What are the Biggest Training Challenges for a Global Workforce?

Jerry Zandstra (JZ): I’ll start this conversation by telling you both that the deeper I thought about what it takes to deliver learning to a global audience, the more questions I had. I can’t think of any two people better suited for this conversation than you. Miriam, you have been involved in learning and development for more than 25 years. You have been named a global trailblazer in thought leadership by eLearning Industry because of your deep understanding of learning science and your ability to apply it to solve learning challenges.

Miriam Taylor (MT): I was honored and humbled to be included in a global list for thought leadership. I’ve been researching and applying learning science for a long time and have learned so much from the opportunities I’ve been given. 

JZ: Nathan, you have been a leader of Ingenuiti for more than 15 years and currently are the VP of Operations. In that time, you’ve overseen the translation of more than 1 billion words and more than 10,000 courses. Ingenuiti currently translates into over 200 languages. 

Nathan Driscoll (ND): I hear those numbers and some part of me can barely imagine they are accurate but then I think of all the global projects we’ve been part of over the years and I’m sure it is right. 

JZ: The reason I’m excited for this conversation is because often, the design and development work needed to build learning experiences is separate from the localization and translation process. One side knows learning science. The other knows the science and art of translation. There are many companies that do one or the other but not both. 

ND: Ingenuiti has been intentional about providing both services because we think the best learning outcomes for global learners is when these are not two separate processes done by two different organizations or departments. Rather, they each inform the other. I believe we are globally unique in offering both services which is why we tend to work with large, multinational clients.

JZ: Let’s begin with some questions to frame our conversation. I think the most important one is this: what is uniquely challenging about having a global learning audience as opposed to learning being delivered in a single locale, region, or country? 

MT: That’s a good opening question, but I want to challenge its premise. Global organizations are assumed to be multinational, multilingual, and multicultural and that is correct. The learning audiences are going to speak many different languages, come from several diverse cultures and often be on different continents. The assumption might be that for regional or single nation organizations, all learners share the same culture and language. But that is not the case. 

ND: I agree with Miriam. The idea that one region or country is monolithic in its culture or language is almost always false. Several of our clients operate only in the United States or a member nation of the European Union, but all of them have varied cultures and language requirements. Localization and translation even for organizations operating in a single nation is, often, a requirement. 

JZ: Point taken. Just to be clear, you are not saying that there really are no unique challenges for organizations with global learning audiences.

MT: Correct. Let me put it this way. Good instructional design always considers the audience. I would say that culture and language have to be considered no matter what the footprint of the company. What makes learning in global companies unique is the depth of the audience challenge. Think about a learning team based in the United States whose audience is in 34 countries with 32 languages. They face greater cultural and linguistic challenges than if they worked in a company entirely based in the US. 

ND: There are added challenges that do not have to do with learning science. Access to technology, for instance, is a consideration in a single nation company. In the situation Miriam mentioned with many nations and many languages, learning professionals must have a firm grasp on the access to the internet if the courses are built as eLearning. 

JZ: I’d like to focus on the basic steps of building good learning experiences and the challenges in each when the learning audience is global. Let’s begin with Needs Analysis. 

MT: This is a continuation of the discussion we are already having. Among many others, the matters of audience makeup, location, education, experience, and language are vitally important. Another is the question, “what problem are we trying to solve?” In companies with a global presence, it is easy for the learning team to assume everyone everywhere has the same challenge or even shares the same processes. That is not always the case, especially if there is a single learning development team in the country where the headquarters are located. 

ND: Another can be motivation. What are the assumptions the learning development team are making about why their learners will care? I think it is a potential mistake to think everyone cares at the same level about a specific training issue. A couple of others come to mind in the Needs Analysis stage. Where are the source materials for the courses that are being built and in what languages are they? Have they been reviewed by regional leaders to ensure that they are accurate? A similar question for subject matter experts. Are they all from the same location and, if not, do they represent those who are not from their location?

JZ: The next step is the design process. What are the challenges for instructional designers and learning architects when building learning for a global audience? 

ND: Since Miriam has been in the instructional design world for most of her nearly 30-year career, I will defer to her. 

MT: When I first started designing learning for companies, only a handful were really thinking about culture and linguistics. Far too many organizations simply assumed that something developed in the United States in English would accomplish their goals. Or perhaps worse, they didn’t really care if it was culturally fitting. As more companies have become global entities and as business leaders have recognized the importance of connecting with their team members across many time zones, localization and translation have become essential. The most common mistake I see is that these two essentials are thought of as something that is done near the end of the process rather than at the beginning. Translation and localization are not step five in a process. They have to be at every step. Almost every learning professional I’ve ever worked with is swamped. Not enough hours and too many tasks. They are often underfunded and understaffed. And so, the challenge is slowing down enough at the beginning of building a multilingual, multicultural learning experience to give the proper amount of attention to global needs. I’ve heard of instructional designers putting images of global learners in their cubicles or offices to visually remind them of the global nature of their learners. This is why taking time to create some learning personas is such an important thing, but I digress.

ND: Actually, I do have some things to add. Miriam’s focus is on the perspective of the instructional designer and that is essential. There are some practical challenges we have seen far too often. What is funny in one culture probably won’t be in another. Idioms and colloquialisms will only confuse the learners who don’t understand them. Stories or examples can be great additions if they accurately reflect the culture. But if the learners don’t see themselves in these, they have a de-motivating effect.

JZ: Now that the learning experiences have been designed, what is unique about the development process in a multinational company?  

MT: Diversity in representation is always appropriate. I can think of one animator we used for a while a long time ago who made every character white and male. We told him that this was not what we were looking for and it took some convincing before he finally made the adjustment. The irony was that he was not from the US and was not white. The characters, voices, images, and background need a proper amount of diversity. The idea is that learners should be able to see themselves in what they are experiencing whether is an image on a slide in an instructor led training program or it is an avatar in an eLearning module animation. 

ND: There are nuances to this. We have found that for some clients, we need to create a more monolithic look and feel to learning that will be released in specific nations or regions of the world. The culture itself does not highly value diversity and so the characters in an animation or b-roll video need to look very similar. Companies often struggle with this because while diversity might be part of their core values, they are also trying not to offend in specific parts of the world. Knowing this from an instructional design perspective is important.

JZ: Are there any unique challenges in the implementation stage?

MT: Turnabout is fair play and given Nathan’s technological expertise, I defer to him. 

ND: Any expertise that I have has been learned through experience. Most often it has been learning by mistakes or assumptions that were simply wrong. Let’s look at an example I’ve seen play out several times. Designers and developers come up with a great idea for an animation or video. Depending on where they operate in the world, they may discover that the service on which their video plays is not available in that particular country. Or there may be assumptions about bandwidth that are not always and everywhere true. In both cases, a sizable portion of their learners will not be able to access the learning experiences the organization spent time and money building.

JZ: I think you have clarified many of the challenges of workforce learning in a global organization. Part Two of our conversation will focus on some solutions and will be in a subsequent interview, but I want to stop at this point and thank both of you for sharing your experience and your wisdom. I know it has been helpful for me. 

MT: One of the things I most appreciate about Ingenuiti is our ability to help our clients think through complex learning challenges in a global context. Having in-house localization talent along with deeply experienced instructional designers makes for a great combination. It keeps challenges like these in front of us so that we are always trying to think of a better way. 

 ND: I look forward to the rest of this conversation. I think most learning professionals in global organizations are already familiar with many of these challenges.