I found interesting is the people who really like that human touch are 35 years old or older. The people under that age are more likely to explore learning themselves and teach themselves, and we’re seeing that in the United States, too. The kids coming out of school today aren’t afraid to go online, buy a plane ticket and just fly somewhere. It’s just not a big deal for them.”