How Intercultural Training Has Adapted to a Changing World

Categories: Global Leadership, Global Mindset

In today’s global business environment, understanding other cultures provide a real competitive advantage: Negotiators can accelerate their discussions by minimizing communication hurdles, marketers can more effectively engage with target audiences in specific countries or regions, and product managers can make appropriate localization decisions.

Although a certain amount of cultural knowledge can be acquired through personal experience or trial and error, it is often more effective and efficient to gain it through what is referred to as “cross-cultural training,” cultural sensitivity training,” or intercultural training.” These types of cultural education programs go much deeper than simple do’s and don’ts; they focus on providing the cultural knowledge and skills to address the practical challenges of working globally. And while intercultural training has taken many forms—and even many names—it has actually been around for quite some time.

The Origins of Intercultural Training—A Timeline

Those who first recognized the benefits of learning about other cultures—a field which had no formal name at the time—were traders who roamed the land and seas and missionaries eager to spread their forms of worship. Because missionaries typically stayed in one place for a number of years, they often went beyond simply learning the basics about local cultures and became fluent in local languages. In some cases, they even compiled extensive bilingual dictionaries, which became stepping stones for others interested in learning about specific languages and cultures.

Late 1800s
The academic field of cultural anthropology emerged during this period, involving the organization of thoughts and knowledge about other cultures. This gave rise to several important schools of thought, including cultural relativism—a concept started by the work of Franz Boas at Columbia University,1 which suggested that no culture was right or wrong, or good or bad. To some extent, this was a reaction to notions of cultural disparities that had been spurred by the growth of colonialism—and especially to the claims made by colonizers and missionaries as to their cultural superiority over the colonized (i.e., Western ethnocentrism). Eventually, some cultural anthropologists, such as Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, became fairly well known and helped the field of cultural anthropology gain traction.

Early 1950s
An anthropology scholar named Edward Hall, who had begun to combine anthropological perspectives with certain concepts from the fields of linguistics and psychology,2 was hired by the U.S. Foreign Service Institute to train American diplomats in cross-cultural communication skills. His first training attempts were met with resistance due to his academic approach; he later changed to an activity-based format that incorporated simulations and experiential exercises. Hall’s work is widely thought to be the beginning of the field of cross-cultural training—but at the time, it still didn’t have an official name.

A New Approach—and New Terminology—for Cultural Learning

In the 1960s, the Peace Corps developed an even more systematic and practical approach to cultural learning as a way to accelerate the productivity of its volunteers who were sent to work in locations around the world. This approach would eventually be referred to as “expatriate pre-departure training” or “expatriate relocation training” in the corporate world. Today, in a Peace Corps self-paced workbook, the term “cross-cultural training” is predominantly used.3

Starting around that time and continuing into the 1990s, the United States government used the term “overseas effectiveness training,” with the goal being the development of what was referred to by the rather quaint, yet mildly sexist, term “overseasmanship.”4

While Edward Hall and the Peace Corps were preparing people for work in other countries, the U.S. civil rights movement was in progress. The concept of “racial sensitivity” arose during this period, and would eventually lead to the term “cultural sensitivity training” being used widely in the diversity field. The name stuck, and to this day many people use the term “cultural sensitivity training” to refer not only to diversity training programs but also to cross-cultural training.

Cultural Sensitivity Training vs. Cross-Cultural Training

It could be said that there has long been a conceptual difference between cultural sensitivity training and cross-cultural training. Diversity (sensitivity) training initially placed heavy emphasis on building awareness in order to dispel racial bias and stereotypes. In contrast, the Hall–Peace Corps cross-cultural approach was focused on communication effectiveness and productivity enhancement.

In addition to this conceptual difference, the skill set required for the facilitation of training was substantially different. Diversity leaders were often members of a minority group, and few had lived outside their home countries. Cross-cultural trainers were typically required to speak two or more languages, and to have lived and worked in at least two different countries for a minimum of one year each.

Over the past decade or so, however, these fields have begun to converge, with cross-cultural training programs incorporating applications for domestic diversity due to the globalized workplace that exists at the headquarters of many companies. Likewise, many diversity leaders have taken on titles such as Director of Global Diversity, have traveled and/or lived abroad, and seek to extend key diversity initiatives to a global workforce.

Incorporating Cross-Cultural Training into the Business World

On the business front, while many companies have offered some form of diversity training since the 1960s, it was only in the 1980s that they began to implement cross-cultural training in any substantial way. Pioneer firms in the field include:

Moran, Stahl & Boyer: This firm’s cross-cultural practice eventually became part of Prudential Relocation. Its training programs were typically led by cross-cultural “generalists” who facilitated one-hour or longer segments with “country specialists.” The latter were usually graduate students or professors with expertise in relevant topics, such as Chinese philosophy or French economics; many had been raised in the culture under discussion. A present-day company in the field with its roots in Moran, Stahl & Boyer is Tucker International, which specializes in the assessment of expatriate candidates.

The Intercultural Relations Institute (IRI, which later became the for-profit Clarke Consulting Group): This firm was another pioneer in intercultural training, but with a different approach. Its premise was that in order for cross-cultural training to be optimally effective, it should be facilitated by a pair of cross-cultural specialists—one person who shared the culture of the participants, and one who had been raised in the culture under discussion. In other words, both facilitators met the criteria mentioned previously for cross-cultural trainers. To this day, the IRI approach is considered the gold standard in cross-cultural training.

Other organizations such as the Society for Intercultural Education, Training, and Research (SIETAR), the Intercultural Communication Institute (ICI), and the Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication (SIIC) have played key roles in linking past and present, and nonprofit and academic approaches with business applications; they have also helped to prepare many aspiring intercultural professionals.

The work of Edward Hall, the Peace Corps, and other pioneers in the field laid the foundation for the intercultural training programs of today. Aperian Global is a contemporary firm with a history that goes back to IRI, and today offers both the generalist/specialist and the cross-cultural specialist pair approaches. Our firm maintains strong connections with organizations like SIETAR, ICI, and SIIC as well as a global network of interculturalists, sharing experiences and research and keeping the field moving forward.

The Emergence and Evolution of Inpatriate Training

Early cross-cultural firms not only provided cross-cultural and expatriate pre-departure training programs, but some offered “inpatriate training” as well. This type of training was offered to employees who were working for companies with a global reach and who had been assigned to work at headquarters for a few months or years to absorb the corporate culture, improve their language skills, and expand their personal networks. They would eventually return to work in their home countries. In order to make the most of their time abroad, these employees would attend cross-cultural training on how to be effective within the host culture.

Inpatriate training differed from expatriate training in several key ways:

  • It was longer in duration
  • It occurred after arrival in the country
  • It focused on skills for high-potential junior or middle managers, rather than senior executives.

Over the years, a slightly different form of inpatriate training has been delivered by government and nonprofit entities to refugees and other immigrants. This type of training is sometimes referred to as “cultural assimilation training” due to the long-term goal of acclimating the immigrants to a new country and culture. Although “assimilation” refers to blending in with a new culture, particularly in terms of public behavior, those who think of the word in terms of “becoming the same as” find it offensive—as though the training is meant to erase the person’s original culture. Just as with “cultural sensitivity training,” the term “cultural assimilation training” is sometimes used to refer to cross-cultural training.

Going Global: The Move to Intercultural Training

As the years went by and cross-cultural training gained exposure in the business world, many large international corporations, particularly in industries such as consumer products, moved to a multinational or “global network” business model. Such models typically entail relatively equal relationships among large country and regional offices rather than hierarchical headquarters-subsidiary relationships.

For example, employees working at the Mexico manufacturing site of a Dutch multinational corporation might communicate directly with colleagues at the Asia regional office of the company rather than communicating via headquarters in the Netherlands. Suddenly the idea of cross-cultural training seemed inadequate, and the term “intercultural training” began to be widely used by professionals in the field.

Technology and Cultural Understanding

Sweeping technology advances, like social media, e-mail and even video conferencing, have led some people to believe that cross-cultural training and the skills that it imparts are no longer urgently necessary. But savvy communicators know that although technology has made international communications quicker, it has not eliminated the need for cultural education and awareness. In fact, new technologies are also used to highlight cultural contrasts, organize protests against leaders perceived as unjust, or to promote mutually hostile ideologies.

Given changes in business models, technologies, and communication practices, many people feel that the prior scope of traditional diversity training is now inadequate to meet the challenges faced by the employees of today. Thus some U.S.-based multinationals, under pressure to meet compliance training mandates, or with the positive goal of creating an inclusive global culture, prefer to combine diversity principles with cross-cultural concepts to offer “global diversity training.” The qualifications necessary to deliver this type of training are similar to those required of cross-cultural training facilitators, but may also include discussions related to sensitive topics such as gender, race, and ethnicity that require a hybrid skill set.

Intercultural Training: Terms to Use and Avoid

Cross-cultural training or “intercultural training” is the most widely accepted terms, but the latter is preferred—especially by professionals in the field and people working with or on multinational teams. Other terms used are:

  • Cultural competency training—Some dislike this term because they interpret it to mean “acquisition of deep knowledge” about a specific culture; they feel it sets the bar too high to be practical, especially for people working on multicultural teams. But most practitioners in the intercultural field use the term to refer to the honing of essential skills for working effectively across cultures—skills in observing, listening, suspending judgment, and tolerating ambiguity, for example.
  • Cultural intelligence or “CQtraining—This has come into recent use, but has been criticized as unintentionally highlighting the cognitive elements of intercultural relations rather than the sharp experiential challenges that expatriates and others face. When one’s most basic values and assumptions are called into question while interacting with people in a new country of residence, the dilemmas are often much more visceral and deeply personal than the term “intelligence” implies.
  • Cultural sensitivity training—Some feel this term is offensive because it implies that members of the majority culture are insensitive.5 Others maintain the perspective that, no matter what, certain things—such as corruption—are just plain wrong, and there is no reason for anyone to be “sensitive” to serious ethical transgressions.6  In other words, the notion of “cultural relativity” that was once used to counter colonialist thinking has been challenged by those who claim that certain cultural norms (e.g., bribery or the subjugation of women) are unacceptable, and that standards of corporate cultures based on the value system of the headquarters country should take precedence. The intercultural field still struggles with how to balance an open-minded and flexible attitude toward other cultures with commitments to social justice and corporate values.
  • Cultural assimilation training—It has its detractors in those who feel it suggests erasing one’s original culture.
  • Overseas effectiveness training—This sounds a bit antiquated to the modern ear, but does not seem to offend people’s sensibilities.

Today, those who most focus on and benefit from cross-cultural or intercultural training continue to be the traders (businesspeople) and the diplomats. Missionaries retain some interest in this regard, although they tend to give priority to the development of language skills over the attainment of deep cultural knowledge.

Whatever terminology is used, developing competency in cross-cultural skills can be highly beneficial in today’s interconnected workplace. Corporate executives have continued to demand and discover fresh applications of intercultural theories and skills to practical areas such as global team performance, sales to new markets, post-M&A (mergers and acquisitions) integration, retention and development of leaders in high-growth markets, and innovation on a worldwide scale.

Aperian Global has a 30+ year track record of working with organizations to develop their people for success in a global environment. Whether you’re looking to take your organization global, or exploring ways to improve efficiencies of a company already operating globally, we can help.