Flexible Design for a Global Audience

What happens when you are tasked with designing a single solution for a global audience? How do you ensure that in the process of designing something that works for everyone, that you don’t end up with something that doesn’t work for anyone?

This is where I deploy what I call “Flexible Design”.

About 7 years ago the leadership of our learning organization declared that we would no longer provide customized design for specific regions or countries. We would now provide a “vanilla” solution for the entire corporation, unless the topic covered pay or benefits. At the time this meant one solution for 48 different countries.

It made sense at the bottom line because it is expensive and time consuming to provide multiple versions of a course. It made no sense from a learning point of view because there are drastic differences in learning styles from region to region. For example:

  • Israelis thrive on heated discussion and don’t hesitate to challenge the facilitator.
  • Chinese learners will rarely speak out in a class and will defer to the instructor or the most senior manager in the room. They prefer more intimate small group discussions to large class discussions.
  • The British use humor and wry wit to express descent and consider an emotional response to be a sign of immaturity.

How could one solution possibly meet the needs of global learners?

We had to get very creative if we were going to operate with this new constraint and still produce quality learning experiences that felt like they were customized. We used the following techniques to design-in flexibility.

Trust Your Facilitators
Facilitators are in the in the trenches. They are part of the culture where they teach and they know what will engage their learners. They can give you great advice about whether or not an activity will work and make suggestions about how to reach your goals. Make sure to include a few facilitators from various countries on your design review team. Additionally, solicit feedback from all instructors via email or survey. You might be surprised how much they are willing to share.

Design the Structure, Let the Facilitator Fill In the Details
You wouldn’t do this for an entire course, but some sections may benefit from some localization. A list of examples that resonates in the United States might not make any sense to learners in Brazil or Japan. As a part of the train-the-trainer, ask facilitators to fill in the blanks with locally relevant examples. If you have an embedded regional or country training manager you could work with them to set a standard list for their location and communicate it to the facilitators they manage. If possible, utilize social media within your organization to set up instructor communities where they can share ideas and post files.

Encourage Use of the Local Language
In the facilitator guide and train-the-trainer, encourage facilitators to facilitate important discussions or activities in the local language. If working with a multilingual group, ask learners how they would rename or explain a concept in their local language and share what it means. In a virtual setting you could do this in the chat channel or with annotation tools. It’s a great way to check for comprehension and open up discussion about how the local culture might accept or resist the concept.

Design-In Multiple Options That Meet the Same Learning Objective
Clearly communicate the goal of your activity in the train-the-trainer. Provide a few options of activities to meet that goal. This is a good discussion point in the train-the-trainer. Potential facilitators can discuss which one they think best matches the local learning culture. They also have options if teaching in another country. Consider high context/low context and direct/indirect communication styles.

Be Clear About What Must Not Be Altered
In the train-the-trainer it is very important to be clear about what material must not be altered. If consistency of message or process is required you don’t want to risk these sections being changed. This will be more necessary in some regions than others. (That’s right Israel, I’m looking at you.)

Do you have other strategies for flexible global design? Please share them in the comments!