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A failure to properly adapt e-learning can cost companies millions in repair costs and foregone revenue. Here are a few examples of what some companies can do to bridge the gap between failure and success in global e-learning.

Toronto-based AlertDriving, incorporated as Sonic e-Learning Inc., aggressively expanded into more than 20 countries in two years before realizing its driver training product had serious flaws. “For example, AlertDriving teaches that the center lane is the safest on a multi-lane highway,” reported the Wall Street Journal, “but that is untrue in Dubai, where the center lane is used exclusively for passing.”

AlertDriving saw the long-term value in resolving the issues and spent 18 months and $1 million revamping its international online driving training courses to fix translation errors and make the courses more culturally appropriate. Though the changes were successful, profits and sales would undoubtedly have seen greater success had the company properly adapted its e-learning courses from the start.

Last week, this column discussed the effects of cultural references on e-learning courses. Some e-learning developers can standardize courses to be understood in many different countries and cultures — particularly for technical training that is very straightforward. However, other e-learning courses are too closely tied to culture-specific subject matter that cannot be standardized worldwide. For example, courses on driving, taxes, finance and sexual harassment will include information specific to local laws and regulations. Likewise, training on softer skills like leadership, teamwork, ethics, negotiation and sales will include assumptions specific to each locale.

Global learning strategist Andrea Edmundson has probably written more than any other person on the subject of culturally appropriate e-learning. She tells of one U.S.-Chinese business partnership that tried to get all executives on the same page by having them complete an interactive, media-intensive course on leadership. When asked if they would likely adopt the methods taught in the course, one Chinese executive replied, “Well, the principles are the same, but how we practice them is different.”

“The concepts of leadership, like several others (negotiation and conflict management),” Edmundson told the American Society for Training & Development, “are deeply imbedded with the cultural values of those who designed the course. Who leads, and why? Is leadership learned or earned? Does leadership capability equate to role, status, position or salary? The obvious challenge here is whether the course was at all right for the purpose. In China (unlike the United States), a leader’s ability to manage relationships (guānxi) with employees is often valued more than any other leadership skill because the Chinese culture highly emphasizes collectivism.”

In this case, training for each culture would have needed to be substantially different because each culture had a different definition of good leadership. A preliminary cultural analysis before development would have revealed this and kept the companies from wasting time and money on an inappropriate and ineffective training course.

Text is not all that must be adapted for different cultures — images and videos require adaptation, too. According to Ann Quigley in eLearn Magazine, one U.K.-based company developed an e-learning course for a security screening product and “planned to market the product in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, but the graphics of suspected terrorists depicted Middle Eastern-looking individuals. The company had to swallow the costs of creating and integrating new graphics.”

Edmundson tells of another instance when she reviewed another company’s U.S. course as part of her work as CEO of eWorld Learning. Her client wanted to redesign the course and sell it in a European country, but Edmundson warned the company of discrepancies between the target country and the course’s video segments that showed interactions among executives in a multinational company. The video depicted a female CEO, 50 percent black Americans, and then a mix of Asian and Anglo characters; however, the target market had much less diverse demographics — “less than 1 percent of residents had dark skin and less than 10 percent of executives were female.” The e-learning company refused to make a change because it felt a lack of diversity “just wasn’t right.”

“When the e-learning company presented the prototype to its European customer, they immediately pegged it as ‘too American,’ ” recounts Edmundson in MultiLingual magazine. “What the e-learning company leaders did not consider was that the cast of characters was not a reflection of its perception of what’s right or wrong — of their American values of workplace equality and cultural diversity — but rather a reflection of what exists in that country’s context. The e-learning company lost business because it refused to adapt the video.”

When localizing anything, whether an online course, a product label or a marketing campaign, companies will benefit greatly from a little preliminary research and the help of experts like Edmundson and other in-country consultants. As with many things in life, a simple matter of looking before you leap and planning to succeed will pay good dividends.

Perhaps at some point someone will develop an exhaustive e-learning course on cultural specifics so that everyone can be an expert on all cultures, but that seems unlikely considering the seemingly infinite combinations of possible subjects and cultures. Until then, your safest bet is to consult with those who regularly adapt e-learning to other cultures.

Adam Wooten is director of translation services at Lingotek. He also teaches a course on translation technology at BYU. E-mail: awooten@lingotek.com . Follow him on Twitter at AdamWooten..

eLearning DevCon

eLearning DevCon is a national conference for e-learning developers held annually in Salt Lake City. As he did last year, Adam Wooten will be giving presentations on both e-learning internationalization and e-learning localization at this year’s conference, June 15-17. Register online to attend these and other presentations on e-learning development.