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What is cultural awareness training for business?


Having spent the last twenty years delivering cultural awareness training to major corporations around the world, I suppose I should know the answer to that question!  However, it seems to me that a great many of my clients are confused when it comes to describing what they want a cultural awareness training programme to deliver. Therefore, I thought it might be helpful to outline what, in my view, cultural awareness training should focus on:

  • Awareness:  Seems a simple, even pointless, comment that cultural awareness training should develop awareness.  Yet what does this mean? Awareness of what? I can tell you what I think cultural awareness doesn’t mean – it doesn’t mean an awareness of the superficial differences that you can find in different business cultures.  If cultural awareness training focuses on such issues as how to give out your card in Japan or whether you should eat with only a fork in the USA, then that training is not going to add value to your business.

People need to be aware that they are taking their own subconscious commercial bias into every cross-border commercial interaction and they need to develop an awareness that they too are probably part of the problem.  All too often people point the finger at other cultural approaches and say, ‘it’s all their fault.’ It is very rarely all their fault and people need to be aware of their own role in misunderstandings or commercial impasses.

It is also essential that people become aware that commercial cultural differences can impact on every single aspect of corporate life.  They can impact on meetings, decision-making processes, attitudes to risk, leadership expectations and a myriad of other critical business areas.

  • Knowledge:  Having made people aware of the need to factor cultural differences into cross-border activities, any good cultural awareness training programme should then look at the key areas of knowledge which need to be acquired. Of course, knowledge can be acquired through experience, but it can also be acquired through good quality, targeted training – and that is probably a less costly option for your organisation.

Whenever you compare two different cultures’ approach to business (and we have spent twenty years doing just that – see www.worldbusinessculture.com) you always find that there is a degree of similarity in their approach to things and a degree of difference in their approach.  If people are working a lot with people from a certain business culture, it stands to reason that they need to know where the similarities are and where the differences will be found.  After all, any similarities in approach will be the places where bridges can be built, and relationships cemented, whereas the differences will be where the problem areas are likely to be found.

  • Application:  Having developed a cultural awareness training programme that walks people through a process of awareness raising and knowledge gathering, the programme should then move on to look at the practical application of that awareness and knowledge in real-life business situations.  Awareness and knowledge of themselves are not enough. A good programme should be rounded off by asking participants to assess how they can start to improve business efficiencies through greater levels of cultural awareness and knowledge.

If the cultural awareness trainer is to be of any help in this process of practical application, it stands to reason that the trainer needs to commercially experienced enough to be part of that process.  If the trainer doesn’t have the experience to help at this stage the whole process could be ultimately futile.

So, the three key elements of any meaningful cultural awareness training programme are awareness raising, knowledge development and practical application.

If you would like to discuss your training needs in this area, please contact us.