Cultural training for a digital, equitable world

Published on June 8th, 2021

‘Moore’s Law’ predicted that the number of transistors on a microchip would double every two years and although Moore published it in 1965, it is by and large still true today. In many ways, cultural training in the current age is just as unrecognisable.

Culture: a constantly evolving constant

1510 C.E saw the first use of “culture” to mean the beliefs or social forms of a group. Over time, the word “culture” has expanded, just like Moore’s Law, to incorporate shared attitudes, values and behaviours for any size of social group.  In 1952, an applied linguist, Prof. Kluckhorn found over 160 definitions of the word “culture”. In the second decade of the 21st century, culture is as likely to be used in the context of diversity and inclusion as it is in the realm of arts (“high culture”).

The fundamentals, however, have remained constant – culture remains hard to tie down, it is at the heart of many of the challenges we all face, and it refuses to go away.

Globalisation has not eroded cultural difference; multiculturalism has not created an homogeneous society; the internet has not created a uni-cultural, online generation. Culture remains a key challenge, but it is only recently that we have recognised that cultural diversity is essential to creativity, innovation, effective solutions, justice and belonging.  Our perception of culture has changed as much as the number of transistors on a microchip. 

From OHP to Zoom

In the context of cultural training, the change is just as dramatic.  An expatriate training course 25 years ago was a five-day ‘immersion’ programme of etiquette, history, and information on a strange country.  It focussed on knowledge transfer, in days when the TV news was the mainstay of information on foreign countries.  Academic lectures and briefings were the most common approach, based on personal insights rather than research and an understanding of cultural theory.  

Purely in terms of visuals, slide projectors and OHPs have been replaced by PowerPoint and Zoom. But the change in cultural training is significantly more dramatic than a well-designed slide deck.  Theories have given way to practical application, facts have given way to tools

Sustainable learning

At TMA World, we have long recognised the importance of effecting sustainable learning outcomes and that means that cultural training must move from knowledge transfer to skills development.  Knowledge transfer is predicated on the idea that culture is fixed and impacts everyone in the same way.  This clearly does not reflect the complexity of reality.

When cultural training develops skills, it gives the learner a range of adaptive strategies to use as needed.  Developing skills creates “sticky learning” – learning that makes the transition from classroom to behavioural and attitudinal change.

We have come to recognise that we live and work in contact with culture every day. We have begun to recognise what Prof. Adrian Holiday calls “small cultures.”  Culture no longer refers to national culture alone.  Cultural traits can be shared by a group of two or three people – a family may have a distinct culture; even more so when we look at formally organised groups such as teams, departments, or organisations.  And if culture exists at a micro-level, all of us need cultural skills.

The 2020 Factor

In the history books of the future, 2020 will be underlined in red in the index.  The COVID-19 pandemic and the murder of George Floyd have had huge implications for cultural training.

Cultural intelligence is the development of a toolkit of skills that raises awareness of other perspectives and an understanding of the value of diversity. The murder of George Floyd by a police officer highlighted the inequity in society caused by a lack of cultural intelligence. We learned that a large part of society does not feel that they belong and are excluded from that sense of belonging, which is so important to our wellbeing.  Cultural belonging for the first time was on the front page.

People, Culture and Inclusion 

Cultural training experts cannot ignore the complicity in historical racism – the 20th century model of cultural training was undeniably colonial.  Cultural training must take the lead in promoting, developing and encouraging skills that lead to equity, inclusion and belonging.  

Coincidentally, we know that genuine inclusion has a dramatically positive impact on organisational performance – cultural intelligence is a competitive advantage. We have come to understand that cultural intelligence is an essential factor in creating an inclusive environment and a sense of belonging for all.  Understanding how our own culture filters out by default other perspectives and causes us to treat the ‘Other’ as different or abnormal or less is the first step to addressing the structural inequities around us – these principles are at the heart of cultural intelligence. 

High cultural intelligence will help organisations create belonging and equity for all.

A borderless office

The global pandemic has had a revolutionary impact on the entire world – and cultural training is not an exception. In January 2020, many CEOs were still convinced that their business could not function with workers working at home; Foreign travel was considered essential for a multi-national organisation.  Few had heard of Zoom!  We have all learned how to live and work virtually.

But not all the learnings have been positive: we have found out that virtual working amplifies cultural challenges; we’ve noticed that building cross cultural relationships is complicated on a Teams call; we are missing creative, productive disagreements because we can’t read the cultural nuances of our virtual colleagues and the disagreement escalates.

Early analysis of the research suggests that more diverse teams have responded quicker and more effectively; teams with high cultural intelligence have responded even quicker and even more effectively.  

What next?

It is becoming clear that cultural intelligence will be the key skill in 2022 as organisations recognise the value of harnessing cognitive diversity.  As we all start working in borderless offices, when location is irrelevant, we must be able to access a range of flexible skills that enable us to build trust and rapport across invisible cultural boundaries.  Cultural intelligence should be the first entry on our personal development plans.

With 30 years of perspective on cultural training, it has been fascinating to be at the heart of these changes.  I am delighted that we will be launching the latest version of our Country Navigator learning platform in June 2021. Whilst our new platform, and the technologies that enable it, would have been unimaginable when TMA World started out in the early 1990s, the need to deepen awareness and understanding across cultures (in all its forms) is perhaps more important now than it has ever been.


Chris Crosby is CEO and co-founder of TMA World and Country Navigator. He has over 30 years of experience in helping leaders, teams and organisations to work better across cultures.

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