world-724108_640In April, I went on a llama trek. The trek took us through several remote communities located in the Peruvian Andes.

Before we left, we stopped at a market to buy bread and stock up on school supplies, such as colored pens, to give to the children we would encounter along the way. We stuffed our daypacks full of these items and set off behind the llamas that were carrying our camping gear.

Contrary to urban legend, you cannot ride a llama. They are too small. But, they make excellent pack animals, especially at the high altitudes at which we were hiking. At one point, we hiked over a 14,000 foot pass; 13,996 feet to be exact. But, who’s counting when you can barely breathe!

During the trek, we tended to encounter the local children in the late afternoon on their way home from school. They were easy to pick out against the stark landscape in their brightly colored traditional clothing. And, they were delighted to receive one of the colored pens or pieces of bread we had stowed for just such an occasion.

One thing you notice in these mountains is how cold it is. In fact, my guide described it as a “natural refrigerator.” I also noticed that the typical home didn’t have heat. Yet, the children, whose parents are mostly subsistence farmers, wore the ubiquitous flip-flops. And, their traditional clothing, while beautiful, didn’t look especially warm.

Apparently, other trekkers had noticed the same. In response, they had dug into their backpacks and come out with wool socks, fleece jackets, gloves, and other warm clothing to leave behind. Big mistake. According to my guide, local community members saw this as an implication that their traditional dress was somehow defective or deficient; in short, not good enough in today’s modern world.

Culture Clash

I have no doubt that this was never the intention behind the gift. But culture is a funny thing. It’s easy for misunderstandings to occur when cultures intersect like the circles on a Venn diagram. The perspectives of those involved can all too easily lead to unexpected results and unintended consequences.

This makes customizing training designed and developed in the US for use in another country all the more tricky. The structure of the course, the learning activities, the words and pictures on a PowerPoint slide can all convey a meaning that was never intended and that interferes with learning. What can you do to avoid this or to catch it before it damages your credibility and hampers results?

The Problem with Books on Culture

I hate to be the bearer of bad news. But, reading books on culture that say things like, “In country X, communication is indirect” or “In country Y, the role of the teacher is highly revered” or “In country Z, saving face is critical” does not help enough. You need to know specifically how these generalities play out in the workplace.

For example, if you are customizing a course on giving feedback, how do you do so in a country that has an indirect communication style? Or, if your project management course will be rolled out in a country where saving face is paramount, how do you find out the true status of a project? Only the locals can provide you with tips and techniques for getting things done within the constraints of the larger culture.

The Value of a Cultural Guide

You need cultural guides. In fact, you need a business guide and a training guide. The businessperson can vet your content. The trainer can vet your instructional design.

How can you find and enlist the help of such guides? The best place to begin is by networking. Who do you know in the remote office? Who do you have a good relationship with there? Can this person point you to subject matter experts in country who are willing and able to help? What about local instructional designers?

Once you’ve identified and connected with potential partners, you need to go meet them, face-to-face.

The Power of Being Face-to-Face

As North Americans, we are comfortable with communicating via voice mail, email, text messages, tweets, blogs, and webinars–none of which require an in-person interaction. While it is very much a part of our culture, it is fairly unusual in most parts of the world where a premium is placed on the value of relationships.

If you really want to know what training material needs to be customized and how to customize it, you have to build trusting relationships, face-to-face, with people in the target country. Only then, will you be able to observe how the concepts covered in training play out in their business environment. Only then will you even know what questions to ask to uncover areas where customization may be required.

This may feel like an inefficient, expensive, and time-consuming approach. But, the good news is that once you’ve laid the foundation, you won’t need to make a trip back each and every time you want to customize a course for this country. However, if you calculate the time, energy, and costs involved in implementing a course that isn’t useful and doesn’t get the desired results, this up-front effort really is a bargain.

Go Local!

I recently read Stones into Schools by Greg Mortenson. He described a scene in Pakistan after a massive earthquake. US-based clothing manufacturers, wanting to help, sent shipments of their most technologically advanced outerwear. Unfortunately, they didn’t send people. So, no one truly understood the situation the refugees faced.

The book describes a scene in which one of the men working for Greg happens upon a sheep grazing on a hillside with a puffy down jacket wrapped around its hind end. The refugees, lacking construction materials to build shelters to keep their livestock alive, had gotten creative with what they did have. I’m pretty sure this is not what the donor of the down jacket had in mind.

When you roll out training, you don’t want to be in the same position as that donor. I’m certain that you’d rather provide something useful that achieves the desired results. So, get out your passport and go meet your cultural guides to make sure your customized training works. Happy trails!