As more companies expand their operations around the world or initiate partnerships with organizations in other countries, their managers are being confronted with the challenges of diversity in the workplace. Increasingly diverse, dispersed workforces, a faster work pace and expectations of faster problem-solving all create multilateral challenges for learning officers. Learning solutions need to be identified and implemented quickly, but the complexity of the organizational context begs for reflection and prudence.
Diversity comes from qualities of the workers themselves (gender, age, race, culture, language and national identity) and from characteristics of the organization (multiple geographic locations, different laws and regulations, time zones, etc.). Diversity can be, and often is, created when companies or organizations merge or are acquired. Local companies bought by multinationals have their own ways of doing things. Suddenly, there can be different and sometimes-competing corporate cultures that may be the result of long histories and forceful personalities.
In simplest terms, the challenge for leaders is to get employees from different races, social backgrounds, ages, genders and cultures to work together effectively. To a great extent, diversity is enabled by technology, and employees need to know how to function efficiently and successfully in today’s digital marketplace.
In addition, cost, efficiency and alignment with business objectives require some degree of uniformity in learning solutions. How can these programs be tailored or adapted to local differences in a meaningful way without blowing the training budget or straying from commercial purpose?
One solution is blended learning, which integrates the value of classroom or face-to-face settings and traditional media with technology-based tools. Examples include online assessments for development, computer-based simulations and online modules teaching specific content.
When implemented with sensitivity toward different cultures and personalities in the workplace and business imperatives, blended learning can strengthen and benefit collaboration, relationships and communities—all of which are necessary for diverse, technologically dependent workgroups and teams to succeed, independent of the organization type.
Key principles for blended learning are:
- Technology is a vehicle for learning. The emphasis is on the learning experience, not the technology itself.
- Learning is fundamentally social. This is why face-to-face learning will continue to be important and why blended solutions focus on interactive processes between participants.
- Adults bring a great deal of knowledge and skills to both the classroom and the online experience. They are not passive consumers of content. In both the classroom and in online learning spaces, the objective is to facilitate the emergence and sharing of knowledge among participants. This often results in the creation of new and valuable knowledge.
- Blended learning solutions require truly integrated instructional design, where face-to-face and online pieces fit together with common content and design threads, using multiple approaches to delivery.
In other words, effective blended learning solutions are high-tech and high-touch.
Why Blended Learning Works in the Diverse Workplace
One key consideration when developing a learning solution for the diverse workplace is that many participants are learning in a second language (most often English) and not their native tongue. Online components make this experience more effective by allowing time for reflection and review prior to response. This natural “richness” of online communication is one reason it is effective in learning solutions designed for diverse groups.
Blended learning enables action-learning projects—real organizational problems that geographically dispersed teams attempt to solve over a period of time while using technology for communication. This can be one of the most challenging and most rewarding parts of the learning experience—for the participant and for the company. Typically, participants are asked to identify, plan and begin to implement a business project based on the company’s strategic initiatives and then present the results to a group of top executives from the perspective that their recommendations will be implemented.
These real problem-solving activities enable participants to learn how to frame a problem, how to locate data sources, how to gather data, how to diagnose the core problem and how to formulate solutions that have direct impact on an organization’s business goals. Through action learning, participants learn skills to help them:
- Face complex challenges.
- Lead cross-functional, geographically dispersed teams.
- Network across functions and levels of the organization.
Participants also experience and learn how to effectively give and receive feedback. This can be particularly challenging for individuals from cultural or social backgrounds where successful leaders are viewed as strong, dominating characters with no need for collaboration, or those from organizations with rigid hierarchy and highly structured communication procedures and rituals. This is an area where it is vitally important to achieve the right balance between online and face-to-face. Otherwise, participants may not feel safe in what may be their first foray into critiquing another’s performance or hearing comments on their own.
With all these complexities to consider, coming up with a blended learning design that will be successful in the diverse workplace is not a matter of selecting different learning methodologies and sequencing them together (e.g., a webcast, followed by a face-to-face workshop, followed by e-learning modules).
The real skill in blended learning solution design is to identify and weave in “the red threads” that ensure high quality and effectiveness. This is a new skill for learning officers and external providers alike. Red threads can be corporate goals and values, consistent learning philosophies, training personnel, etc. They must translate across languages and cultures, as they are the elements that connect the various components, participants and divisions of the organization involved.
Lessons of Experience
Experience applying blended learning solutions for diverse global companies suggests several key considerations and recommendations:
Planning and Expectations:
- Clear Expectations: Some participants may “check out” for a while, may not complete their assignments on time or may leave the program for a variety of reasons. Involving the participant’s immediate supervisor in the learning process and being explicit on the consequences is one way to manage this. For example, if a participant’s testing is incomplete, do not allow them to attend the face-to-face programs. Additionally, if 50 percent of the online assignments are not completed, drop the participant from the program.
- Role Clarity: With multinational companies working in multiple locations, it is extremely important to have clarity about learning organization roles. Trainers sometimes become the anchors (and the historical memory) of the program as participants and company contacts change over the months and years. The roles should be clear but flexible enough that the participants and the company contacts are not confused when issues arise. In cases where multiple facilitators are involved, each individual participant must have role clarity on where to go when questions arise. Role clarity can be introduced online, but reinforcing these roles in a face-to-face session is essential for complete understanding.
- Norms and Communications Plan: It is critical for operational norms and communication plans to be established. For example, an online norm could be that each team member agrees not to multitask when on a conference call. In addition, establishing a plan of communication throughout the learning process is critical. At the first face-to-face session, communicating important contact information such as numbers and pass codes, conference-call schedule, etc. will make the learning journey smoother.
Effective Technology Tactics:
- Contact Information: A contact list with phone, address and e-mail for all individuals involved in the program, such as participants/delegates, facilitators, project manager, client facilitators and technology staff members, is the lifeline to getting solutions and making contact quickly and easily. This information should be posted everywhere, continually checked for accuracy and sent out when necessary.
- Technical Support Questions: Direct participants to the client’s help desk and the systems that have been set up to answer technical questions. Facilitators should contact the help desk to familiarize themselves with the process to understand how long it might take a participant to receive help. It is important for the facilitators to provide high-touch support without trying to solve all of the technical questions.
- Shortcuts: The fewer clicks, the better. Ideally, accessing all information and online workspace should take three clicks or less. Encourage participants to set up the program Web pages on their Favorites toolbar. To save time, facilitators should consider creating e-mail and assignment response templates. Develop e-mail distribution lists for each project team and working cohort group to enable everyone involved to become time-efficient.
- Technology Walk-Throughs: All participating individuals need to walk through and become familiar with the technology being used in the program. At the first face-to-face session, communicate on how to solve technology questions when they arise. It is easier for participants to use their own organization’s existing technology systems, as this cuts down on the technology learning curve.
- Script for Online Kickoff: Prior to any live online kickoff, a script should be written out and practiced similar to live television. For example, when speaking to 75 people in a dozen or more countries simultaneously via a webcast, you don’t have the luxury of receiving much, if any, feedback. This is very different from traditional face-to-face programs, where you can adapt in the moment to your audience.
- Simultaneous Delivery of Multiple Programs: With large multinational companies, the expectation is that you will be able to deliver a face-to-face session while simultaneously delivering the online portion of a blended program. Delivering multiple programs at the same time does not allow much time to prepare or flexibility to be responsive. One solution is to compartmentalize out the different facilitation roles (e.g., face-to-face, project teams, coaching) to different people with a focus on continuity for each of the participants. This also will prevent any single facilitator from having to play all of the roles around the 24-hour clock.
- Expect Content Questions: Know the content well, as it is difficult to find answers virtually compared to a face-to-face session when all “people resources” are available in the room or nearby. Take the time to participate in all of the online materials to familiarize yourself with questions that will come up from participants. If you do not know an answer to a question, tell the participant that you will research the answer and return with it. Avoid leaving participants hanging in virtual limbo without a response.
- Online Presence Is Key: The participants must feel as if they are continually connected to their facilitator, rather than to an unidentifiable e-mail address or generalized number. It is important to make immediate online contact after a face-to-face session to let the participants know that you are still accessible and with them electronically. Momentum and connection are difficult (if not impossible) to regain if lost early in the process. Experience shows that if you let more than 10 days pass without contact, you will lose the participant. To avoid this, facilitators should make a habit of checking for participant responses and questions as often as they check daily e-mail, and “over-encourage” when they see completed work.
- Recognize Language Issues: A major challenge to programs with participants from different countries and cultures is requiring them to work in a common language. One solution to help participants assimilate content into their own language and culture is to provide multiple methods of delivery. These might include online behavioral assessments, coaching and content in their own language, delivered face-to-face ahead of time for assimilation and understanding.
- Appreciate Different Learning Styles: Participants from outside North America tend to want slower, more deliberate delivery to allow time for assimilation. They also seem to want more social time with their fellow participants. This appears to help them buy into the program and establish a sense of community.
- Highlight Diversity: Use videoconferencing whenever possible to allow team members to “see” each other. This visual recognition of diversity will become a red thread and underline the availability of different perspectives.
- Value Different Perspectives: A learning experience with participants from different cultures and backgrounds can illustrate that incorporating diversity makes results stronger.
Where cost- and time-effective education for a diverse workplace is the goal, blended learning, based on a marriage of intentionally designed online and face-to-face components, is a proven method to deliver knowledge and skills that are essential to diverse teams, regardless of whether they are working across countries and continents or across a campus or facility. These essential skills include:
- Ability to build relationships while working virtually and remotely.
- Ability to manage their own learning, calling on others for support.
- Inspiration and motivation to continue professional development.
- Increased capacity for critical thinking.
- Accurate and effective self-assessment; skills in giving and accepting feedback.
- Ability to learn and solve organizational problems simultaneously.
Perhaps most importantly for the diverse workplace, a thoughtfully designed learning solution yields rich insights into and cultivates appreciation for how people from different industries, functions, cultures and roles view management and organizational life. When implemented correctly, the experience creates a community of learning and practice that can continue after the training has been completed, providing value to the organization and individual alike.
David Baldwin is a senior associate with the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), and the lead facilitator for the Xerox Europe blended learning Emerging Leaders program. Kim Lafferty is country director, UK & Ireland, for the Center for Creative Leadership Europe. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Face complex challenges.