What great cultural competency and support looks like…in the workplace

For starters, it’s not just training. Cultural competency is about global communication skills, says influential training consultant Dean Foster.

Learning, any kind of learning, including intercultural learning, may provide a degree of cultural understanding, however, the road to cultural competency requires organisations to combine it with effectual support to drive behavioural change. 

“So, Tanaka-san, what do you think of this idea?”, Smith in London skyped his project colleague in Tokyo? “Very interesting, very good research”, Tanaka-san responded. Weeks later, Smith was very frustrated that he could not get the Japanese team to advance the project. 

“But where are the details?”, Yves in Paris interrupted the global team meeting with yet another question, frustrating Bob in Chicago.

“I thought I was doing a great job, but my partner and family just couldn’t adjust to the cultural differences”, Sally explained to her HR Director, as to why she ended her international assignment prematurely, putting the ROI on her assignment in jeopardy. 

Cultural competency

These are just three examples of how critical it is for organisations today to ensure that all of their employees are culturally competent. In the 21st century, where we are all instantly working globally, there is simply no wiggle room for cultural ignorance. Those who get it thrive, and those individuals – and organisations – who do not, simply will fade away. 

Providing the intercultural competencies for international transferees living and working in another culture, as well as for members of global teams who have to work with other team members from different cultures has become a critical responsibility for HR. Manage it well, and cultural differences are strategically employed to accelerate global success; fail to manage it, or manage it poorly, and cultural differences, inherent in 21st-century work, will create minefields that can derail global projects, at great expense. 

>See also: Poor workplace culture is a silent, but deadly, killer of employee loyalty

So how to build those all-important culturally competent individuals and teams? 

A combination of on-going intercultural learning, training and coaching, powered by technology, is the most efficient and successful way of getting there fast. Here’s a “top ten” snapshot of what super-great, over-the-top, intercultural support should look like:

  • Look for “full-spectrum” support, not just a dot-com event, or just a one-time training event: it needs to be both…and more. Intercultural support means a learning platform that provides rich intercultural information that requires validation of use and understanding by the user, plus a training experience that allows for real skills development, plus after-training coaching and continuous intercultural learning.
  • The learning platform needs to be valid: hearsay, un-vetted sources of information, informal mentor and coach relationships, should all be avoided. Online tools need to be scientifically validated, and rich with valid cultural information on as many cultures as possible, with self-testing features.
  • The training experience needs to provide for real-time Q&A, feedback from professional intercultural trainers, and the ability to practice new culturally productive behaviours that work for the individual being trained.
  • Intercultural learning and support is never just a one-time event.  When the information learning is done, and when the training experience is finished, there needs to be on-going after-training support. This is best done through a formal “mentoring” process: look for after-training programme features, such as membership in online intercultural learning communities, and the ability to have formal mentor sessions with qualified intercultural coaches, in order to continue to assess cultural competency development.
  • Content and design of all training experiences must be focused on the development of global communication skills: once fundamental cultural issues are explored during the learning piece, and culture-specific information is understood for each country, the training must be focused on developing those culturally appropriate and productive skills that personally work for the individual being trained in each of the countries in which they need to work.
  • Global communication competency means the ability to communicate face-to-face and virtually with individual cultures and on multi-cultural global teams. This means the ability to understand and be understood as intended; to manage language differences and “global English” effectively; to write emails that ensure responsiveness and the sharing of timely and correct information; to develop and maintain trust-based relationships, both virtually and face-to-face.
  • Ensure that providers of all three pieces to effective intercultural support (learning + training + after-training coaching) have global capabilities and can deliver all three elements anywhere in the world. You need them to, through an independent team of certified intercultural trainers, follow a unified model and methodology.  You don’t need a “broker” of intercultural experts: you need a company that has a unified global methodology and mission.
  • The cost for accessing intercultural information will be low; the cost for training intercultural communication skills will be higher; the cost for after-training continuous intercultural learning and coaching should be somewhere in the middle. Look for a provider who can deliver all three elements of support, and determine ahead of time what deliverables you expect: is providing information access enough, or do you need skilled, trained people abroad? Remember, failure costs will always be significantly higher than any training costs, and failures will occur without proper training.
  • All three elements must be made available to all stakeholders involved in the intercultural learning and support process: the partner and family who need the skills required to manage daily life, the assignee who needs the skills required to work successfully, and the organisation that needs individuals who may not be relocating abroad who have the skills, nevertheless, to work with individuals from different cultures on teams who are abroad. 
  • Therefore, look for providers of intercultural services who not only provide intercultural services to the international assignees and their relocating families, but who also have full training curricula for all employees whose work touches other cultures, who themselves may not be relocating, but who work with people abroad everyday, on global teams, with global colleagues and associates. These non-relocating “Global Workforce Development” programs are essential for the global competency development of the entire organization.

Good cultural training?  That’s so 20th-century.  GREAT cultural support that provides assignees and the organisation with learning, training and after-training support, is what you should require. Your global success depends on it, and your organisation and transferees deserve nothing less.

Dean Foster

Dean Foster is the founder of DFA Intercultural Global Solutions, a Dwellworks company.

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