Observing training sessions in foreign cultures is valuable experience

Feb 152008

Cultural differences come to the fore as participants and trainers work together to solve organization's problems

Academics argue about what “culture” is – but anyone who has lived in a foreign country knows that clear differences in social behavior and expectations exist. I have been living in a foreign country – Russia - for nearly three months, and at this point cultural differences don’t usually get my attention. Sometimes, however, they do. This last weekend I was in Ekaterinberg  for a weekend of training with the editors of the Delavoy Kvartal company, which publishes business journals in seven cities in Russia. The training, which was held in a small Russian resort outside of the city, was one of two that the company holds for its staff every year. The agenda was ambitious and reflected the established quality of the journals. Their reporters are not generally green, but the publications struggle with normal journalistic challenges: how to beat the dailies, how to cultivate sources, how to better share experience and knowledge within the organization.

When I arrived on Friday, I asked to sit in on one of the training sessions, so that I could get a sense of what was being discussed, and also of the style in which information was presented. I’m glad I asked. I have been through countless training sessions in the United States, but this was the first time I had attended a training conducted by Russians for Russians. Much of the training, of course, was similar in format. Drawing up lists. Role playing. Brain-storming. But the style of the workshop was different, reflecting the differences in culture. The Russians seemed much more comfortable stepping into the roles required by the skits that the trainer had sketched. (I was particularly impressed with a skit that required the participants to sing their lines. The journalists weren’t ready for La Scala – but they were quite good, improvising little arias about the newsroom!) Americans, I think, are often more inhibited. Discussion also was also more animated than most training sessions I have attended in the United States. On the positive side, this demonstrated to me that the editors cared passionately about their work. There were times that I wanted to impose more order on the discussion, but the trainer and the participants seemed comfortable with the controlled chaos.

My workshop was on Sunday, the last day of the training retreat. The focus was on exploring ways to improve in-house training. After an initial discussion of the problems and potential solutions, I offered the example of the “brown bag lunch” education program developed first at the Detroit Free Press in the 1990s. I realized that “brown bag lunch” has absolutely no significance as a phrase in Russian – but I discussed the origin of the program and its potential to cheaply provide on-going education for staff on a low budget. Following a description of the program and the idea, the editors followed up with some brainstorming of their own. I split the group of 10 editors into two, and they produced a list of 10 potential people who could be invited to such lunches – with the requirement that the invitees should be people from both inside and outside the organization. In about 15 minutes, they had produced a full list of potential guest speakers – consultants, business people, and lawyers, among other people. The lunches, I emphasized, could serve multiple purposes. On one hand, they could enhance the work environment, and provide on-going training. They could also be used to further cultivate contacts with news sources, one of the objectives discussed at an earlier workshop.

Although my workshop was probably less amusing to observe than previous sessions  – with no singing or dancing skits – I was pleased that at the end of the day the participants had taken concrete steps to implement a solution to one of their organization’s problems.