For Consistent Training: Design Globally, Deliver Locally

Donal Conn

It’s a common challenge for all international organizations: How do you deliver a consistent training program on a global basis while tailoring the materials to each culture? The answer to this classic dilemma can be found in a simple three-step process:

1) Design the core content globally

2) Customize the content for each culture

3) Deliver the customized content locally

Of course, while the process may appear simple enough, the goal to deliver a universal training program that is culturally meaningful to each audience around the world can prove exceedingly difficult to achieve. Before you begin your next global learning initiative, here are some suggestions to consider:

• Idiom-proof your content – It’s a television sitcom waiting to happen. Place a person from the Scottish Highlands in a room with someone from the Australian Outback and another raised on the Mississippi Delta, then observe them try to have a conversation. Yes, they all technically speak the same language, but they very likely won’t be able to clearly understand each other well at first. Why? Because they all use very different terminology, jargon, idioms and dialects to communicate. However, after some time together all three will likely learn to simplify their messages by selecting only the words and terms commonly understood.

This simplified language is sometimes known as Universal English – the version most commonly taught to those learning English as a second language. Of course, there is also a Universal Portuguese which is shared by those in Sao Paulo and Lisbon, Universal French that is used when a Quebecois visits Paris, etc.


So what do these universal languages all have in common? They are free of idioms, jargon and acronyms. And it is in this universal language style that your core training content must be written for a global audience so that everyone around the world will best understand your materials. Writing in this simplified style will also allow for more accurate and quicker translations of the materials into other languages.

• Speak the same units – The concept is a simple one: the more familiar the program materials feel to each adult, the better he or she will absorb and retain the information. At a minimum, that means changing your content to use local terminology and measurements. For example, if you originally designed a case study using terms such as inches, gallons or Fahrenheit degrees, you’ll certainly need to translate them to a comparable equivalent of centimeters, liters and Celsius degrees. A similar rule also often applies to currency. Mathematical calculations are best presented in the most common business currency of your learners, whether that be in euros, dollars, yen or pesos.

• Consider social norms – It happens all the time. A learning program is first created in one language and culture. Then a pilot session is delivered to a target audience in that same culture and is deemed a resounding success. Once the same program is later delivered in another culture however, the session is filled with awkward silence and later receives poor evaluation scores. So what happened? It’s likely that the content developers didn’t fully understand the differences in learning styles and social norms between the two cultures.

Most instructional designers are already well-versed in the maxims of andragogy and will incorporate various techniques such as case studies, group activities, individual critiques or team competitions into their learning programs. But while the laws of adult-learning generally hold true across cultures, the techniques and tools appropriate for each culture vary greatly.

If you force adults into an uncomfortable social environment that contradicts the local cultural norms, the social anxiety will trump their ability to learn every time. This explains why an individual-based competitive exercise successfully used for a class in Germany will almost certainly be received negatively when presented in China. Why a team-building group activity used effectively in India may be viewed as a waste of time when delivered in Brazil.

As you begin to adapt your core course content to each culture, consider two fundamental questions:

1) Does the learning style of Culture X have a bias towards individual or group activities?

2) What is the social tolerance of Culture X to critiques or discord?

For example, assume you have already designed a training program in English and delivered a pilot session in the United States. In the test session, you successfully included a class-wide discussion around one of your key learning points. You ask individuals to answer specific questions in front of the class, then follow-up by asking other participants to agree or disagree with the first learners answers.

Because North Americans generally have both a high tolerance for social discord and comfort working individually, this approach met the social norms and was successful. You now plan on delivering the same course in Japan. Should you adopt the same approach?

Probably not. In many Asian cultures such as Japan, adults prefer to work in teams. Adults in these cultures also tend to strongly value social harmony. Based on this, it’s not recommended to include a class-wide activity where individuals must present their own answers independently to the class for judgment.

A better approach would be to ask small groups of adults to discuss a problem together and derive a team answer. After this group activity, the debrief approach used in North America would also generally not be recommended in Japan. If the session facilitator asked the participants to assess the first team’s efforts, few individuals would likely choose to stand out and speak. If called upon directly, most Japanese adults would very likely only offer a positive answer to maintain harmony.

• Use local facilitators whenever possible – Human behaviorists call it a "propensity for propinquity." In essence, people tend to prefer others who are like them. Accordingly, adults learn best by trainers who can communicate in the manner they are most accustomed. If the facilitator speaks the local language, presents using typical gestures, and uses culturally relevant examples, the participants will more effectively learn the content.

Of course, depending on the actual size of your learning organization, having a dedicated trainer per topic for each culture and language is not always possible. Because of this, many international companies cross-train a network of volunteer employees who assist in delivering the company’s core training programs locally. Once you have designed your core content and customized the materials for each culture, consider holding a train-the-trainer session for your selected facilitators who then can deliver your program locally.