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Cross-cultural training: a waste of time, money and effort?

28th September 2010, Comments3 comments

Cross-cultural training: a waste of time, money and effort?
Whether expatriates can adjust to a new culture or environment can make or break an assignment. Researcher Ben van den Anker looks at whether cross-cultural training really helps.

Expatriate failure is defined in literature in a variety of ways, with intentions to leave listed prominently. Intentions to leave can be caused by a number of reasons which include cultural adjustment, poor management and productivity, difficulties coping with stress and relational capabilities. Bhaskar-Shrinivas et al. (2005) concluded that cultural adjustment is the strongest determinant of disengagement and withdrawal decisions (= expatriate failure) in their study of nearly 8,500 expatriates. It then seems obvious that efforts should be directed to enhance the cultural adjustment of expatriates.And what better method to use than cross-cultural training?

Does cross-cultural training improve the chances of assignment success?

Unfortunately, it isn't that simple. Research in 2006 suggested that technical training and current cross-cultural training programmes do not seem to address expatriate failure at all (Pires et al., 2006). Some researchers use harsher words and described the cross-cultural training provided by most multinationals as 'insufficient' and 'incomplete' (Waxin & Pannacio, 2005).

Cross-cultural training has long been the prime tool used for facilitating effective cross-cultural communication and interaction (Zakaria, 2000). Cross-cultural training was defined in early literature as any procedure used to increase an individual's ability to cope with and perform well in a new cultural environment. Zakaria (2000) saw cross-cultural training as enabling the transition from a home based management mode towards a more culturally appropriate mode.

Helping expats deal with culture shock and unexpected events

Amongst other things, this type of training strives to help expatriates deal more effectively with unexpected events and culture shock in new environments. It should reduce the uncertainty in cross-cultural interactions and enhances the expatriates’ coping ability by reducing stress levels. Kupka and Kennan (2003) identified five relevant factors influencing the selection of intercultural training methodology: 

degree of training rigour or ‘cognitive involvement’;cultural novelty (similarity between the individual’s native culture and the new culture; also described in the literature as cultural distance, culture barriers, or cultural toughness; degree of interaction required in the host culture;available training methods and duration of intercultural training relative to the degree of interaction and culture novelty.

Involving host country nationals in the process

For the most part, host country nationals are not considered as a target for intercultural training and, in general, the paradigm for cross-cultural training is still that it is only the expatriate’s characteristics that affect the adjustment process. However, there seems to be more recognition these days for the role of host country nationals in the cross-cultural training of expatriates. Host country nationals can be considered as experts with inside cultural knowledge and proper preparation of host country nationals can also ease the transition for the expatriate. Involvement of host country nationals in the design of cross-cultural training programmes is, therefore, essential.

Tailoring cross-cultural training programmes to the individual’s situation

This seems clear and logical; however, the crux of the problem relates to the trainability (and/or suitability) of expatriates to undertake overseas assignments. Certain traits and attitudes are predictors of problematic assignments. Expatriate selection procedures could identify traits in expatriates that are bound to cause some kind of problems in later years. In particular, ethnocentric attitudes of expatriates have been found to be dysfunctional of mutual relationships between expatriates and host country workforce. Caligiuri et al. (2001) suggested that stereotyping may lead to over-generalisations about host country nationals (and have negative effects).

For instance, individual traits may be inappropriately assessed because of stereotyping and this obviously has consequences for cross-cultural interaction. Hence Caligiuri et al. (2001) suggested that the development of realistic expectations prior to global assignments is highly important and was likely to be facilitated by appropriate cross-cultural training. They recommended tailoring cross-cultural training programmes explicitly to the individual expatriate’s situation in order to provide the maximum relevance.

In summary; cross-cultural training programmes may add value to expatriate assignments when proper expatriate selection procedures are in place and training addresses the prime cause of expatriate failure; maladjustment. Host country nationals play a potential role in cross-cultural training programmes in a variety of roles. Their expertise may be utilized in identifying specific work-interaction demands in order to optimize expatriate performance.

Ben van den Anker, MBA

Dr. B.J.L. van den Anker received his PhD in Business and Management from the International Graduate School of Business of the University of South Australia. He hails from the Netherlands and has extensive experience living and working in SE Asia. His (I)HRM and cross-cultural consultancy assignments focus primarily on western-Asian contexts. You can contact him at vandenanker@yahoo.com.

For more articles on this topic, visit the HR section on Managing staff diversity and International careers. 


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3 comments on this article Add a comment

  • 29th September 2010, 12:38:01 mel schnapper posted:
    Though i've been out of the field of intercultural training for years and wrote my Ph.D. dissertation "Experiential Intercultural Training for International Operations" based on the intercultural training I did for the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) back in 1970, which you can read through www.schnapper.com, I surveyed all of the intercultural training approaches and they all lacked a focus on what my CIDA program had - in abundance: here and now exercises that created discomfort that participants could share and discuss with the training staff, all of whom were host nationals living in Canada, so all were completely bilingual and more importantly, bicultural. Almost all intercultural programs are comfortable and involve fun, interesting simulations, role-plays, discussion, but vere away from confrontation and candid feedback to participants regarding how others felt v-a-v their immediate behavior in the training context and then projecting how this same behavior, if repeated in another cultural context, will be interpreted.
    The other focus was on sensitivies and skills to understand the "other" culture and not telling people how Nigerians or West Indian peoples are like, but teaching them how to find out on their own.
    I could go on forever, but let this suffice for now.
  • 3rd November 2010, 23:34:03 Pascale Parisvf posted:
    Of course the intercultural aspect of some newly arrived expat in a new country is unfortunately forgotten. How can you explain the fact that some of them are looking for learning the country language on their own and at their own expenses ?
    I'm a French teacher in Paris and I recently teach to many expats who are looking for more confidence in their relationships to their French colleagues !
  • 29th December 2012, 12:00:01 Ekaterina Beekes posted:
    A one time cross-cultural training program only just sensibilizes expats or international mangers. But it is not a "pill against all deceases". A sustainable support should be offered to managers and their families in transition: cultural and personal coaching, leadership coaching, organisational support in form of cross-cultural team development, project support etc. A one time one day cross-cultural program is better than nothing but does not make a difference without further support.

    Ekaterina Beekes - globalcultures.eu

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