Localizing elearning for emerging economies

In 2005, economist Jim O’Neill presented a research paper identifying 11 countries as having a high potential of becoming some of the world’s largest economies in the twenty-first century. They dubbed these emerging economies as the Next Eleven (N-11): Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Turkey, South Korea and Vietnam.

It’s important to note that the term emerging economies encompasses countries that are either developing economies or newly industrialized ones. O’Neill posited that “countries with huge populations and low gross domestic products per capita will be able to catch up to the developed world more quickly than they could have 50 or 100 years ago, as the economic centre of gravity shifts away from the West.” 

How does the development of emerging economies relate to elearning? When US companies invest in emerging economies by creating new offices in other countries, they immediately generate a new workforce, and that workforce needs to be trained. Not surprisingly, many companies will opt for the relatively less expensive option of online training (elearning) rather than classroom-based training, especially as these countries develop information and communication technology infrastructure and improve access to the internet. However, these efforts create challenges for all aspects of elearning because elearning is not simply software; instead, it is a cultural artifact imbedded with the values and norms of the designing culture, which can be completely different than those of the recipient learners. As many companies that have invested in BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) have already discovered, there are definite cultural obstacles to doing business that they never encountered in domestic ventures. What do elearning designers need to know when designing online courses for learners in emerging economies?



The most obvious challenges are related to language. For example, while the language of business in Nigeria is English, according to most sources the country has more than 250 tribes and 500 languages. In addition, Nigerian Standard English (based on British English) and Nigerian Pidgin tend to vary depending upon the regional tribal language. Thus, creating written or spoken content for a large group of learners will prove to be significantly challenging. In Egypt, for example, most written media uses literary Arabic, but Egyptian Arabic is the spoken language. Such differences pose challenges when elearning developers or translators want to add subscripts to video.

Even greater challenges exist with respect to the relevance of content and the context within which it is presented. According to Brandi Moore, author of The Little BRIC Book, businesses function on five core principles: how teams work together; how employees view their relationship with their organization; how organizations prefer to engage with partners; how organizations communicate; and how power is managed in unequal systems in organizations. While many companies have had successes in BRIC countries, few had anticipated that cultural challenges would be a risk factor. Companies that tried to micromanage local operations or to “Americanize” them were not as successful as those that chose to glocalize (to be global by adapting local ways).

It’s critical to note that the N-11 and BRIC countries hold values similar to each other in business, but those values are almost in direct opposition to those held by most American organizations. Americans tend to be individualistic and task oriented; N-11 countries are group and relationship oriented; Americans tend to take risks; these emerging economies tend to be risk avoiders; American organizations tend to be somewhat flat structures; N-11 members tend to be hierarchical; and so forth. Companies that have worked in BRIC countries can expect their worst challenges to be repeated in N-11 countries, unless they’ve adapted. Companies that are entering emerging markets for the first time need to consider cultural differences as primary risk factors.

Thus, providing training content that is relevant will prove to be an enormous challenge. For example, a US company will likely want to train its new managers on leadership skills. However, will those leadership skills translate into the new culture? For example, a popular elearning course portrays a corporate business meeting in which everyone participates in decision making. The discussion includes managers freely critiquing the ideas of executives. In contrast, however, the majority of the N-11 countries exercise hierarchical decision making. Thus, it’s likely that the N-11 learners will find the scenario rude and bizarre in a cultural context where decision making is always done by higher ups who likely do not consult other managers. Thus, the leadership techniques proposed in this course would not likely be adapted by the targeted culture. As BRIC expert David Thomas notes, “many Chinese employees may prefer to follow orders and so will be reluctant to make decisions without guidance, but this is a show of courtesy to those in more senior positions and should not be mistaken for an inability to lead,” a position not understood by most Americans.

Most US companies will also offer new hire orientation courses online, in order to quickly comply with health, safety and legal needs. A common topic is ethics and compliance, another value-embedded topic that is viewed differently across cultures. For example, in the N-11 countries, nepotism is a common business practice. US companies will have a difficult time convincing new employees that this practice is unethical without adapting special approaches. On the upside, the workforces in these countries tend to be young and ambitious, eager to interact globally, and amenable to change. According to Annika Ferris in Finding Growth Opportunities Around the Globe, about 60% of Egyptians are under the age of 30, and about 43% of Nigerias are under the age of 15. Thus, some cultural challenges may be mitigated by changing workforce demographics.

Instructional approach

The ethics example leads to a discussion of instructional approach, as well, because how content is presented can influence its acceptance and adoption by learners. Learners in emerging economies will be motivated to work for US companies, but they will often treat their work life as a microcosm of the United States, not as a reality of their national environment. Therefore, culturally embedded content needs to be presented with an instructional technique called scaffolding. Scaffolding means building new knowledge upon an existing foundation of knowledge. In this case, the foundation is that nepotism is acceptable. However, it now needs to be presented as undesirable. Thus, content needs to be framed with an explanation of what concept exists now (nepotism is okay), what should be different (nepotism is not acceptable in this US company), why (because global companies have found that nepotism creates business issues, and you should provide specific examples) and how change can be accomplished (by not hiring relatives in this office, not letting relatives work together and so on). In other words, you need to create a bridge from one cultural reality to another, even if it is only within the context of working for that company.

Additionally, what are the learners’ motivations to adhere to culturally contrary missives? Motivations for work vary, so you need to understand what motivates your learners to comply with a culturally different norm. In this case, for example, keeping your job may be the motivation. In others, you may be able to use other motivators, like face saving (how a practice will not serve the company’s image), career advancement (how understanding and applying these principles will open doors to promotions, new jobs) and so forth.

There are many cultural challenges related to instructional design and approaches to teaching, training, motivating and so forth. Solutions may be as simple as offering an orientation to a topic, or so complex that a country-specific course needs to be developed. As mentioned previously, a leadership course designed for an American audience is likely irrelevant and not practicable in, say, a Chinese organization. American companies typically expect foreign learners to adapt to American styles, but they don’t realize how deeply different these concepts are in other cultures. Even instructions need to be placed under a cultural lens. For example, tone is important (direct, polite, formal or informal) and the level of detail desired varies across cultures (how much learners need to do and to what degree).

Localization experts are aware of the technological issues that exist below the surface of software products and, from this perspective, elearning is software — especially self-paced elearning. However, internal training departments are usually completely unaware of these needs when they create their online courses, and thus will present their final products for translation and localization with technology that is unsuited to the target market. Thus, an opportunity exists for localization professionals to educate and work with their elearning clients to better prepare their courses from a technological standpoint.

In addition, media (audio, images, graphics, video) will often not reflect the learners’ worlds. An end-user in Vietnam, for example, will immediately know if the accents are not native in the audio content, if the images in scenarios or graphics were created in the United States or if the story in the video does not represent the reality of Vietnam business culture.


Lessons learned from BRIC 

What lessons can be learned from working in BRIC countries that can be extrapolated to the N-11s? And how does this affect elearning? Cultural differences were identified by the 2012 Global Mobility Report “as being the primary reason why such countries pose challenges, and this accords with our own experience . . . We may feel that global borders are dissolving in the face of increased accessibility to countries across the world, but the reality is that cultural, social and legal divides are still very much in force.” Brazil, for example, has several cultural characteristics in common with the United States: it’s individualistic, risk-taking and prefers working with facts over emotions. Russians, as well, tend to be individualistic and risk-taking. India and China, however, are completely different with respect to many cultural characteristics held by Americans. Thus, entry into some BRIC countries may have been less painful than others, but the most difficult experiences most likely reflect those to be expected when entering N-11 countries. When a company prepares to train its new N-11 workforce, it can expect significant cultural obstacles to success, unless it carefully considers cultural differences in workforce training, and especially in elearning, where the human presence is eliminated or obscured by technology. Cultural audits provide the information and tools necessary to identify critical cultural differences and how to address them.

Translation and localization professionals can help their clients be more successful by alerting them of these challenges and offering solutions before translation and localization efforts begin. Typically, a cultural audit can either help a client internationalize elearning or help create customized solutions when warranted, such as in leadership courses, for example. You may not have the expertise to identify and address all of the critical cultural nuances, but you usually have the intuition or sixth sense to see that a client’s elearning project has the potential to fail, insult or just not work due to cultural issues. Remember how we laugh when we read translations from another language into English that are full of misused words, verbatim translations of idioms and so forth? Well, that is exactly how elearning looks and feels to the non-designing culture. However, elearning that has not been culturally adapted is not just laughable; it interferes with learning, creates obstacles for end-users and in some cases, insults them.