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Robin Hoyle

Huthwaite International

Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International

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It’s all Greek to me


Robin Hoyle believes that speaking the language of trainers and learners in other countries goes beyond just the words on the page. Read on to find out why.
Working with global businesses can be a little difficult, especially when you're in the training materials design business. For the most part, senior teams can speak a common language. In the companies I tend to work with, English is the business language and any training targeted at managers is published in English without too many hitches.
However, what constitutes a good standard of conversational English might not quite cut it in the more technical reaches of the language. Interestingly, the further down the hierarchy your programmes go, the more technical the language gets. At least I think so. In fact, with quite a lot of jargon terms springing up in management discussions, the supposedly less technical language used in the average management training room can also be full of traps.
"Most large scale organisations working across a number of territories like nothing more than a good process."
I was working with a group of managers who had been through an online programme which had been translated into their mother tongue. When I heard them discussing 'the global strategy association' I realised that the focus on 'global strategic alignment' had been a bit lost in translation.
But these misunderstandings are relatively easily dealt with. It is when we get to describing new processes and practices that the trouble really starts. Most large scale organisations working across a number of territories like nothing more than a good process.
If you can create a PowerPoint slide with 27 builds on showing the inter-relationship between a series of different activities and, for preference, located within some kind of matrix showing accountabilities and consultation loops, then all to the good. In the search for global standardisation to reduce costs and to remove inefficiency, the increased use of the same processes from Ullapool to Ulan Bator is the very warp and weft of how head offices drive the business forward.

Different countries

The trouble arises when we need to put the training together for this for all the different countries which will need to adopt this process. Our focus should be on "what does this mean to me and my job?" and "what do I do differently next week to make this happen?". Now I may be making a pretty big assumption that someone can answer those questions for the sales rep, forklift truck driver or financial controller in Argentina, but let's give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they can, theoretically at least, develop that straightforward description of what's changed and why.
Problem solved? Yes, until we come to make it available in a variety of languages. That's when we realise two specific problems. If, like I do, you believe training is about doing things differently and doing different things, then you may be head of me. In order to change things, you need first to describe and analyse what's going on at the moment.
From my experience, the training process assumes that there is one way of doing things now and one way of doing things in the future. This is rarely the case. In fact there are usually as many ways of doing things now as there are departments in the business, one of my client companies operates in 180 countries with 51 factories.  You can imagine the complexity of 'how things get done around here'. As the elderly man asked for directions might say "If you're going there, I wouldn’t start from here!"
So the process of translation is not just about the words and sentences being rendered into Dutch, Hungarian or Cantonese. It's much more about localisation than simple translation. What I mean by localisation is the ability of a local subject matter expert to express the concepts, ideas and process steps in the local language in a way which makes it genuinely understandable for the learners in their country. This is a different and additional process from simply changing the words.
As someone who is involved extensively in developing online learning, I know the temptation for large organisations to establish a global contract with a translation agency. We send the words through, they send the appropriate translation back and with a bit of jiggery pokery by the code elves, hey presto, you have an elearning programme in Polish.
Well, maybe you have an online programme which uses Polish words, but the learning is undermined by a lack of local context. 'A Global Strategy Association' is not an incorrect translation of 'Global Strategic Alignment' but it's still a long way from being right. Multiply that kind of mistake by all the local technical differences between how things get done round here and how things get done over there, and you have a programme which is unlikely to be of enormous benefit to the users.

Training materials

The importance of reflecting the culture doesn't simply extend to the different ways of describing activities, processes and roles in your offices around the world. The cultural piece is much, much more than this. I work with a major brewer.  Each of its different breweries around the world produce local brands and the workers are very, very proud of their local products and brands. If I use training materials created globally in the Czech Republic, I'd better be sure those materials have the local Czech Beer brand in any of the visuals. When I go to Colombia, the Czech brand means nothing and the local brand is a national institution and an expression of Colombian pride. 
In scenario exercises, my use of names of customers or work colleagues needs to change to reflect local names.  Diego Garcia doesn't work with anyone called Richard Head or John Smith. I can't keep the names the same.
"There is more to national identity than language and when we are working on changing behaviours, we must be aware of the barriers created by asking people to learn from something which appears alien."
Have you seen those advertisements that have been created in the USA and then over dubbed with English accents to work here in the UK? They look wrong don't they? The scripts seem a little formulaic, the guy going for the interview too lantern-jawed, his daughter passing him the men's hair dye too cloying for UK tastes. Could you imagine Peter Kay adverts for beer working in Ohio?  When the Americans wanted The Office on TV, they had to remake it in American. Now the Brits and the Americans may be two peoples separated by a single language, but these issues are even more significant when translating UK materials into German or French materials in English.
There is more to national identity than language and when we are working on changing behaviours, we must be aware of the barriers created by asking people to learn from something which appears alien. By definition, it is sending signals of being out of touch, not from here, not reflecting my issues, problems and challenges.
So localisation goes beyond translation. It's about the terminology used locally, the images used, the culture reflected in the programme. It's not a quick fix to localise, but it is really worth the extra effort if delivering the same training course means achieving the same level of quality wherever it rolls out.
Robin Hoyle is the head of learning at Infinity Learning Ltd. He works with global organisations creating training and learning programmes which are deployed across the world. One of the elearning programmes he worked on won the Best Corporate Online Programme at the e-Learning Awards 2010

Author Profile Picture
Robin Hoyle

Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International

Read more from Robin Hoyle

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