The internet has made community-based collaborative learning possible on a global
scale, but this does not mean cultural diversity cannot be accommodated, say
Patrick Dunn and Alessandra Marinetti
There is a bad joke circulating in the training community: what’s the
difference between e-learning and Martini? "One can be consumed anytime,
anywhere… and the other uses new technologies to help people learn."
To many in the e-learning arena, this is a joke with a bitter ring of truth.
E-learning vendors have been roundly criticised for over-selling e-learning’s
benefits. Half of corporate users surveyed in a recent survey1 by the Chartered
Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD) said their e-learning
implementations did not represent value for money. The pressure is on
e-learning vendors to focus on genuine business benefit, and key to this will
be to deliver on ‘the Martini promise’.
For large global organisations, the ‘anywhere’ part of the promise isn’t
primarily about working at home, in the office or in hotel rooms. It’s about
being able to scale up cost-effectively to meet the learning needs of diverse,
globally spread workforces. If this were possible, so the argument goes, it
could radically alter the cost/benefit equation of training.
But, like many of e-learning’s benefits, global scale has been hard to
achieve. One problem is that the benefits of scale have been outweighed by the
costs of overcoming diversity of language and culture within organisations. At
last year’s Dublin E-learning Festival, the chief executive of one of the
world’s largest e-learning companies made it clear that he simply couldn’t
build different courses for every country in the world.
The first step to globalising e-learning is what is called ‘localisation’.
This usually consists of translating content, altering key graphics and changing
some elements of context – so a mention of Sainsbury’s in the UK would become
Auchan in France or Daiei in Japan. Companies are taking an increasingly
sophisticated approach to localisation, such as designing learning content and
process from the start to accommodate localisation, instead of producing a
single language version (usually English) and then modifying it. This cuts cost
and reduces development time.
However, localisation is only a first step. Current best practice in
localisation does not take into account the fact that people in different
cultures learn differently and, in many cases, need to learn different things.
Culture theorists such as Geert Hofstede and Fons Trompenaars have known
this for some time. They talk about culture influencing our ‘mental
programming’ and shaping the way we perceive the world – including, of course,
how we learn. Fortunately, they have also provided robust conceptual models to
help analyse the dimensions along which cultures differ.2
Such models have been used extensively by specialist consultancies such as
ITAP International3 and ITIM4 to help organisations shape their training and
development activities for different cultural contexts. There are now
indications that models of cultural difference are starting to be used to adapt
instructional design approaches to e-learning.
But even if we know how company’s values differ, how can e-learning be
globalised without breaking the bank? The answer lies in changing only a small
proportion of content for each culture – just enough to make the overall
experience convincing – using some form of Pareto analysis (the 80/20 rule).
If courses consist of collections of learning objects, the costs of
adaptation quickly become more acceptable, as swapping objects in and out of
the course presents no technical challenge.
A course aimed both at US and French learners, for example, would mostly
consist of common content, but certain key components would be different,
– Tutor introductions. In France authority figures may be seen as remote
(what Hofstede calls high-power distance); in the US those in authority tend to
be seen as informal and friendly (low-power distance)
– Background information. In France a large amount is given (Trompenaars’
high-context dimension) in the US a direct and brief approach (low context) is
If industry gurus such as Stephen Downes5 are correct, we may in the future
be trading course components in a "learning object economy" where
purchasers of e-learning need buy only the objects they require. This will
further drive down the cost of adaptation, thereby removing a key barrier to
effective, highly scaleable globale-learning.
Adapting e-learning to different cultures is perfectly feasible. However,
the real issue is that globalisation presents e-learning, and its close cousin
Knowledge Management, with the opportunity to fulfil their over-hyped
According to Jim Flood of Corous, (an Open University company): "It
might be that classroom/lecture theatre-based models of teaching and learning
are eventually seen as a temporary aberration in the historical development of
He’s not talking about replacing classroom with on-screen courses, but about
community-based learning; the "napsterisation" of learning, where
people learn informally from other people in rich, peer-to-peer networks.
This vision of learning has been around a long time. In the 1970s, Ivan
Illich7 wrote about "learning webs"; in the 1960s, Paul Freire8
advocated a conversational approach to learning; and as early as 1930, Lev
Vygotsky’s9 Social Constructivism placed the community at the heart of
What the internet has done is make community-based, collaborative learning possible
on a global scale. This explains the explosion of interest in Communities of
Practice and Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL). Further, this
view of learning as a primarily social function fits well with constructivist
theories of learning increasingly advocated by the major e-learning content
developers. Constructivist theories propose that we learn by constructing
meaning within ourselves, not simply by absorbing knowledge.
So, if learning is about construction, not transfer, and about social, not
isolated activity, who should we best learn with? We’re only at the start of
our understanding of community-based learning, so it is difficult to answer
this question. But looking at many successful web-based communities, it is
clear that collaborative learning is facilitated by working with those who have
different perspectives on our issues, those who approach learning in different
ways, yet have similar concerns and needs to ourselves. Which is where cultural
diversity comes in.
Global organisations are now able to provide experiences that encourage
communities of learners with similar concerns but profoundly different
perspectives. Of course, this approach isn’t only the concern of training
professionals. Organisations such as Innoversity10 cultivate diverse
communities of practice in organisations to promote innovation. And in their
book Building Cross-Cultural Competence, Fons Trompenaars and Charles
Hampden-Turner develop the theme that businesses "who focus on integrating
rather than polarising values will make much better business decisions".
They argue that wealth is actually created by reconciling values in conflict.
What these sources are pointing out, is that constructive, collaborative
engagement with those different from ourselves can help us learn more and learn
better. The intellectual capital created by sharing experiences and knowledge
of diverse people can amount to far more than their separate parts. This is
e-learning and the internet’s biggest opportunity.
business school experiments in diversity
In 2001, students at Copenhagen Business School started a
course entitled Diversity in Organisations in a Knowledge Management
Perspective. As the course was about the study of diversity, it was felt that
diversity should become an integral part of the educational process. So the 35
students from 19 different countries were put into work groups to create
maximum diversity of gender, business specialisation, Belbin profiles and
There were problems at first, as differences in knowledge,
approach and culture came into play – and were not always fully acknowledged.
But when the students had to choose whether to be examined in their diverse
groups, the majority opted to do so. The results were exceptional, according to
Susanne Justesen, one of the tutor team. "The students felt that it really
increased their learning and creativity," she said. "The papers and
models presented at the exam illustrated a range of unique and highly effective
approaches to knowledge management in organisations."
Patrick Dunn is an independent
consultant and researcher in the areas of networked learning and creativity.
www.dunn.co.uk/pdconsultingAlessandra Marinetti is a learning strategist at
DigitalThink in San Francisco [email protected]
1. E-learning, The learning Curve. Summary and download
available at www.trainingfoundation.com/research/default.asp?PageID=1004
2. For Hofstede’s work, see Culture’s Consequence: Comparing
Values, Behaviours, Institutions and Organizations Across Nations, Corwin Press
– March 2003. For Trompenaars, see Riding the Waves of Culture: Understanding
Cultural Diversity in Business Nicholas Brealey Publishing Ltd – Oct 1997
7. De-schooling society. Complete text available at www.reactor-core.org/deschooling.html#chapter6
Keeping it simple
The availability of global networks is one of the pressures
pushing global corporations towards paying closer attention to the cultural
differences within their organisations. But it is also a means to address the
learning needs that arise as a result. Solutions do not have to involve complex
technologies, such as learning management systems and simulations.
A major global pharmaceutical corporation is globalising its
internal consulting function. Although internal consultants now work in more
situations where they encounter different cultures, many haven’t had the
experience of working in other than their home culture.
The organisation is using the global reach of its e-mail system
and intranet to support the development of the knowledge and skills required to
operate more effectively with clients from different cultures. The intranet is
used to distribute tools – such as cross-culturally appropriate questionnaires,
learning exercises, readings by thought leaders, consulting process guidelines,
reference materials and checklists – and to share expertise and experiences.
Consultants receive an
electronic newsletter with a short reading, and/or case study, with links to
more detailed web content. A recent newsletter looked at consulting outlined by
thought leader, Peter Block. His almost entirely US approaches were shown
against a matrix of four cultural dimensions (individualism, power distance,
certainty and achievement) based on the work of Geert Hofstede.
This blended learning approach also includes the certification
of the internal consultants in the use of cross-culturally appropriate tools
with their global clients.
The content, certification training and consulting for these
initiatives is supplied by ITAP International (www.itapintl.com). Catherine
Mercer Bing, ITAP’s vice-president HR, points out: "This is a good example
of keeping tactics simple and costs reasonable while achieving a key strategic
initiative – globalisation of this function. Creative use of the technology is
what makes lowest technology, blended approach successful."