Different strokes for different folks

The
Internet has opened up a whole new world to learning, giving multinationals the
opportunity to coach staff in their own corporate style. But providers must
beware of using a blanket approach across different cultures. Sue Weekes
outlines some of the potential pitfalls

In
the Western world, tapping your index fingers together may at worst indicate a
touch of impatience or mild irritation with the person next to you, but in
Egypt it can be interpreted to mean, "Will you sleep with me?" Hardly
the message you want to get over to your new Middle Eastern sales team, who
were expecting to be taught the finer points of customer relationship
management via the company’s latest e-learning initiative.

This
example highlights only one of the potential pitfalls for a training or HR
manager who has been led to believe that e-learning is a panacea for training a
global workforce. The programme may represent an investment of hundreds of
thousands of dollars, but a finger, foot or eyebrow in the wrong direction
could be enough to lose its credibility from the opening credits.

"It
is very short-sighted to produce a single training course and simply translate
it for use in other countries," says Michael Smith, managing director of
business course content provider Xebec McGraw-Hill, whose headquarters are in
New York. "If the course depicts scenarios that wouldn’t happen in that
culture, the entire content becomes suspect.

"The
future success of the global online learning market depends upon suppliers
producing courseware that reflects not just the linguistic but cultural
requirements of their local markets."

Research
shows this needs to happen fast. According to IDC, the Western corporate
e-learning market will have nearly doubled by 2004 and in a survey carried out
in April by e-learning solutions provider NETg, at its annual e-learning
conference, more than half the respondents (223 corporate training managers)
said their e-learning budgets had been increased in the last year. Eighty-four
per cent said their senior executives had become more committed to e-learning
over the past 12 months and more than half said they believe it will have a
direct impact on their recruitment and retention strategies within the next
three years.

And
while it’s always difficult to estimate return on investment, research carried
out for e-learning provider Skillsoft, based in Nashua, New Hampshire, by
Taylor Nelson Sofres, is encouraging. Eighty-five per cent of directors and
senior managers of US public and private organisations said e-learning has made
a positive impact on employee efficiency and 83 per cent reported a reduction
in training costs.

When
the first e-learning programmes arrived, they failed to live up to the
expectation of being a cure-all for training problems. The theory of training
being delivered to a desktop at a time and place that suited the learner
sounded irresistible, especially with its potential to cut costs. However,
early courses frequently proved to be little more than traditional content
translated into hyper text mark-up language (HTML), the coding language used on
the Web, and they paid scant regard to the all-important pedagogical issues.
Best practice e-learning is best summed up by the US e-learning guru Elliot
Masie, who says, "Online learning is not about taking a course and putting
it on a desktop. It is about a new blend of resources, interactivity,
performance support and structured learning activities."

The
word "blended" holds the key here since the more recent preferred
option when it comes to online learning is to combine it with traditional
methods such as classroom-based learning. An e-learning programme is available
for every subject imaginable these days and providers also create and customise
content.

But
some subject areas lend themselves more to being taught online than others,
which may benefit from the blended approach. For instance, learning a new
software package online will be easier than learning about leadership, since
the latter relies on elements such as role-playing and human interaction. In
this case, a blended solution would be more appropriate.

Overall,
e-learning courses have improved considerably over the past two years but the
global e-learning market is still a developing one and, in places, suffers from
a residue of the poor practices seen in the early days – all e-learning
providers claim to offer multi-lingual content, but not all live up to the
culturally sensitive and customised options that they claim.

Until
now, the choice of multi-lingual training has been "pretty paltry",
according to Ian Shaw, communications and development director for pet food
manufacturer Friskies Europe, part of the worldwide Nestl‚ Group. Shaw is
involved in a Europe-wide e-learning programme of 2,500 users at Friskies. He
also sits on the e-learning steering group for Nestl‚. "We need Italian,
we need Spanish and more," he says.

"The
problem has been that many of the origins and starting points for the courses
come from the English. However, we’re starting to see the fruits of investment
in multi-lingual and cultural content."

Friskies
is currently using course content from Xebec McGraw-Hill, which has so far
impressed both Shaw and the learners. "They don’t simply translate. They
are culturally sensitive and tend to re-shoot the whole thing," he said.

Xebec
provides more than 170 e-learning courses and is involved in an ongoing
programme of localisation, based on the territory’s individual needs and
priorities. True localisation, it says, includes changing people and company
names, acronyms, currencies, terminology and re-shooting any video to feature
nationals from that country, as well as paying huge amounts of attention to
race, gender and other cultural issues.

X.HLP
had to take a more cosmopolitan approach from the start because it comes from
Oslo. "We have no issues adapting [e-learning programmes] because
adaptability was the key criterion when the tools were originally created.
Because X.HLP is a Norwegian company, the tools were designed to operate in any
language," says UK director Brian Carroll.

There
are also all sorts of finer points of country- and sector-specific detail to be
aware of. For London-based Inmarkets Training, which specialises in courses for
the financial markets, translation is only the first part of the task.

Chief
operating officer Catriona Pointer says, "We work with subject matter
experts in specific countries to ensure the content is 100 per cent accurate –
factually, grammatically and socially."

To
deliver a programme to UBS Warburg in Germany, Inmarkets teamed up with
BanAkademie, the largest provider of financial classroom training in Germany.
"There were a few cultural differences that we encountered along the
way," says Pointer.

"For
instance, we discovered that Germans may typically save up for different things
to the British, so we had to come up with alternatives that the Germans could
identify with."

UK
company Futuremedia, which delivers e-learning around the world through its
Easycando learning portal and lists motor company Ford among its global
clients, is another that bemoans the lack of customised content. "There is
a shortage of this [multi-lingual content] and there are issues even in the
English-speaking markets. Where there is an audio component, for example,
American accents result in negative feedback from some UK customers,"
explains Futuremedia’s head of marketing, Paul English. Jokingly, he adds,
"It’s not surprising when you think about dubbed TV adverts. But there is
pressure for this to change and the content providers are addressing it."

There
are also more tangible requirements to be aware of, such as differing laws and
policies, explains Stephen Bennett, vice-president of e-learning provider
Click2Learn, whose head office is in Bellevue, Washington. "In the US, it
is illegal to track gender in test scores, whereas in France it is encouraged
as a form of guaranteeing equal opportunities. You have to remain on top of
each country’s requirements."

And
Steven Bird, who is managing an e-learning pilot at Allied Worldwide, says one
of the first questions he wants to ask his provider is whether the health and
safety modules of the course adhere to local laws.

HR
managers and trainers must look beyond course content when buying an e-learning
solution, since it is vital that the overall structure, design and navigation
of the programme is right for its audience. Not all nations read from left to
right, for instance. Anyone who surfs the Internet will know that navigating
some websites in your native language can be hard, so imagine the problems if
the text on the screen is also "back to front".

E-learning
consultancy, eLearnity, based in Cirencester in the UK, was commissioned by
Copenhagen business college Niels Brock to work on the complete methodology for
design, development, implementation and support for its e-learning projects.
Niels Brock is Denmark’s second largest educational institution with about
40,000 students and 1,800 employees, and the project is a good example of an
e-learning programme that was built from scratch rather than adapted.

eLearnity
worked with the college’s course manager and tutors to redesign the learning
for online use and to customise the software to create a Niels Brock-branded
product. It also defined the pedagogical approaches to ensure high-quality
learning. "We created a methodology database accessible to all staff in
the programme and used a Lotus Notes discussion database to determine the best
way forward based on Niels Brock’s culture and environment," explains Sue
Honore, the main eLearnity consultant on the project.

"Niels
Brock approached this programme the way we wish all our customers would do.
They thought of it as a complete programme, not a quick conversion of one
course to another."

The
courses were created in both Danish and English and eLearnity explains that
sometimes it’s preferable to use the English version because they know it will
be the latest version, since there can be a time lapse with the translations.
Overall though, the programme has been adjudged a major success – one year on,
several courses are on their second run and the college now has more than 1,000
students on 30 e-learning courses.

In
keeping with the Niels Brock example, the best chance of success seems to come
out of a long-term, two-way relationship between client and provider. Global
e-learning projects are being announced daily, one of the most recent being the
McDonald’s Corporation’s deal with San Francisco e-learning provider Digital
Think to deliver an e-learning pilot in five languages. McDonald’s has 1.5
million staff in 121 countries. By turning to an integrated provider such as
Digital Think, which provides the learning environment, sources the course
content and implements and supports the system, provides the best foundation
for a long-term e-learning strategy.

Another
advantage of pledging allegiance to a major supplier is that you reap the
benefit of its multi-lingual and cultural experience. NETg, whose corporate
headquarters are in Naperville, Illinois, has built up a profile of most
countries – its library of 1,300 courses is available in several languages –
and is aware not just of content and language difficulties but how each country
perceives training and the best ways to entice them into it. NETg managing director
Nige Howarth has seen Japanese clients introduce e-learning to staff as part of
relaxed, fun sessions where they can also sit down and play Nintendo games. It
is in stark contrast to the company’s German clients, he says, like their
training to be scheduled.

Although
some companies are further down the line than others in implementing e-learning
strategies, the e-learning community – providers as well as users – must accept
that they are all on a learning curve when it comes to global best practices.
Cost savings mean that e-learning often appears irresistible to CEOs and a big
part of a global trainer or HR manager’s challenge will be keeping the
providers at arm’s length while they find the right supplier.

E-learning
programmes in general have proven difficult for many organisations to get
right, with drop-out rates still much higher than in traditional training
programmes (sometimes as high as 50 per cent). Let’s face it, if we can’t get
it right in our own language, there’s little hope for the Swahili version.

What
to look for and what to ask your e-learning provider

1.
Who translated it and did they use subject matter experts?

2.
Can it ensure there are no cultural faux pas, ie hand gestures that are innocuous
in one country but will offend in another? (A good checklist can be found at www.webofculture.com).

3.
Has it ensured there are no race or gender issues with the training?

4.
Will the learner understand how to navigate through the training – not all nationalities
read from left to right and top to bottom?

5.
Has it checked there are no acronyms or English terminology that will confuse?

6.
Check the provider is aware of any legal issues pertaining to the countries
where the training is bound.

7.
Above all, don’t rush into pledging allegiance with a supplier until you’re
convinced it is aware of all the global issues.

Further
information

E-learning
suppliers:


Academee www.academee.com


Click2Learn www.click2learn.com


Docent www.docent.com


Easycando www.easycando.com


Futuremedia www.futuremedia.co.uk


Educational Multimedia Corporation www.educationalmultimedia.com


Elearnity www.elearnity.com


Electric Paper www.electricpaper.ie


Interwise www.interwise.com


Knowledge Pool www.knowledgepool.com


NetG www.netg.com


Pathlore www.pathlore.com


Skillsoft www.skillsoft.com


Thinq www.thinq.com


Xebec McGraw-Hill www.mcgraw-hill.com


WBT www.wbtsystems.com


X.HLP www.xhlp.com

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