Research from Hult Business School identifies intercultural skills as a key competency for global leadership. More and more MBA programs now recognize the importance of intercultural skills for managing employees across borders. So why are L&D professionals often reluctant to invest in this vital training? Perhaps past trainers have made extravagant promises that they couldn’t deliver. Maybe you feel unable to quantify a specific ROI of intercultural skills training. It is time to think strategically and to recognize the business value of intercultural skills. Investing in intercultural training not only reduces the risk of a disastrous international assignment it helps you to transform your managers into global leaders.

Why is it so hard to demonstrate the ROI of intercultural skills?

To explore this reluctance further and to identify what the ROI of intercultural skills is, we need to examine three specific areas:

  • What do we mean by intercultural skills development?
  • Is all intercultural training equal?
  • How do we maximize the outcomes and therefore the ROI of intercultural skills development?

Soft Skills Development

Building the critical skills needed to succeed in the modern workplace

What are intercultural skills?

Business needs effective communication in the same way that a human brain needs oxygen. If you want to praise a colleague or a strong leader, you may say that they are a great communicator.

Transferring a message from one person to another is an everyday activity that we take for granted, unaware that it is a dangerous activity.

Applied linguist Ron Scollon makes the point that language is a particularly poor tool for communication – we can never guarantee that a listener interprets our message in the way we intended them too. But we act as if this understanding is guaranteed.

The larger the cultural difference, the greater the opportunity for more and more dangerous miscommunications to creep in.

Intercultural skills help you upgrade your communication operating system to help you reduce the zone of mutual confusion. 

Any employee will develop a range of soft skills through their career, through training or experience, but until they are upgraded, they will not enable the international manager to reach their full potential. 

Further reading

Why You Need to Invest Now in Intercultural Training

Why Intercultural Competence is Key to a Successful International Assignment

There are many lists that detail specific intercultural skills, but in essence, they help you communicate more effectively with people from different cultural backgrounds.

Does all intercultural training work?

It is self-evident that a skill that helps you improve performance, reduces inefficiencies and develops strong business relationships is hugely valuable to an organization. So why the doubt?

The answer is more obvious than you might think. Not all intercultural training is equal.

ROI of intercultural skills

The intercultural trainer promises that you will develop new behaviors and skills to help you navigate the complexity of the international world of business, and then proposes a half-day program.

The trainer will come in, spend an entertaining three hours with a group of executives, and as if by magic, they are now fully adept at stepping from culture to culture…

We know that this doesn’t work. The latest research in psychology suggests that it takes at least 66 days to develop a new skill or change a behavior. That is 66 days of conscious, intentional actions to reinforce the skill before it becomes second nature. 

Soft Skills Development

Building the critical skills needed to succeed in the modern workplace

Training is often fun, but useless

L&D has seen through the pitch of the eloquent intercultural trainer – they know that such a complex topic cannot be addressed in a “fire and forget” manner, and they have plenty of examples to convince themselves.

The training may well create “a-ha” moments, it will be enjoyable and will probably have some excellently thought out strategies. 

Too little training uses a sustainable methodology that consolidates learning.

Too much of the training is spent listening to theory and principles – however well explained, or smiling at a well-crafted anecdote.

We don’t spend enough resources on planning how to take the learning out of the classroom and into work-place behaviors. Of course with this type of unsustainable training, the ROI of intercultural skills training isn’t high. 

  • Should we just give up then?
  • Shall we abandon hope and pray that intercultural skills will somehow develop themselves?
  • Or do we need to accept that we will need to pay for 60+ days of training to get anywhere near our goal of sustainable learning impact?

Further reading

Why You Need to Invest Now in Intercultural Training

Why Intercultural Competence is Key to a Successful International Assignment

A culture change in approach to intercultural training

Not at all! Sustainable learning is much easier than you might imagine, and in many cases, the cost is less too. 

The first mindset change we need to make is to move away from thinking of intercultural training and instead focus on intercultural skills development.

Typically, training is a short, one-off intervention that is a great way to get out the office for a day.

To develop skills we need to think about a learning cycle that covers a much longer period, characterized by micro-transactions. Sustainable learning is blended learning and lends itself to a flipped classroom approach.

It is difficult to justify a day out of the office for training that may or may not improve your skills. But it is much harder to dismiss a five-minute investment every few days to prepare for a highly tailored coaching session that will wrap principles around your personal work challenges.

You’ve mastered the principles before you come into the classroom, so you won’t be listening to lectures and anecdotes, you’ll be working on developing skills.

Sustainable development

However, the learning doesn’t end when the class ends. There are more activities and tasks to stretch you and remind you. Instead of putting the workbook on the shelf (or more likely in the recycling) you take the learning with you – it remains in the conscious part of your brain and can be accessed when you need it. It’s not forgotten, but alive and active.

When you come to measure the ROI of sustainable learning, all you need to do is ask your learner – “what are you learning?” Note the tense of the question! Not “what did you learn?” but “what are you learning?” Learning that is sustainable is self-perpetuating.

As your managers learn intercultural skills, they develop more efficient practices, they communicate better, they grow your business. Retention is up, performance is up, growth is up. If your program is capable of achieving that, the ROI of intercultural skills development will be unmistakable.