Global culture

Last month at TechLearn I pinned this button to the strap of my over-the-shoulder bag in jest. "Content Wanted" struck me as an epistemological joke. It makes the assumption "Other things being equal," but in reality, other things never are. Content can no more exist apart from context than forest from trees. Content and context are not a dichotomy; they are inseparable. Wanting content is like wanting temperature without the weather, taste without the food, or vision without the viewer.

Mind | Matter
Form | Substance
Content | Context
Subject | Background

Trying to separate the inseparable is, I think, a peculiarly Western idea, often attributed to Rene Descartes, who broke apart cogito from sum.

My recent foray in Europe, especially my participation in a panel on the cross-cultural aspects of learning, got me thinking about how Western we are making most eLearning. Separating style and substance is the rallying point of the standards movement, as if one could create and infinite number of forests by simply reshuffling the trees. (Meta-tag that timber!)

My gut tells me there are more powerful ways of thinking about this but they elude me at the moment. Join me, if you will, in a contemplative exercise. Check out these award-winning Persian blogs. Unless you read Farsi, you won't be distracted by the words.

Posted by Jay Cross at December 10, 2002 05:54 PM | TrackBack


Great presentation at Educa Online! Thanks to you, I was left with my jaw agape and my head spinning at the possibilities of how to push the limits of my area - intercultural communication / management. I was in Paris for a IC workshop last week. I dreamed up my own version of something like you had at Berlin. This was a pretty tough, or at least well-informed audience as far as intercultural training goes. The response was incredible! Cries of heresy, "bias", too wayy out there for the most of them, etc. However, after the workshop ended, I have received many praises and requests for more of the same. I have passion for my field, as you do with eLearning; I beleive that passion is the key for breaking out of the box and generating new 'paradigms'. Thank you for your inpsiration and cooperation in Berlin!

I have been thinking about eLearning a bit more and decided to put my thoughts down...I hope it is not too long for you -

Cultural implications for eLearning

Much (and not so much there again) has been written about the cultural implications for learning/eLearning in modern enterprises. It is generally accepted by practitioners that the greatest hurdles to successful eLearning are not the technical or process issues, but the cultural issues. Problems frequently raised include concerns about knowledge hoarding and creating an environment that does not encourage open sharing.

This question extends into the realm of the affect of the organisation's cultural environment from a geographical perspective. In the past, the question of culture and learning/eLearning has been related almost exclusively to corporate or organisational culture, not what is referred to as 'social culture.'

By social culture, I mean the culture of the society in which the organisation exists. For example, an enterprise may have a culture that encourages subordinates to engage informally with superiors, even to challenge them. This may be considered desirable as a means towards greater creativity, more efficient communication, increased employee morale and retention, as well as other benefits. Such a corporate culture may flow very freely out of Israeli culture where this sort of behaviour is considered the norm; it may be acceptable, even welcomed, in an American setting; however, in a traditional Asian setting, for example, individuals may find it most uncomfortable and extremely difficult to implement. For instance, in Japan the imposition of a cultural standard that calls for subordinates to challenge superiors on a routine basis may have the effect opposite of that desired. Morale may fall, people may leave, creativity may be stifled, and learning will die.

An example of the above was clearly highlighted when American managers were tasked with setting up cross-functional High Performance Teams to design an eLearning platform across several corporations in Japan. They had to pass concepts along and transfer knowledge to their Japanese counterparts. Inherent in the particular team learning structure was the need for an open and free-flowing sharing of knowledge.

All 'High Performance Team' members were to participate in decision making, institute the practice of rotating leadership, and be fully accountable to each other, for their particular responsibility, thereby creating a flatter, less hierarchical organisational structure and encouraging learning.

Unfortunately, the teams were not forming as conceived. Upon further investigation, it turned out that no matter how much the Japanese team members appreciated the concepts, the pattern of sharing information/informal learning from senior to junior, in top down rather than flat structures remained immutable. Rotating leadership and initiative or suggestions originating from juniors to seniors were to a great extent absent. The imbedded culture was such that knowledge came from above and was disseminated in a way that was rank specific. The supposedly lateral bottom-up initiative-taking High Performance Teams ended up as a collection of resistant individuals who paid lip service to the 'eLearning' concept. In fact, they did not learn as well as they did prior to the intervention and this further impeded the learning process.

In the same vein, in India and other parts of Southeast Asia, the 'right' to certain knowledge may depend on age and gender. Thus, only older men with a high economic and social status may have the right to 'know' information, or possess knowledge and learning from it. While this may be found in Western cultures as well, the pervasive influence of this and its acceptance in Asia could create serious learning issues.

A reluctance to advertise one's expertise may also inhibit knowledge sharing/informal learning, as was found by a friend of mine, US executive, transferred to Australia where he discovered that the culture of 'mateship' discouraged individuals from calling attention to their abilities.

During a recent conversation with a group of German students, I also found similar attitudes to be a factor in learning within parts of Europe. This was also found to be true in Korea in an effort there to develop a learning management system. Even though the project was eventually abandoned for fiscal reasons, early on it became evident that there was some strong cultural barriers to knowledge sharing, vis-a-vis informal learning that would need to be overcome. Considerable thought and discussion went into this. One of the barriers was a concern about expressing one's self openly, regardless of issue or expertise, in the presence of one's superiors. Since the LMS would be public, anything published on it would be in the open for superiors, as well as everyone else, to see. It just wasn't 'proper' for a subordinate to be expressing himself, by voluntarily offering his opinion or expertise, in the presence of his superior-at least not in public. In this situation, there were very few women considered to be in a position to have any contribution to make. It was virtually a forgone conclusion that, if there were any women, they would not, in any case, be involved in the discussion. Perhaps the most clearly articulated concern was that 'experts' would see their prestige and position threatened by sharing their knowledge through the learning system - the 'knowledge hoarding' problem that has shown up all over the world.

In everyday life it is impossible to divorce an organisation from the social culture, which surrounds and pervades institution and individual. Learning seems to be implicitly and explicitly a question of membership within a social network or community. The business world is essentially a large circle within a still larger circle i.e. the social and cultural world. Every corporation creates its own culture. Each such culture has its own distinctiveness as well as its similarities to other corporations. A corporation's own culture enables it to survive and flourish; yet, the corporate culture often does not account for all situations. Anyone involved in international business or large multi-national firms is well aware of the many cultural pitfalls encountered by the unwary traveller, even within one enterprise.

For this reason, many of the largest and most successful multi-national or global concerns go to great lengths to establish a strong organisational culture that is homogeneous across all parts of the enterprise and transcends national or social culture. What we question, however, is whether or not these global firms are successful in doing this. Perhaps they are not successful-as they hope-so much in creating a single social culture as in creating an international language of processes, of systems and technologies. This inability to create a single social culture would have a significant impact on the very premise of eLearning and knowledge sharing - namely, the right information at the right time to be used in the right way to gain business advantage.

Given the culturally diverse ways in which people accept and share knowledge, a seamless eLearning community would imply universal sameness in knowledge gain and knowledge sharing and most of all universal trust. Since, the practices of knowledge management, knowledge sharing/informal learning and knowledge creation differ from culture to culture, a seamless knowledge community would be a practical impossibility.

Trust comes with understanding the world in the same way, accepting knowledge through internal and external cultural filters and from dealing with situational challenges via socially accepted actions. The repeat of this behaviour inspires confidence and order. Focusing on the understanding of learning across cultures will facilitate knowledge sharing and innovation, smoothing the path towards learning and transferring knowledge across cultural boundaries. As I consider learning and knowledge sharing, it strikes me that the issues of social culture have considerable bearing on how successful an organisation' s efforts in this arena will be. I also wonder to what extent certain basic cultural presuppositions influence the shape of informal learning efforts. In the same vein, I also wonder what cultural supports or hindrances for knowledge sharing may exist in various different cultures that are not recognised or are ignored in the realm of business.

We are all exposed to different cultural contexts and working in the arena of eLearning, we have not yet thought about these issues in order to make sense of what we (and others) in practice are experiencing. I am echoing the words of colleagues and friends who, even in our modern technological environment, are more often than not frustrated with the obstacles to gaining the right information at the right time. I do not have the definitive answers; rather, I seek to raise the questions, perhaps to point to where answers might be. I desire to stimulate discussion and, hopefully, systematic research into this inquiry. I do believe that such research and discussion will pay off in at least two ways. One benefit would be to gain a greater understanding of barriers to successful learning/informal learning and so work to remove those barriers. The other benefit would be to identify hitherto unknown cultural supports and leverages for eLearning. With this in mind, I ask the following questions:

1) Is the modern discipline of eLearning a product primarily of Western academic and business cultures?

2)As modern experiments with socialism and state communism have amply demonstrated, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to build a thriving modern industrial/technological economy where property rights are not preserved and the rule of law (the Judeo/Christian and Roman heritage) is not well grounded.
What does this matter to eLearning?

3) Are there non-Western cultures of knowledge sharing and informal leanring that can complement or enrich those of modern corporate enterprises?

Where do these questions lead us?

I believe that, from the lack of knowledge about unfamiliarity with different social milieu and cultural situations, organisations fail to see the richness of support for knowledge sharing inherent in the various cultural frameworks of their global enterprises.

I have seen that the community is quite important in relation to learning in traditional Eastern cultures. A deeper understanding of this and how it might be applied may help to counterbalance some of the strong individualistic trends found within modern corporations as individuals seek to further their own personal ends through various means. To return to my Korean example cited earlier, plans to address the concerns expressed in regards to knowledge hoarding and publishing ideas publicly centered on taking advantage of the strong group loyalty bonds and competitive spirit that are an important aspect of Korean culture. Efforts would involve building a strong sense of team, possibly among the various groups within the enterprise and certainly across it. If superiors could be identified as coaches while the members of the group were brought to see themselves as important members of the team, which was in competition with other internal groups and external organisations, it was thought that the barriers might be overcome. Team loyalty and competitive spirit would encourage both the experts to yield up their personal stock of knowledge and others to contribute more openly.

I humbly suggest that without taking social culture into account, it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to implement eLearning successfully. I also believe that, for all the vaunted 'globalisation' of modern business enterprises, eLearning efforts that are applied identically across the board, without taking different national or social cultures into account, face an extremely difficult challenge-a challenge that, with some sensitivity, care and effort could be avoided. To put it more positively, there is a wealth of knowledge available in the world's cultures that can vastly enrich the knowledge management culture of today's global business enterprise. It is there waiting to be explored.

...just a drop into the well, any feedback?


Posted by: Roy W. Smolens Jr. at December 11, 2002 04:54 PM

That was a wonderful kick-off for the culture debate (and why didn't you phone me when you were in Paris?!).

You have asked many of the questions no one seems to have the courage, curiosity or possibly sufficient awareness of cultural issues to ask. Nevertheless, when the question of culture is brought to the fore (as occasionally happens), it is usually framed in terms of user interface design: in simple terms, how can we make the eLearning we have already developed attractive to people with different collective “tastes”?

Focusing on “taste” and “preference” trivializes culture, so thank you, Roy, for revealing the true depths of the issue. I’d like to follow your lead and add some particular reflections on eLearning.

You are absolutely right to focus on the question of knowledge-sharing, which supposes something other than the broadcast model of most traditional instruction, a model that has been adopted by the vast majority of vendors and authors of first generation eLearning. I know from previous discussions that you and I share the belief that the real value of the technology on which eLearning is built is its ability to distribute and create knowledge at the same time, within both wide and narrow social networks (which include corporate and professional networks).

Once the importance of knowledge-sharing is recognized, I see two distinct cultural problems:

1) The universal problem of how knowledge sharing can be implemented anywhere, given that in all societies there are existing rules about who has the right to speak and how authoritative any voice may be considered (linked to which are specific strategies for personal positioning within hierarchies or pecking orders).

2) The specific ways in which different cultures organize their resistance to this common but new and in some ways unexpected goal of knowledge-sharing.

Here I am referring to the particular modes of cultural resistance (passivity, non-participation, individual or collective refusal, collusion, protest, sabotage, subversion, etc.) that are founded on ambient social values (culture-specific factors).

Behind the various cases you cite, you imply that there is a universal problem (the need to evolve) but that each culture faces it from a different starting point. Logically, you call into question the globalizing model, which means that the solution proposed will either de derived from a particular culture and imposed on all others (with minor adaptation) or be designed in a way so diluted that it is expected to appear palatable to all cultures (eLearning that is all things to all men… and women!). Of course, the search for the lowest common denominator usually leads to results that, whatever their denomination, appear both low and common.

On the other hand, when you insist as you have done on the value of cultural specificity, you raise a host of problems in the eyes of corporate decision-makers. There are two basic reasons for this:

1) It’s rare that they have the ability to recognize the issue unless
a. they have made a personal investment in cultural awareness,
b. they have the benefit of some solid cultural coaching.

2) Even when they recognize the “culture problem”, it is usually seen as a source of complication and – yes, now the dirty word – expense!

Of course, if you could do a complete and long-term ROI analysis, you could prove that both eLearning and improved cultural awareness – and a fortiori a judicious combination of the two – are keys to improved productivity and therefore to a better bottom line. But let’s not dream!

On the other hand, Roy, you have hit on something that could begin to convince a lot of people: knowledge-sharing is a function as well as a consequence of informal learning, which in turn is a necessary complement of any formal learning that seriously aims at being effective. Informal learning provides a better link between eLearning (structuring and providing knowledge) and KM (maintaining and accessing knowledge) than the technology itself, which is nothing more than an inert vector.

By pointing to the ways specific cultures react to imposed eLearning initiatives, you have provided an excellent account of the complexity the world of eLearning (and the world as a whole) is faced with. And as often in the sciences, the next stage of complexity shows how the question may be simplified.

This new level of complexity follows from your own observations. All learning cultures are grounded in the ancient tradition of face to face (i.e. classroom) relationships, which, in spite of physical similarities, differ widely from culture to culture in the attitudes actively expressed and passively accepted (authority, submission, participation, expression, legitimate and illegitimate knowledge, the status of theory and practice, personal/class/social/professional status, stages of expertise, etc.). As a simple example, in some cultures and educational contexts, mentoring is seen as the noblest form of instruction (Oxford, Cambridge and a tradition going back to ancient Greece); in others it is relegated to the menial task of “remedial instruction”. Mentoring may therefore be seen as useful only for intellectual bone-setting in one culture (damage control), while in another it may seem the ideal occasion for exploring and building new knowledge.

Because learning cultures are grounded in their own face-to-face traditions (from classrooms to seminars to mentoring and coaching) and because ALL cultures are now confronted with the technology revolution, which is seen as both an opportunity (to achieve greater efficiency) and a threat (to existing habits and relationships), they all have to find appropriate ways of evolving. Beyond the already discredited globalizing solution (basically, “wait till the American version gets localized”), two avenues are open to them:

1) The obvious temptation: try to replicate the old face-to-face strategies, reducing content to its essentials and maintaining the same attitudes concerning authority and expected outcomes.

2) Use the pretext of technology-change to innovate by rethinking pedagogic strategies and engaging in a full analysis of what learning is about and how and when it takes place.

The first choice is easier because the analysis is limited: take what you already have and force it into a new box. The second is a challenge because both the box and its content will be different; but so will the methodology, the scope and the outcome.

Yes, Roy, social culture is at the heart of it. Why? Because humans are cultural animals and even where corporate culture is promoted as a form of internal conditioning, it is simply another layer that will be added on to all the other layers of culture. Corporate culture doesn’t replace social culture from 9 to 5, as some managers seem to believe. In French we say, “chasser le naturel, il revient au gallop” (try to banish what’s natural, it comes galloping back). Nothing is more natural than culture. Let’s learn to integrate it into both learning and doing.

Peter Isackson
Didaxis (formerly Tri-Learning)
Paris, France

Posted by: Peter Isackson at December 12, 2002 03:53 PM

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