Online training gives access to a truly global market, in which potential trainees from different countries, language backgrounds and ethnicities can interact and learn from one another. While linguistic barriers can be easily overcome either by using a common language or professional translation and interpretation services, cultural barriers are more elusive and sometimes more difficult to address. However, they are important and can have a significant impact on your learners’ engagement.
First of all, let’s see what culture is. According to the renowned author Geert Hofstede, culture is:
The collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from others.
In other words, culture may be defined as a set of values, norms, and beliefs adopted by a certain group and passed on from one generation to the next. Hofstede focused on national identities and created cultural dimensions that are prevalent in each society he studied.
Four of Hofstede’s cultural dimensions can help you to improve trainees’ engagement and learning outcomes.
Collectivism vs individualism – Living on my own… or not
People coming from individualist cultures tend to take individual action, focus more on personal achievements, while those coming from collectivistic cultures prefer group harmony, cooperation with their peers, and consider duty and loyalty as important values.
In your training environment, try to create tools that can allow both collectivist-oriented and individualist-oriented learners to thrive. For instance, discussion groups, forums are excellent for those who prefer to learn by cooperating with colleagues and trainers, while self-paced learning sessions with clear instructions allow more individualist oriented learners to focus on their own goals.
Power distance – I’ve got the power… or maybe we’ve all got it
This dimension differentiates between more egalitarian and status-oriented cultures. In low distance cultures, all people are treated the same, language is informal, sharing power is common practice, and people are not afraid to challenge their boss. In high power distance, deference is very important, the behavior is based on status, only a few have power in a group, and language is formal.
In your training classes negotiate communication styles with your participants and adapt to their preferences. If you are too formal, you may come across as too pedantic; if you are too informal, you may be perceived as rude. Keep in mind: the way we use language says a lot about our culture and our background. Negotiation is the key to smooth communication!
Masculine vs feminine – You make me feel like a natural (wo)man…
According to Hofstede, “masculine” cultures are considered more assertive and competitive, while “feminine” cultures adopt modesty and caring as essential values. In your online classes, create an open environment that engages both assertive and less assertive learners.
Most likely, less assertive learners will feel more comfortable with anonymous feedback forms, while assertive learners will have no problem in telling you exactly what they think about the course. Less assertive learners will probably prefer written communication, while more assertive ones will prefer oral interaction. Make sure you integrate tools suitable to both cultural profiles and engage all participants in the learning process.
Uncertainty avoidance – I don’t know much, but I know…
This dimension has to do with one’s willingness to take risks. Certainty-oriented individuals tend to follow procedures, do comprehensive research and make thorough decisions. Safety comes first for them. Therefore, make sure you have clear instructions that cover the whole learning process and that safety procedures are respected (for instance, data protection is a major concern nowadays).
Risk-takers, on the other hand, are more likely to make quick decisions, are more flexible and tend to prefer speed over completeness. So, make sure that you set tasks to meet their cultural profile: challenges, “what if” scenarios, unexpected exercises or tasks. Let them choose their learning path and do not put too many complicated procedures or instructions in their way.
Read more: Why each employee needs a learning path
The bottom line is that people are different because they come from different cultures. This is both an opportunity and a challenge for virtual trainers. We can all learn from each other if we pay attention, listen carefully and embrace the diversity of all cultural dimensions. Some of us may come from Mars, others from Venus, but we all come from the same Solar system.