The Army Projects

Posted on April 10, 2007

The Army Projects

intercultural military training

Intercultural Military Training

In 2006-2007 Aperian Global had the opportunity to undertake two projects that were outside our usual sphere of operation. We were awarded funding by the United States Department of Defense (DoD) to develop two web tools that would deliver intercultural training to the military. Each year the DoD Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program funds early-stage Research & Development projects at small technology companies—projects that serve a DoD need and have commercial applications. Funding is awarded competitively. The two resulting products, GlobeSmart Commander and GlobeSmart Soldier, are asynchronous e-learning tools that were launched in December 2006 and March 2007 respectively.

GlobeSmart Commander

GlobeSmart Commander is geared towards officers who interact with NATO peacekeeping forces in multinational operations. It consists of a self-assessment survey, which was adapted for the military from Aperian Global’s GlobeSmart® Assessment survey for corporate users, and nine learning modules:

  • an introduction to culture and its impact on communication and work styles;
  • how to speak Global English (i.e., adapting one’s speaking style and language to be more understandable to counterparts for whom English is not a native language);
  • establishing credibility on NATO teams; and
  • one module on each of the six GlobeSmart Assessment Profile dimensions (Risk vs. Restraint, Task vs. Relationship, Egalitarianism vs. Status, Independent vs. Interdependent, and Short- vs. Long-Term).

Each dimension module shows a video of an unproductive interaction between two colleagues from opposite sides of the continuum (e.g., a risk-oriented and a restraint-oriented officer). Exercises help users understand the behavioral implications of the dimensions, and they must choose the most effective way to adapt their style in order to be more effective with the other person. The module concludes with further advice for style-switching. There has been a great deal of interest shown in Commander by people engaged in rebuilding efforts in Iraq, who have witnessed first-hand the way that projects get bogged down by communication and cultural misunderstandings within multinational teams.

Corporate Applications of GlobeSmart Commander

Multinational peacekeeping teams face challenges that are unique to a military organization and that non-military teams do not encounter. They also, however, share many of the issues common to corporate multinational teams. Since we were able to tie these common issues to the six dimensions of the GlobeSmart Assessment Profile, the GlobeSmart Commander was immediately applicable to the corporate market. We were able to utilize the same technical platform, move the scenarios to a corporate setting utilizing typical workplace issues, and widen the cultures represented beyond NATO countries. We will be integrating these modules, which illustrate each of GlobeSmart’s six cultural dimensions, into the GlobeSmart web tool within the next few months.

GlobeSmart Soldier: An Opportunity for Innovation

Through the U.S. Department of Defense SBIR, we were also awarded funding to develop cultural training for US soldiers headed for Iraq. To fulfill this contract, we created an innovative web tool, GlobeSmart Soldier.

GlobeSmart Soldier is a product for which there was clearly an urgent need. Daily newspaper headlines underscored the difficulty that occupation forces were having in understanding the culture and making informed judgments in critical situations, endangering lives on both sides. The Army had come to the realization that this was a different kind of war, one in which enemies don’t wear uniforms, where the U.S. was being perceived by many as the enemy. Soldiers needed an understanding of the “cultural terrain” of Iraq in addition to its geographical terrain in order to be effective.

To contribute to the aim of avoiding unnecessary tragedy and damaged relations with local Iraqis, Aperian Global invested this grant in the development of a learning tool designed to foster greater US-Iraqi understanding and empathy. We saw this project as a way to bring the voice of Iraqis to an audience that might otherwise never hear their perspective.


Since our target audience was the ground-level U.S. soldier, we began our research by interviewing returned veterans and Army trainers to find out what kind of cultural training soldiers got before deploying and what kind of training they wished they’d had in light of their experience there. Our interviews showed that, while some cultural information about Iraq existed, it was mostly in the form of slide presentations and brochures. According to our research, soldiers wanted to know about Islam, the treatment of women, customs, who the various groups were (ethnic, military, etc.), basic phrases in Arabic, and even though they disliked the subject of history in general (“boring!”), many felt it was important for soldiers to know about recent events that had led up to the current situation.

We also interviewed many Iraqis living in Iraq to find out their perceptions of U.S. soldiers and what they felt was important for soldiers to know. These interviews were possible only because an Aperian consultant’s family member was working on an Iraqi rebuilding project and had many Iraqi contacts—Shi’a, Sunni, and a few who identified themselves as “secular”—who were traveling to Jordan for a conference. In our research, we also gathered information about preferred learning delivery methods. Training had to be realistic, engaging, relevant, visual, and if possible, game-like. Since soldiers on the ground in Iraq had limited access to the internet, the product would have to be available on a CD.


The design concept that came out of our research consists of four main components:

    1. “Briefing on Iraq”: includes more than 200 images and provides short information “snacks” on four main topics: Culture & Customs, Land & People, History & Recent Events, and Language & Communication;
    2. “Witnesses to History”: an interactive section with photos and audio in which the voices of three U.S. soldiers and seven Iraqi characters bring recent history to life, from the 1970s to the present day, accessed by a clickable timeline;
    3. “Names & Phrases”: where soldiers can listen to basic Arabic names, words, and phrases and record their own pronunciation; and
    4. “Scenarios”: interactive, branching scenarios with graphic-novel-style illustrations, in which soldiers have to click through a patrol or a house search and, at each decision point, try to choose the more culturally appropriate action. En route, they are able to see the Iraqi perspective of their selected options, and, depending on the path they follow, they could wind up with one of three results: good, not good, or disastrous.


Understanding. All content is geared toward giving soldiers an understanding of the basic values, customs, and attitudes of Iraqi people today. The “Briefing on Iraq” provides:

  • information on the religious, ethnic, and geographic diversity of Iraq,
  • the background of customs which soldiers would undoubtedly witness and might possibly misinterpret,
  • the central importance of religion, honor, and family in Iraqi culture,
  • the treatment of women and elders, and many other need-to-know topics.

The “Briefing on Iraqi History” focuses on key periods in Iraq’s long history that have shaped the Iraqi values and attitudes which underlie behaviors still in evidence today.

Empathy. The “Witnesses to History” section is geared toward building empathy for Iraqi people and making history accessible by having it told through the experiences of “real” people (although the characters are composites). Users can click on a decade (beginning with the 1970s) or an individual year (beginning with 2001) to hear about the events in the lives of various Iraqi characters at that time. There is a main U.S. character, a young soldier, whose life is also chronicled in this manner. He is a point of entry for the soldiers, a frame of reference that allows them to compare their own life experiences with those of the Iraqi characters at the same point in time.

Motivation. Each section of the product was designed to enhance others; for example, while reading a brief passage on the Gulf War in the History section, a soldier can click on a link and hear a “Witness to History” talk about his or her experience in that war. Another example: at a decision point in a scenario, if one option is an unfamiliar phrase in Arabic, the soldier can click on a link and be taken to the Names & Phrases section to see a translation. Designing the tool in this way creates “just-in-time” learning motivation and makes the product more engaging.

Lessons Learned

Practicing what we preach. It took a very multicultural team to create this product, and much of the collaboration was done virtually. We had contributors in Egypt, Iraq, Italy, and many locations in the U.S., as well as a diverse team in the San Francisco Bay Area consisting of Lebanese, Afghans, Iraqis, and Lebanese-, African-, Japanese-, and European-Americans.

It was especially challenging to enlist the support of the Arab community in the San Francisco Bay Area, as many lost interest as soon as they heard the project was for the US military. We had photos of Iraqis in Iraq, but we did not want to use them as our “witnesses” and risk endangering the subjects, so it was vital to find people safe in the U.S. to photograph.
We overcame these challenges by practicing what we preach:

  • communicating and sharing a vision and a desire to make a difference
  • taking the time to build relationships, sometimes through fairly non-goal-oriented initial meetings
  • using trusted intermediaries to access wider networks of resources
  • acknowledging time-zone differences and being flexible about communication windows
  • being very clear about roles and responsibilities, and taking the time to clarify processes
  • respecting difference and recognizing people’s various areas of expertise

Cultures within cultures. Another key learning was that our information sources for this project had to be Iraqis currently living in Iraq. Interviewing Iraqi immigrants in the U.S. would certainly yield many viewpoints and fascinating stories—but by having been outside Iraq for the past twenty or even ten years, these Iraqis would not have experienced many of the key events in recent history—the Gulf War, Saddam’s destruction of the marshes, the UN sanctions, or the U.S. invasion of Baghdad. They would not be viewed by Iraqis in Iraq as legitimate spokespeople. Here again, we were able to utilize our network of relationships to gain access to Iraqis living in Iraq.

Creating engaging e-learning. To create engaging, relevant, situation-based learning, we decided to try developing branching scenarios around 1) a patrol, and 2) a home search—identified in our research as high-frequency activities for soldiers. There were a number of challenges that needed to be addressed.

Considering our budget and our target audience, whom we thought would be largely American males in their late teens and 20s, we decided to go with a graphic-novel approach. We found a talented Lebanese animator to do the illustrations based on our script.

Each scenario was plotted with a “best path,” a “worst path,” and intermediate options that could hook up in any number of ways to either the best or worst paths. We wanted the user to be able to recover to some extent even if s/he got off to a bad start, and vice versa. However, if certain really terrible decisions were made, the extent to which the user could recover had to be limited—as in real life. As a result, the user can go through the some of the scenarios as many as 30 times and never get exactly the same path twice. This adds to the unpredictability of the result, adding a life-like feel to the user experience.

Corporate Applications

Aperian Global has taken the learning from our work with the U.S. Department of Defense and begun to develop a series of asynchronous e-learning modules for our corporate clients. The first released in July 2007 is “Virtual Team Meetings”, a self-guided module geared towards Westerners working with Indians. Several more modules for Westerners working with India, Indians working with Westerners, and Westerners working with China are in queue for development over the next several months.

If you would like to see the Virtual Team Meetings interactive learning tool, GlobeSmart Soldier, or GlobeSmart Commander, please contact your Aperian Global account representative.

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