by Christina Heidemann
Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nürnberg
The ability to manage intercultural encounters effectively has become an essential competence of internationally oriented individuals. Giving the immense importance of cultural awareness and intercultural skills in the global labor market, our seminar on intercultural competence represents an obligatory component of the bachelor program in International Business Studies at the Friedrich-Alexander University of Erlangen-Nürnberg. The seminar combines cognitive teaching of diverse cultural theories and intercultural management with highly interactive cross-cultural training.
Over many years, the training exercises involved face-to-face negotiations, discussions in small groups, and simulated travel experiences carried out through consecutive room changes. With the start of the Corona pandemic, the engaging face-to-face training exercises could no longer take place in a classroom and had to be adjusted to a digital setting accordingly. Our experiences from the last semester show that digitalizing analog cross-cultural training does not constitute an insurmountable challenge, yet even equips students for future intercultural collaboration, as business transactions increasingly take place online.
What needs to change when conducting cross-cultural training in an online mode?
The seminar would normally begin with the popular intercultural simulation BaFá BaFá, which enhances participants’ cultural awareness and improves their understanding of cultural differences. This simulation with artificial cultures is divided into a socialization and practice phase, an observation and interaction phase and a final debriefing phase during which universal concepts of culture are discussed. In the classic simulation, participants are socialized in two separate rooms in order to illustrate cultural distance and enable participants to travel between the two artificial cultures. In the digital setting, technical options of video conferencing tools, such as breakout rooms, enable a realistic travel experience.
Video conferencing tools can be used very creatively. For example, common virtual backgrounds, matched clothing and group-specific denomination may be used to indicate participants’ cultural belonging. Culture-specific rules as well as virtual backgrounds and technical instructions are sent to the participants via email beforehand in preparation for the simulation. During the exercise, participants communicate orally or via chat messages, depending on the culture they were assigned to.
The trainer holds a general introduction to the simulation, sends important training instructions to both breakout rooms, manages the transfer of participants, and guides the final debriefing with all participants. In order to ensure successful training implementation, two facilitators for both artificial cultures must be trained beforehand. These facilitators take on leading roles in their respective cultures, repeat the rules with the participants, and answer potential questions.
Figure 1. Virtual set up of the developed cross-cultural simulation Primum and Alterum
Apart from the comprehensive digitalization of the simulation, we also adjusted and modernized its content by giving it a stronger business focus. We called the developed cross-cultural simulation “Primum and Alterum” referring to the two involved artificial cultures.
Is role-play online a feasible option?
During the second training session, we conducted a culture-specific role play. The students represent South African and German members of a multicultural human resource management team in a fictitious manufacturing company. They are required to determine ideal candidates for two vacant job positions. Whereas the negotiations used to take place in roundtable discussions in previous years, breakout rooms again enabled us to create an interactive and personal training environment. Instead of handing out printed role instructions at the beginning of the training, we sent out all the material via email, which facilitated the start of the training and required fewer resources. Instead of country-specific name badges, virtual backgrounds and the particular denomination of participants illustrate their cultural affiliation in the digital setting.
Figure 2. Introductory information regarding the included cross-cultural role-play
Music, a PowerPoint presentation with pictures, as well as short video sequences put the participants in the right mood and make the training more lively and entertaining. As the role play takes place in small groups of five students, a considerable number of facilitators need to be trained to manage the negotiations in the breakout rooms. Particularly in the virtual setting, the facilitators have to motivate the students by pointing out the usefulness of the exercise. They clarify potential questions and provide the participants with additional culture-specific information to keep the role play going.
The training ends with a common reflection in the main Zoom meeting room. After the debriefing, some additional questions regarding the experienced intercultural challenges are raised. Students first have to reflect on these questions individually and can then discuss them in a moderated forum in order to guarantee a deep-level understanding of the taught cultural concepts.
Learning to resolve cross-cultural conflicts virtually
The third training session comprised eight culture assimilators, which confront students with critical incidents between German and Chinese, Indian, Russian, or Japanese employees in the workplace. The participants must choose the most appropriate means of conflict resolution among four options for the described situation. Afterwards they discuss the relevant historical background pertaining to the described challenges and develop recommendations for suitable behavior in similar situations.
In general, intellectual training exercises can be digitalized more easily, as they do not require physical contact or active engagement of students. Nevertheless, the passive character of such cognitive training makes it easier for students to get distracted and lose interest. We, therefore, integrated surveys in order to encourage everyone to take part in the reflection and express their opinion anonymously. Moreover, the virtual training implementation allows international students to participate and share personal insights in their home cultures, which further enriches the discussion.
How to overcome challenges in cross-cultural virtual training?
Overall, the transfer of analog cross-cultural training to a digital setting entails a number of challenges that can be overcome through appropriate preparation and continuous support of the participants. Despite all efforts, technical problems, such as an unstable internet connection or inoperative cameras and microphones, cannot be fully prevented. During the training exercises, participants need to be able to contact the trainer via email or telephone in order to solve potential technical problems. Depending on the number of participants, additional assistants might be needed to ensure a smooth training process. Moreover, trainers should point out to the students that technical issues could also occur during later business meetings so that dealing with such problems in the course of training can be regarded as a helpful preparation.
Certain elements of culture, such as the proxemics, kinesics, or gestures are difficult to portray in a digital setting. In order to improve students’ awareness of these elements, we recommend the use of explanatory videos. Videoscribe, for example, is a software, which allows simulating high-quality whiteboard writing with the addition of visual aids, such as dynamic animations and illustrations. In addition, trainers are recommended to refer to the particularities of face-to-face interactions during the final debriefing.
Lastly, the virtual setting makes it easy for participants to hide behind their screens and to lose motivation. In order to ensure vivid participation of all students, they should be reminded to turn on their cameras and training should ideally take place in small groups. Intensive support by facilitators and a limited number of participants does not only improve the visibility of students, but increases social interaction between the participants, ultimately leading to higher satisfaction and perceived training effectiveness.
Digital cross-cultural training exercises should not be regarded solely as a temporary solution or a compromise, but rather as a complement to face-to-face training. Certain elements of culture, such as mimics or tone of voice can be distorted and are more difficult to grasp in a virtual context. Digital training exercises can improve students’ sensibility towards such subtle cultural cues. Moreover, students positively evaluated the increased flexibility of digital training exercises as well as the diversity of media tools, which allows for an exciting experience and makes it easier to retain acquired knowledge. The possibility to record the sessions facilitates the evaluation of the training. Moreover, training material can be easily shared and reused. The current pandemic turned the business world upside down and, despite many challenges, proved the tremendous potential of remote work and virtual collaboration. It seems only logical for cross-cultural management education to equally take advantage of the flexibility and immense learning potential of digital training.
About the Author
Christina Heidemann is a teaching and research associate and PhD candidate at the Department of International Management at Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nürnberg, Germany. In her dissertation, she analyzes the influence of cross-cultural training on participants’ intercultural competencies and clarifies the role of moderating and mediating effects for cross-cultural training success. Moreover, she examines how employees make sense of a foreign acquisition of their company and how sensegiving of leaders influences employees’ perception. In her position as a teaching associate, she has conducted cross-cultural training exercises with more than 400 students from diverse countries.
Recent publications on the similar topic:
Kempf, C., & Holtbrügge, D. (2020). Moderators and mediators of cross-cultural training effectiveness: literature review and development of a conceptual model. European Journal of International Management, 14(2), 293-326.