Topics: Program Design & Delivery
What are the cultural factors that impact corporate learning in China?
In a recent qualitative research study, CorpU captured interviews of several large, global, Western-based companies that have a presence in Eastern countries. Most participants' primary learning and development (L&D) efforts were in China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, India, and the Middle East. These companies answered questions regarding the challenges their learning organizations face when providing training services to Eastern workforces. In the first part of this series, we addressed general Learning Challenges in Eastern Countries. For this second installment, we analyzed the data again, this time focusing on China. We found four cultural factors that need to be addressed in order to lead successful corporate L&D efforts in China:
Over the past decade, there has been a push in China to get people to speak English. Western companies in our study indicated that they were quite willing to help their Chinese employees practice speaking English. For the training and development professional, however, extra efforts should be taken to ensure that information transfer is happening. Some approaches that worked include facilitating in English, but presenting slides in Chinese or Mandarin (depending upon location) to help Chinese learners translate faster. Others noted, for more complex topics, group discussions or Q&A sessions in the native language can help refine understanding, requiring one to provide a translator or ensure the trainer is fluent in the local language. One more method of support for information transfer while encouraging the use of English is to provide detailed handouts in English, or possibly English with native translations on the opposite pages.
In China, there is a strong belief that the most effective next-generation leadership rises up from within, not from the outside. The commitment and focus is on those who are local, grooming high potential leaders, pushing them to step up to leadership roles, and promoting from within. Should the efforts to assess and develop talent be applied, the cultural mores often results in vibrant succession programs. Nonetheless, L&D professionals should be on their guard to recognize signs for resistance to bringing in the top talent from other organizations, or even countries, to fill vacancies — even when the right talent is not found inside the company. In response to this cultural practice, a few companies in the CorpU study discovered greater excitement when they chose to train local employees with a penchant for teaching to be facilitators of local programs rather than sending representatives from the West to provide the training.
Although not as formal in their communication style as in Japan, people in China still put great stock in controlling outward and physical displays of emotion. According to the research undertaken, animated and expressive communication — common in the West — is not perceived as a strength. Rather, it is more common to identify refined, quiet, and non-expressive modes of communication — that is, contained hand gestures, moderate and sometimes indirect verbal phrasing, and constrained gesticulations — with the balanced emotions of successful people. One likely place that this difference may cause some challenges occurs during disagreements: Western trainers must learn cues to recognize when a colleague from China disagrees with him/her. The colleague from China will rarely say "I disagree with you" directly. Instead, he or she may mention aspects about the task, indirectly suggesting that it is difficult or problematic. Picking up on these nuances simply takes practice. In addition, this tendency to avoid conflict needs to be kept in mind when designing training activities, particularly around soft skills.
The level of respect that Chinese culture has on hierarchy should not be underestimated...or under-leveraged. Study participants mentioned situations where the lack of overt management support directly impacted learning transfer, due to the perception that the new skills were not supported by management. A few approaches that seemed to mitigate this outcome tended to involve respected leaders with strong technical depth on the topic directly or visibly, because their involvement established expectations regarding the importance of the learning. The data supports the claim that leadership influence often has as much impact on behavior change than Western L&D approaches in China, so planning ahead to ensure leadership involvement is important to maximize learning transfer.
Of all of the countries under investigation in this study, some study participants identified China to be the easiest culture to work with in order to achieve company strategic goals through Western training and development approaches. Nonetheless, learning professionals must be aware of the deference to authority, the appreciation of indirect and contained expression, the avoidance of direct conflict, and the cultural norms to promote from within when establishing L&D practice in China, because the data suggests that successful L&D efforts in China occur when adjustments are made to promote a positive, healthy working partnership. Although one need not master the nuances of Confucian teaching in order to achieve success, the effort spent understanding cultural differences (one option is Aperian Global's Globe Smart) is well worth it — as does networking with other learning professionals that have experience in designing and implementing learning initiatives in China.
This article supports the CorpU 12 Dimensions of Learning Excellence - Execute (Program Design and Delivery)
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