Operating in Latin America presents unique challenges and opportunities for learning executives hoping to educate their workforces while maximizing value.
With the recent economic slowdown and widespread talk of a prolonged recession, the U.S. business picture has been looking fairly bleak in the past few months. But for global learning executives overseeing offices in Latin America, that picture is a lot brighter.
“We are facing a big momentum in Latin America in terms of solid economy and sustained growth,” said Marcela Leon, director of learning for IBM Latin America. “We are growing in terms of population as well, which [gives] us a young population that is eager to learn and develop.”
To that end, what do learning leaders need to know about developing learning programs for Latin America? The areas that pose the greatest challenges and offer the most exciting opportunities can be boiled down to three categories: language, logistics and culture.
It’s no secret that global enterprises with offices in Latin America have to overcome a language barrier. But what’s perhaps less well-known is that there’s more than one language in the mix — and that results in myriad challenges.
“Most people think of Latin America as Spanish-speaking, which is almost true,” said Juan Cabral, chief learning officer for Sun Microsystems Latin America. “We handle several languages here.”
Portuguese is spoken in Brazil, and French, German and Dutch are among the many languages spoken in the Caribbean, a region often included in Latin America operations. Yet most of the corporate-created training materials, such as e-learning courses and student guides, are developed in English.
It’s less of an issue when the written materials can be reviewed by Spanish-speaking instructors or when the course is technical and relatively simple because employees can read through it at their own pace and use a dictionary to look up vocabulary they don’t know, Cabral said.
“But as the course really gets richer — pops up a video, somebody talks over the Web or there’s some dialogue — things start getting really complicated,” he said.
Since translation of all the English materials is impossible, Cabral said Sun supplements soft-skills and other content-rich courses with small workshops that help clear up questions and facilitate employee discussion of the content, ensuring it is fully comprehended. In some cases, Sun Latin America even will partner with learning executives in countries with similar languages in Europe or elsewhere to create enough volume to hold sessions in more languages.
Latin America, which consists of Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean, totals more than half a billion people. Each country varies widely in size and economic strength. Brazil, for example, is considered an emerging market and occupies more than 8 million square kilometers — or roughly 50 percent of South America — while Mexico is considered highly developed and is less than one-quarter of that size.
“It’s difficult to talk about Latin America in general: It’s a very different situation from country to country and from place to place in the country,” said Fabio Tonolini, director of TenarisUniversity, the learning center for Tenaris, a leading industrial pipe supplier.
Due to the sheer vastness of the region, Latin American employees are highly dispersed, and global enterprises managing operations in Latin America face the challenge of bringing enough people together to fill a classroom.
This logistical obstacle means trying to produce customized training programs for individual offices within Latin America essentially is a pipe dream. Most organizations simply implement U.S.-created programs but amend or supplement them as needed by partnering with local affiliates.
“It pays sometimes to go out and study what’s available and then leverage the local associate you will find,” Tonolini said. “It’s very important to have a local partner that understands the community, what’s available, what’s not available, what you need to bring in from outside, what you can do locally.”
Local partnerships are extremely important when it comes to soft-skills training, since those courses tend to be instructor-led and therefore require more finessing. When the need for sales training arises at Sun Latin America, for example, the company hires local facilitators to run the classes.
“It’s cheaper for us: [The local facilitator] doesn’t have a travel burden, he speaks the language, talks to the cultural things and delivers the courses cheaper, quicker, in a more adapted fashion,” Cabral said. “We really detect local leads.”
Toni Marana, director of human resources for Microsoft Latin America, said the company takes the local partnerships even further when it comes to leadership development, working closely with Latin American universities to offer tailored programs.
Partnering with local schools also offers another benefit: You can tap into a substantial pool of young workers early on, Leon said.
“That is what we leverage a lot, and we have very good knowledge about the potential market that we will have in the future,” he explained.
Another important aspect of logistics is the law. Whenever you’re dealing with global business, you’re bound to run into some conflicting red tape. Compliance training mandated by a U.S. corporate office might not align with a foreign nation’s laws or culture.
Latin America is no exception. Cabral said confusion, for example, can arise from anticorruption and sexual harassment training. The best technique in these situations, he said, is to deliver the mandated training effectively, give examples of why it’s important and explain exactly what is expected of employees.
Perhaps the greatest challenge — and also the greatest opportunity — associated with operating offices in Latin America involves straddling the cultural differences. The Latin culture is social and interactive, with emphasis placed on face-to-face time.
“One of the things that is just so wonderful about working in Latin America is that we have a very, very passionate and very, very joyous audience to work with,” said Jane Farrell, sales and marketing readiness lead for Microsoft Latin America. “That, from my perspective, is something we try to take advantage of, and I would counsel other people to just really leverage that as much as possible. That’s a real plus.”
However, sometimes the need for social interaction can result in employees not making use of self-service learning and development opportunities, Cabral said. It might be compounded by the fact that Latin American offices tend to be smaller, and employees have more responsibilities and are more pressed for time and resources than their U.S. counterparts, he added.
“Those e-mails that talk about the training that you have available, which end with the classic words, ‘Please go to www.training.com’ or ‘Please click this URL in order to enroll’ — that doesn’t happen [here],” Cabral said.
Indeed, learning often is seen as extra credit, Marana said.
“We need to really position this message [so] they understand that this is a way that they can do their jobs better, and it’s part of their job,” she said.
Marana added that this cultural difference also affects employee attitudes toward development. While the young population is eager to grow, it often expects the corporation to create, publicize and encourage participation in all the opportunities, she said.
“It has been a challenge for us in terms of changing the mindset of our employees that actually it is their responsibility to drive their careers and their development,” she said.
One way to overcome these challenges is to have executive-level support in the form of role modeling.
“Everything has to do with leadership,” Marana said. “The best role models that we have in our company are our own leaders. They are the first ones who set up the example and finish their own development plans and share them with their team. Learning and development at Microsoft is not the sole responsibility of HR or the readiness area: It’s the responsibility of our leaders, and they’re being [held] accountable for that.”
IBM’s Leon said having leaders as role models also helps employees gain a clearer line of sight to career opportunities, which is important for every employee, regardless of geographical location.
“The learning team should be aware of that, and it’s a serious, important and key thing to do. It’s critical,” she said.
Another potential side effect of any culture that places great emphasis on social interaction is that e-learning might present a hurdle.
“The Web training, the e-learning, is still anticultural in our specific country and region,” said Debora Palermo, CLO for Sun Microsystems Brazil. “Traditionally, our culture sees more aggregated value in taking that skills training in person.”
Additionally, exposure to the Internet is low in many Latin American countries, with only 12 million active home Internet users in Brazil, or less than 10 percent of the population.
“We think that if we did nothing, we’d probably end up with somewhere between a 35 to 40 percent [IT] skills gap in those countries over the next few years,” said Jeanne Belliveau-Dunn, general manager of learning at Cisco.
However, that’s not to say that the problem of e-learning is purely a Latin American issue.
“I think e-learning from a global perspective presents a challenge in most areas,” said Ben Cardoso, vice president of human resources for The Coca-Cola Co.’s Latin America Group.
But because Latin America’s workforce is so highly dispersed, computer-based training not only is a useful tool, it’s essential. As a result, many companies are coming up with innovative ways to make distance-based learning more palatable.
At Microsoft, for example, learning executives instituted programs called Breakfast Online and Lunch Online, in which employees come together for a meal and complete their online training courses in a group.
Other companies, such as Coca-Cola, are making use of Web-based portals (wikis) where employees can post successful practices and tools.
“The thing that we’re really seeing now is the use of technology to capture, share and build on successful practices,” said Karen Hendrix, director of Coca-Cola University for North America and Latin America. “And I think that’s really where we see a lot of value going forward with more of an e-platform.”
Still other organizations have capitalized on the networking nature of the Latin culture and begun to invest in virtual worlds.
“We’re already experiencing Second Life: It has been a success in Latin America,” Leon said. “Although [Microsoft’s] culture calls for interaction and networking, it can be performed using information and technology.”
Likewise, McDonald’s Latin America has implemented an engagement tool called McLand, a splashy Web page employees can access individually to view enterprise news, training opportunities, HR functions and accrued rewards.
“[We say], ‘Let’s look at the e-learning process that the U.S. has, the worldwide e-learning process, and let’s see what we need and how can we integrate that into our whole engagement process,’ which is McLand in this case,” said Carlos Gonzalez, senior director of operations for McDonald’s Latin America.
Companies also can bring a diverse yet highly social workforce together simply by propagating its corporate culture, Cardoso said.
“We focus on a culture that we have as The Coca-Cola Company, so when we put programs forward, when we put developments forward, we leverage [them] because we have a common culture,” he said. “When you take that philosophical approach, it’s amazing what you can do.