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Virtual Management Training and Culture
Some cases in a global learning environment
Sylvia van de Bunt-Kokhuis


There is a world-wide trend to introduce virtual management courses (2). Transnational companies, often global players, expect an increased effectiveness of their virtual management training, by delivering more training to more students on more subjects, in a more cost-effective way (3). The information society provides multimedia tools to take on this challenge. (e.g. interactive CD ROM's). Increasingly, telelearning resources are produced in the western world and, subsequently, ported to other parts of the world. Global companies face the 'portability problem ': how to transfer telelearning materials to different (training) cultures.

This contribution illustrates by some cases the complex relationship between virtual management training and culture in a global environment, from the perspective of the teacher, the student and the portability issue (4).

the teacher's perspective

Most teachers have no experience in the delivery of online teaching courses. Or the teachers major focus is on the technology of the delivery, while neglecting the instructional needs of the student. The remote student feels as if he is listening to a 'talking head and gets isolated from the real teaching (Schilders, 1999, p.98). Due to the differences in teaching styles across cultures, miscommunication, loss of quality and inaccuracies may occur.

Case China
"Teaching in China means teaching by authority and evidence, not through doubts and experimentation. I had a package of nice CD ROMs and presented them in Shanghai to PhD students. However, they did not like the interactive presentation. Scientific knowledge should be presented without disturbance, like "listening to a classical concert". (P.Kommers, lecturer Twente University).

the student's perspective

The use of western software in various parts of the world is putting different constraints on students. The western style of telelearning is based on self-directed learning.

ITC case
The International Institute for Aerospace Survey and Earth Sciences (ITC, Enschede) offers Master and MSc courses to students from 70 developing countries. In ITC`s multicultural classroom crucial frictions occur between the teaching style of the country of origin and The Netherlands (5). Teachers in developing countries have a higher status and a formal relationship with the students. The students are not familiar with the teachers role of facilitator. They are not used to critical thinking, and have limited multi media experience. Many students feel uneasy, they do not understand Dutch jokes, do not ask questions, do not participate in discussions. They feel embarrassed if they get feedback on their work during a lesson.

Thus, different learning styles may occur in a multicultural classroom. The training company Trompenaars Hampden-Turner has experience in using interactive distance learning material in multicultural groups world-wide (6).

Case Trompenaars
"The Americans love the interactive distance learning materials, regardless if you integrate them with other means or not . They just sit back and relax. Californians love to start with any kind of trial and error and literally learn from the error. While other cultures say, no error, this would mean loss of face, or it is intellectually not challenging enough. E.g. in The Netherlands, France and Asia, they very often see CD ROMs as something that should be combined with other types of learning. If we have a predominantly Californian group we start with simulations and get them into action. Very interactive, you observe and ask the students what they experience. In a French group you start with generalisation and than, later, you get into the structured experience. BecauseFrench people would rather first have an answer to the why question, and than, very deductively, go to the learning. If a CD ROM is used, the French would like to integrate it in other learning capabilities."

Similar differences in telelearning styles are illustrated by a joint design engineering curriculum of the Technical University of Delft and Michigan State University.

Case TUD/Michigan State University:
"American and Dutch students collaborate on a distance by using multimedia sources. The different learning styles resulted in some frictions between the Dutch and the American students. The Dutch complained that the Americans were too strict. The Americans found that the Dutch were too flexible. In the coming year lesser problems on the level of student collaboration are expected. A very fast ISDN video connection will be used. The students will see each other by using the videotape. At forehand, a cultural anthropologist will inform the students on cultural differences " (Andriessen, TUD).

In some cultures, telelearning suits the need for lifelong learning extremely well. This is illustrated by the following.

Japanese case
Japanese senior managers consider the school as punishment. Japanese managers like to learn, but without any school atmosphere. PC screens and simulation games are a good medium to medicate this conflict, without loss of face. They don't want to be taught . The computer that says `stop, do it again' is a good alternative teacher. You can talk to yourself, nobody checks if it was wrong. Its between you and the computer. To Japanese senior managers this is an important point, and the computer becomes a competitive advantage in their learning environment.


A core question to global companies starting a virtual business school is: will this transnational company develop one standardised common course for distribution world-wide? Or will one develop different versions of one virtual course to improve the portability of the courseware world-wide? Even if you have the same targets world-wide, you might need different local instructional methods, different languages.

Case Trompenaars
The more you integrate virtual learning in `real learning, the less culture has an effect on it. If the Japanese have an interaction between computer based training and reading a book and come together in the classroom to discuss it, I think you could do the same with Americans and the Dutch. Although the Dutch would say 'what I really like is reading a book'. The Americans would say 'what I really like is the interactive stuff at home. I could increase the effectiveness of the CD ROM, because we had the meeting together where we learned about the CD ROM'. And the Japanese would say 'what really made the difference was that we got together. Our group meetings were effective; at home I could look at the CD ROM and in the library I could read a book. So you have the same methodology interpreted differently by the different cultural groups. The one supports the other, because it is integrated.

The portability of courseware can be facilitated through the use of an ` electronic toolkit (Zhang, 1996). According to Zhang, the teacher is able to make a selection of telelearning resources and the teacher designs the lesson himself. Typical 'western models to be selected are group investigation whereby students explore a situation, inquiry training and use of a simulation model. A typical teaching model in China is the delivery-receive model, whereby the whole instructional process is organised and controlled by the instructor.


Some recommendations are:

  • the organisation of a small conference to co-create a methodology on virtual training and culture
  • the development of a cultural inquiry system that can help organisations in avoiding pitfalls
  • the development of a toolkit for teachers to offer alternative teaching styles, appropriate to the culture of a specific teaching environment

The virtual school will be a demanding multicultural adventure for global companies. However, the opportunity to be part of a virtual educational network where employees can meet and share insights regardless of time and distance, is also exhilarating.
To conclude with Charles Handy (1995, p.46): " Paradoxically, the more virtual the organisation, the more its people need to meet in person ."

Dr Sylvia G.M. van de Bunt-Kokhuis is senior consultant of Adviesbureau Dr P.A.E. van de Bunt bv in Bloemendaal. She published thirty international articles and three books on management, education and culture.


(1) This study originated from earlier consultancy work of the author to establish a virtual business school, on behalf of a global company with more than 3,000 outlets world-wide, and stores offering jobs to 220,000 employees. Many thanks to Prof. Dr Eric Andriessen (TUDelft), rs. G.T.M. (Ineke) van Dam (ITC), Dr A.M. (Piet) Kommers (Twente University), Drs. J.P. (Han) van der Pool (Ahold), and Dr Fons Trompenaars for the intensive talks on this matter.

(2) Recently established virtual universities are EuroPace (Brussels), Eurocampus Online (The Hague), and Virtual Business Schools of ING, KPN and IBM. The virtualisation of training courses is often driven by the myth of cost-effectiveness. Optimists say that for less than 50% of the usual costs, the company can simultaneously train hundreds of employees in different parts of the world. Neglected costs are the on-going expenses of technical support, production costs of computer based training, design costs of interactive video, and, the issue of this report, the cultural adaptiveness of multimedia materials.

(3) Kolb distinguishes different learning styles, pictured like a circle. In the top of the circle you find structured experience. Secondly, what did they learn from the experience? The third step is processing.

(4) The Dutch educational system is an eminent example of a western model. The student is considered to be his own teacher, e.g. the `studiehuis' in Dutch secondary schools. It is a romantic, optimistic approach.

(5) Surprisingly, Trompenaars has found that at the moment you have multicultural groups, the effect of culture becomes minor. Multicultural groups feel less the effect of culture and the way you learn.


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