Cultural agility: What is it and why do you need it?

Global leading provider in assessment, training and coaching for mobile employees, NetExpat, explains the importance of cultural agility to international assignments.

Main Image

Congratulations! You’re getting a promotion and being transferred to Shanghai for the next two years to head up a big engineering project. It will involve design, logistics, putting processes into place and then training the local Chinese staff on these processes. Are you ready?

Imagine you’ve grown up in the Pacific Northwest, attended school on the West Coast, worked in Seattle a few years and now this. The enormity can be overwhelming. Setting aside logistics and language barriers, the cultural differences alone should be a consideration. As an American, will it be too much of a shock for you to adapt? How do you even begin to understand and prepare?

That’s where Alain Verstandig comes in. As president of Net Expat, this Brussels-born son of a German father and French mother helps people develop a key skill in this age of global expansion: cultural agility.

What is cultural agility?

In a business sense, in the era of global expansion, “cultural agility is the ability to efficiently work, build trust, sell, negotiate and supervise across cultural barriers,” Verstandig says. If you don’t understand the culture you’re moving to, visiting temporarily or even speaking to over Skype or email, you won’t be able to build the trust and will not be successful. Verstandig’s organization trains employees on the cultural skills they need before moving to a new locale and provide support for partners or spouses accompanying the employee.

As a first step, he recommends looking inward before studying a new culture. He often has students begin with an exam, which he likens to a cultural X-ray, to test their own self-awareness and cultural biases. Let’s go back to our Seattle-China example. Some programs may just label you an American and tell you about the culture shock you’ll have in China, he says. But what if you were raised by an Italian father and Irish mother in a strict Catholic household? You won’t have the same “American” culture shock in China as someone else, he says. He begins the process with a very thorough cultural questionnaire and then provides the employee with very specific information taking into consideration thousands of international norms.

The need for blended learning

When cultural agility was becoming a desirable competency, it was originally focused only on expats, Verstandig says. People who were physically moving had to be trained on culture, often in-person with a trainer. Then more people went abroad for short-term work, some became virtual expats and e-learning was developed to save time and money. This worked… for a while.

“E-learning is very flexible and allows employees to study at their own pace, 24/7, as a self-service platform. It’s inexpensive. If you’re moving from Seattle to Shanghai, you can take an interactive e-learning course to learn about Chinese behaviors and cultural differences. The classroom isn’t necessary,” he says.

But, what if the CEO and a recent college graduate are both going to China? Do they need exactly the same course? “About three years ago, leadership and development professionals began realizing they were at the bottom of the well on e-learning. It is not flexible in terms of learning objectives. It’s not adaptive. It can’t answer questions. It can’t help you prepare for a presentation or adapt your leadership style,” Verstandig says. The key was to combine e-learning with help from a trainer or coach.

Blended learning uses e-learning as a foundation but allows customization. Some people can go quickly through this material or skip it altogether depending on their knowledge. Some people can do the entire course and then specifically ask how to tweak emails with Chinese stakeholders to achieve the best results. Verstandig has seen this hybrid format greatly increase uptake rate and satisfaction at his own organization and throughout this industry.

The future of cultural agility

Using specific information about each individual from his cultural X-ray, trainers can predict how someone might clash with a new culture in up to 30 areas such as communication, risk taking, project management, and deadlines and time management, Verstandig says. Then a trainer develops a fully customized program to help someone adapt whether they’re moving to a new international locale or just working virtually on the same project.

Verstandig believes in a few years, predictive analytics will continue as the next big revolution in cultural agility training, using an even more sophisticated, holistic predictive approach.

This ability to predict successful expatriation will also help employers a great deal. They won’t have to consider which employee will best adapt to China; they will send the best engineer and know that person can adapt to China, Verstandig says. “It levels the playing field when you can identify and train for weaknesses.”

To speak to someone at NetExpat, email Allison Eckhart at