By Marquardt, Michael J.; Engel, Dean W.
Training & Development , Vol. 47, No. 5
IT DOESN'T MATTER HOW EFFECTIVE YOU ARE AT HOME: CULTURAL DIFFERENCES CAN DERAIL EVEN THE MOST EFFECTIVE TRAINER ON AN OVERSEAS ASSIGNMENT. BEFORE YOU PACK YOUR BAG, MAKE SURE YOU'VE GOT THE RIGHT SET OF ATTITUDES, SKILLS, AND KNOWLEDGE.
Susan Jones is a trainer with an excellent track record throughout the United States. She has just conducted a month-long management-development program in Thailand, and she's feeling uncertain about the experience. Her style and techniques won raves in Boston, but they don't seem to work as well in Bangkok. And she's having difficulty developing rapport with people in the organization and the community.
From the moment she entered the Thai training center, Susan sensed a difference in the environment. Normally, she likes to put her co-trainers and participants at ease by being informal and encouraging them to call her Susan, to raise questions, and even to challenge her statements. But the training groups in Thailand remained aloof and distant; they obviously preferred to address her more formally.
Believing in the importance of practicing and not just preaching management skills, Susan early on asked for volunteers to role-play a management situation. No one volunteered. After some coaxing, she was able to persuade two people who were, to say the least, uncomfortable and embarrassed by the activity.
After the first week, seeing that things were not developing the way she had hoped they would, Susan asked for some participant feedback and evaluation. Only a few trainees spoke up, and they said the training was fine.
Susan was confused. Why was it so difficult to train in Bangkok? Why did it take so long to get things done? She was starting to feel depressed about the assignment and the whole environment. It was hard to make friends, the weather was hot, and the phones didn't work. And she had the impression that she might never be given the opportunity to succeed because she was a woman. Although she had 11 months to go on the assignment, Susan was ready to ask her boss to reassign her.
Susan is not unlike thousands of other HRD practitioners who are sent abroad for work. Based on the number of unsuccessful adjustments and early returns of American business expatriates, both government and private studies agree that more than 30 percent of U.S. corporate overseas assignments fail. Lennie Copeland and Lewis Griggs, in their book, Going International: How To Make Friends and Deal Effectively in the Global Marketplace, estimate that these failed expatriate assignments cost companies more than $2 billion a year, not including loss of future business opportunities and damage to corporate reputations overseas.
There is also a fair amount of agreement as to the two principal causes for these failures. The first is the lack of preparation generally made for overseas assignments. The second is the poor selection processes companies use to identify candidates.
The practice of HRD in one's own culture is often difficult; it's not surprising that global HRD is even more of a challenge. And success in the domestic environment doesn't guarantee success in a foreign culture.
Ironically, the candidate with the best track record at home is often exactly the wrong person to send overseas. The skills and attitudes needed in New York's rough-and-tumble financial community, for example, might well lead to frustration and failure when applied in Bangkok.
In the same way, technical knowledge often plays too large a part in the selection of candidates for overseas assignments. Just as important are the people skills and cross-cultural understanding that are necessary to implement that technical savvy effectively.
In selecting trainers for overseas assignments, Nancy Gallo, associate director of management and professional development for Reader's Digest, looks for people who have "a genuine liking for the new and different." In her own work abroad, she's been struck by the positive response from foreign colleagues and program participants when visitors are able to express sincere curiosity and enthusiasm about the local culture. …