Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Looking at Cross Culture Training

I am currently working on putting together a business plan for a Cross-cultural training practise.


Initially, we offered such training for our clients in Hyderabad covering the symbols and rituals of Western culture. And that was alright - that's exactly what the clients want in India. This is a critical requirement particularly in the outsourcing space, where the agents, usually an Indian graduate, sometimes with an advanced degree, need to taught to interact of the clients, usually an European or a North American organization. A big slice of this training focuses on language, how to talk like an American, for example, and some part of it goes to the manners and rituals of American life. The continuous stream of requests that we got convinced me that there is an opportunity to create a specialist Cross Culture training practise, either as a separate business or as a separate division within an existing training business.


However, I am also convinced, by watching what is being delivered at these training sessions from a close proximity [not just training that we did, but what the others did, too] is that there is a huge gap in expectations and outcome. The agents often fail to grasp the 'culture' aspect of the culture and go back to work with a sense of mannerisms and rituals. This gives them a false confidence, which does its trick if the agent was inherently capable of learning a new way of life through interactions and to conceal his/her shortcomings effectively and intelligently, but indeed, it does not give them an effective framework being one step ahead of the customer and does nothing to make them 'adapt' the client's culture, which is often the expectation.


Further, once you go down the scale to smaller companies, who usually follow the practises of the larger companies but would want to have a shorter, cheaper training period, the training fails completely because it is essentially focused on transactions without context. In those crammed sessions where the agents are taught to behave like Americans, it was all about acting like Americans without understanding why. In some cases, I have heard, such acting almost leads to personality disorders - note that we are talking about mostly teenagers here - and those stories reported severe problems that these kids face adjusting back to their usual day-to-day life.


The point of culture training should not be mimicking an alien culture, but to deal with it comfortably. Well, yes, I know this thing about acting American and trying to sound like one is from Chicago, but I think that's stupidity. First, there is a huge chance that you will be found out. Second, you are being dishonest to start with, which will make you either defensive or arrogant for rest of the conversation, neither good in achieving the sale or customer satisfaction that you are looking for. I would think an agent trained to behave as a global Indian, who is comfortable with who s/he is, will do much better than someone trying to mimic and hide.

So, if we go beyond this acting American view, what shall we try to achieve? I think the key point is meeting behavioural expectations - being courteous, prompt and formal, in case of American clients for example. This starts with being able to anticipate those expectations, without necessarily stereotyping people. Besides, this must be accompanied by an understanding of the principle of difference - that different people see things differently and that is okay - which will indeed make anticipating and meeting those behavioural expectations easier. One must remember while Indians are better in English than some other nationalities, Indians are on a different end of the scale in most dimensions of culture [from Anglo-Americans]. Besides, India is currently in the middle of an Education revolution and currently the Indian workplace is dominated by people from smaller towns. The point about them is that they are steeped in the local/ Indian culture. Their exposure to difference is comparatively less than someone growing up in Mumbai, and hence, their need for an understanding of this principle of difference, greater.


I have also understood another important aspect of the 'culture' training market in India. Everyone wants a foreign, read White, trainer. The companies do think that the culture training can not be done in any other way. Partly, I would agree. I am sure an American is more qualified than anyone else to talk about the 'American' way of life. However, there are two clear problems with this approach. One, not all white Americans can consciously talk about the American way of life. Well, I mean they can surely talk about what they do, as a part of a casual conversation, and teach people transactions, but they may not have engaged in this consciously or with a reverse culture training on their part. So, such training eventually degenerates into teaching people a better - American - way of doing things. This leads to the opposite result of what any training should achieve - an exposition of weaknesses and undermining the learners' confidence - rather than equipping the person with necessary skills and confidence. Two, the starting point of culture training should start with the acceptance of difference as good and inevitable, and this should start from re-examining the underlying assumptions of one's own culture. Once we examine these assumptions, we know that our wisdom is not as final as we think, they are after all dependent on certain assumptions we have made about life. And then we start seeing logic in different set of assumptions, which may be deeply rooted in history or physical circumstances. An enquiry into culture which does not start with one's own will invariably make people draw wrong conceptions - they will see culture as a dress not as a way of life - and therefore lead them away from what culture training is all about.

I am obviously not in a position to undermine the customer preferences and currently trying to work with some experts who can take meaningful sessions for Senior executives. However, I shall engage people with significant maturity and with prior exposure to other cultures. But, the eventual goal of the business/ practise will be to create learning content and programmes which can reach out to graduates in the small cities and new hires. I am at the stage of conception right now and exploring multiple pathways now. I wish to launch this by September, after I come out of my current obligations, and I shall keep posting about my progress in these pages.

2 comments:

Cucumber Consultants said...

Dear Supriyo,

I fully agree with you on the shallowness of such cross cultural training programs and orientation programs being held here in MNCs. My husband works with one of the top IT firms here and it feels really sad to see how ignorant and ill-informed his colleagues are about things when they go for on-site projects. I too have lived in various regions of the globe including US, Europe and South East Asia and each time I take it upon myself to research and share with his team members the various aspects of the culture of those regions. I have a few friends in the BPO industry who just mock upon the cultural orientation they get at work as there is hardly any thought put into the whole process. I believe the right way of going about such orientation is to first find common ground rather than pointing out the differences. Using this technique believe it or not I have even got some of my aunts trying out international cuisine, be it Italian, Mexican or Chinese. Also being a trainer I feel this technique helps in capturing the attention of the audience much better. I am really impressed with the thought you have put into this project of yours and do let me know if as an orgasnization we could be of any help to you in realizing your dreams.
I will look forward to your further posts on the topic.

Thanks and regards.

Rajni Gopal
Lead - Training Division
Cucumber Consultants
Hyderabad

Supriyo Chaudhuri said...

Hi Rajni

Many thanks for your comments.

It is indeed good to know that we are on the same page. I also agree, as you noted, that any exposition to foreign culture must start with an understanding of one's own, and should go beyond understanding the differences and should encompass understanding the common grounds as well.

I have somewhat progressed since the time I wrote this post. I have managed to form an organization in Britain, where I live, and is taking up a property in Hyderabad as the base in India. I have also built partnerships with few key academics who have been leading cross-culture research in various countries.

I would look forward to have a conversation with you and see whether we can collaborate in some way. I am in Hyderabad next week for a couple of days, and that possibly is the best opportunity to do so. Kindly drop me a mail with your contact details and I shall be in touch once I am in Hyderabad.

Thanks & Regards,

Supriyo

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