Developing Intercultural Competence as Part of Professional Qualifications. A Training Experiment

Kaisu Korhonen, PhD

The 10th NIC Symposium on Intercultural Communication
20-22 November 2003, Department of Linguistics, Göteborg University, Sweden


The internationalization and globalization of working life sets specific requirements on professional education including professionally integrated foreign language education, the overall goal of which should be intercultural competence.

The paper discusses a training experiment in intercultural communication, especially the effectiveness of training in developing the various components of intercultural competence. The training experiment included both a face-to-face tuition period and a self-study period with a multimedia- and Web-based Culture-General Assimilator consisting of a number of critical incidents. The participants of the experiment were 117 Bachelor of Engineering students at Kajaani Polytechnic, Finland.

Besides assessing the effectiveness of intercultural training, the experiment aimed at mapping out what kind of communicators the students are and would like to be, whether they are motivated to develop their intercultural competence, and what they think about intercultural competence as part of their professional qualifications.

Keywords: component of intercultural competence, assess of effectiveness, the Culture Assimilator, training experiments, professional qualifications.


Economic integration and advances in transportation and telecommunication have broken down geographical isolation: The world is more global and mobile than ever before. Globalization is linked by new technology, communication is, for example, intensified via electronic media facilitating trade contacts and international projects.

When companies expand their operations abroad, it means balancing between prospects of growth and the risk associated with operating in unfamiliar markets. Successful companies and employees are those who see cultural diversity as an opportunity, as something that can be learned, managed, and made use of, and who are willing to develop their intercultural competence as part of their social and communication competences. The components of intercultural competence contain cognition, i.e. knowledge, affect, i.e. attitudes and emotions, and behavior and skills.

In increasingly more Finnish companies the official working language is the so- called International Business English, sometimes called Euro English or Global English. Holden (2002: 222; 228-229; 317) introduces the term interactive translation to describe work in which members of multicultural teams negotiate common meanings and understandings. According to Holden, interactive translation requires participative competence, in other words, willingness to discuss in a productive way not only in one’s native language but in foreign languages as well. Members of multicultural teams often have a varying knowledge of English and use different kinds of accents.

Mobility from and to Finland has been increasing. There are thousands of Finnish sojourners and expatriates working abroad especially in technical expert, business management, and marketing functions. There are also thousands of immigrants who have moved to Finland. A fact is that most Finns have negative attitudes toward immigrants. Immigrants’ jobless rate is high: There is not yet confidence required to consider immigrants a resource in working life. It is, however, possible that any Finn one day has a foreign coworker.

Even if there is evidence based on scientific research that today’s employees need intercultural competence in their jobs, the term cannot be found in job ads recruiting employees. It seems that employers are not familiar with the term. When requiring behavior and skills important in international and multicultural working life, employers usually refer to knowledge of one or more foreign languages. Occasionally they apply expressions such as communication skills, interpersonal skills, presentation skills, negotiation skills, the ability to work on international projects, and willingness to travel abroad.

Increased mobility, both real and virtual, has intensified Finns’ need for successful cultural adaptation and fluent and efficient communication. When compared with many other cultures, Finns’ communication style contains some differences. These differences include Finns’ tendency to speak only when having something important to say, high tolerance of silence in conversations, and avoidance-based politeness. Depending on the context, Finns’ communication style can be strength or weakness. On international assignments, the lack of social and communication skills at home and in the working place seems to be the main reason for failures.

When developing intercultural competence, early challenges and diversified experiences are of major importance. The knowledge management perspective presents culture, not as a source of difference and antagonism, but as a form of organizational, company-specific knowledge. This knowledge can be converted into tacit knowledge, which both adds value to company activities and is difficult for rivals to copy. (Holden 2002: 71; 75-76)

Developing intercultural competence is a slow, gradual transformative learning process (Taylor 1994) consisting of foreign language studies, intercultural training, and hands-on experiences of other cultures and their people. Even if nothing can entirely replace face-to-face tuition and learning, information technology should also be made use of when providing training.

A Culture Assimilator (Cushner & Brislin 1996) is a programmed learning package consisting of critical incidents. Critical incidents are short descriptions of situations where there is a problem of cultural adaptation, or where there is a problem rising from cultural differences between the interacting parties. In a Culture Assimilator the incidents are equipped with alternative explanations and feedback. Trainees are expected to choose the "best" explanation considering the context. The idea of implementing a Culture Assimilator with computer technology was introduced as early as in the 1960s (Triandis 1995: 183-184; Cushner & Landis 1996: 198).

New Learning Environments

New learning environments are being developed to support and supplement the traditional ones. The term new learning environment refers to new pedagogical and educational approaches together with opportunities provided by information technology. A new learning environment aims to promote learning that is continuous, individual, autonomous, and self-directed. It is also independent of the time and place of study. In a new learning environment, trainees are to be able to take responsibility for their own learning, while trainers are facilitators supporting the learning process. Many of the elements of the new learning environments are still under experiment.

One of the new learning environments is multimedia. The exact meaning of the term multimedia is vague. Besides referring to a computer-based presentation, the term multimedia may refer to a media mix, i.e. text, buttons, bitmap images, photos, animation sequences, video, sound, and special effects. Often when speaking about multimedia, people actually talk about hypermedia. The term hypermedia refers to computer-based materials linked by non-linear structures of information. By making use of association, a characteristic of human thinking, it is to make data management less difficult.

Part of hypermedia is hypertext. Hypertext is a method to write and read non-linear text, i.e. text with a built-in reference system, or links, in which the user can navigate. Data management can be split into several levels. It is possible to hide hotwords, i.e. elements of the media mix, in the text or graphics of the program. When the hotwords and picture elements are clicked, the program moves to another level containing further information about the topic.

In many fields of training and learning it is possible to create real-world problems to be simulated, in other words, practiced and solved with a computer program or application. This holds true to intercultural training, too. As part of the training experiment discussed below, the present author designed and implemented in cooperation with programming experts first a multimedia-based program, and later on a Web-based application, a Culture-General Assimilator, called The Same but Different). The Assimilator is called Culture-General because it discusses culture-general issues such as cultural differences in communication and cultural adaptation in a variety of cultures.

Effectiveness of the Culture Assimilator in Intercultural Training

Of all the approaches developed in intercultural training, the Culture Assimilator method has been exposed to the most intense scrutiny and analysis. According to Albert (1995: 157-158; 164-165), the method

The Culture Assimilator method is often classified as a cognitive technique because it focuses on the acquisition of knowledge or information by the trainee. Albert (ibid), however, argues that the process by which the information is acquired by the trainee is in a sense experiential (Kolb 1984): Information is acquired by a trial-and-error process, which simulates the experience of entering a new culture, but without the risks of failure and embarrassment. Albert continues that because the materials in Culture Assimilators also cover the affect, i.e. attitudes and emotions, as well as behaviors and skills of the people involved, the cognitive, affective, and behavioral components of intercultural competence are brought together in the Culture Assimilator method, both in the content of what is learned and the process of learning. Furthermore, the method uses the behavioral techniques of feedback and reinforcement. Besides Albert, scholars such as Wight (1995: 130-134), Bennett (1995: 149), Baxter, Ramsey (1996: 211-212), Cushner, and Landis (1996: 185), argue that all the various components of intercultural competence are in one way or another involved in the method.

According to Albert (1995: 157-158), the Culture Assimilator method exposes trainees to a wide variety of situations in the target culture(s), focuses on differences in perceptions and interpretations in behaviors, simulates important aspects of the experience of entering a new culture, e.g. ambiguity and uncertainty, centers on key cultural differences between trainees’ own culture and the target culture, and fosters trainees’ active involvement.

Cushner and Brislin (1996: 48-51; see also Blake et al. 1996: 169) argue that the Culture Assimilator method has proven to have positive impacts as to the cognitive, affective, and behavioral components of trainees’ intercultural competence. They continue that the Culture Assimilator is "of considerable use" in preparing individuals such as exchange students and various professionals for interaction in culturally diverse contexts.

Referring to research (e.g. Albert 1995: 165; Cushner & Brislin 1996: 14; 20; 25; 51; Cushner & Landis 1996: 188; 191-194), the Culture Assimilator is supposed to

Triandis (1995: 184) found that when trainees are motivated, the Culture Assimilator method improves their sense of well-being and effectiveness (cf. competence) in the other culture. Albert (1995: 165) refers to "a few minor inconsistencies" and the fact that all of the studies have not documented behavioral changes. Cushner and Landis (1996: 193; 195) state that there is "ample evidence" that changes are produced in trainees but the extent of those changes is still problematic. According to Kealey and Protheroe (1996: 152), the method is cognitive, but aims at some degree of interpersonal skills development.

Because there is controversy in the results of research discussing the effectiveness of the Culture Assimilator method, more empirical research is required. This is what the training experiment discussed below aimed at; in other words, it tested the effectiveness of the Culture-General Assimilator method in developing the intercultural competence of Bachelor of Engineering, or BEng, students as part of their professional qualifications.

Frameworks of the Training Experiments

The training experiment discussed here was implemented by the present author during the year 2000. The participants of the training experiment were 117 Bachelor of Engineering, or BEng, students at Kajaani Polytechnic, Finland (n = 117). The students were given a one-credit course in intercultural communication as part of their compulsory English studies. The face-to-face tuition period of 24 contact lessons, 45 min each, during three months, was followed by a three weeks’ Web-based self-study period. For the self-study period a Culture-General Assimilator called The Same but Different was designed and implemented as a Web-based application. The main function of the Web-based application was to test whether self-study provides any added value to the contact lessons, and whether it has any impact on the students’ behavior and skills in particular.

In the training experiment the following approaches were applied:

The objectives set on the training experiment were

The measuring instruments used in the training experiment were five questionnaires with structured and open-ended questions, statements, and critical incidents to be answered, analyzed, and solved by the students. The end results were analyzed by using both quantitative and qualitative research techniques.

End Results of the Training Experiment

The primary results of the training experiment were as follows:

On a quantitative scale from 1 to 5, the students’ complex thinking and ability to make isomorphic attributions as well as their ability to analyze and solve critical incidents, i.e. intercultural problems, developed from 1 to 2, i.e. from poor to satisfactory.

On a qualitative scale, i.e. according to the students’ self-assessment, the students received knowledge about culture-general differences and their behavior and skills considering intercultural adjustment and interaction with foreigners developed a little; one third of the students thought that their attitudes toward the foreign became a little more positive.

The secondary results of the training experiment included the following. Most students thought that

Most students were interested in working and studying abroad to develop their nontechnical competence, in other words, language and intercultural skills. In spite of this, the 10-year-old history of Kajaani Polytechnic only knows a few engineering students who have actually made use of the international trainee and student exchange programs provided by the Polytechnic. The main reason for this is likely the good job situation in Finnish industry since the mid 1990s.


Even if intercultural competence is needed at all levels of organizations and even if there is research-based evidence about the benefits of intercultural training, too many companies do not invest in it. The reasons for not investing in intercultural training include the assumptions competent international employees are born, not made, a top performer in the home country will be a top performer in another culture as well, training is not effective, there is no time, temporary assignments do not warrant training, trainees’ past experiences may have more influence than training, and the foreign work environment is the main determinant of success (Mendenhall & Oddou 1995: 343; Kealey & Protheroe 1996: 142-144).

Intercultural competence should, however, be understood as part of knowledge management and company-specific tacit knowledge. It should be understood as a tool of strategic thinking and planning, as a source of competitive advantage and added value, the development of which should be started as early as possible. Here proactive institutions of higher education, such as polytechnics, have a market niche. Teachers and trainers of foreign languages should also be provided with further training so that they can become intercultural facilitators to help their students to become mediators between cultures and social actors, who are able to engage with other social actors in communication and interaction which is different from those between native speakers (Byram 1997: 21).

Developing intercultural competence is about developing the ability to be effective in life and career in general. In other words, the potential effects of intercultural training include creating more interculturally trained citizens to society. The function of intercultural training is not to attempt to transform trainees’ fundamental personalities or basic character, but to add on knowledge and coping techniques, and consequently, to enhance professional skills as well. (Kealey & Protheroe 1996: 147)

The present author argues that intercultural training develops intercultural competence and provides perspective transformation, but the process of transformation is slow and gradual. When developing intercultural competence, a number of training methods should be applied including new technology.

The cognitive learning theory and constructivism seem to support the use of multimedia- and Web-based learning, including the self-directed nature of learning. The structure of information in multimedia- and Web-based learning is non-linear and based on associations (cf. human thinking). Consequently, the method supports knowledge construction from people’s own experiences, i.e. knowledge acquisition, remembering, understanding, as well as problem solving.

The multimedia- and Web-based Culture-General Assimilator method with critical incidents proved its effectiveness in the present training experiment, when considering the development of the cognitive component of intercultural competence in particular. According to the students’ self-assessment, their intercultural adjustment and interaction skills also developed a little and their attitudes toward the foreign became a little more positive, in this order. To be able to state whether the students are really able to apply these skills and attitudes in practice, observation and interviews involving host nationals in the target culture(s) would be required. Blake et al. (1996: 172), however, point out that self-report data has been found to relate at least to successful intercultural adjustment.

To develop intercultural competence, hands-on experiences of other cultures are of major importance. If it is not possible to acquire these experiences on site, the importance of intercultural training, including simulations such as Culture Assimilators with critical incidents, as part of professional education is even more emphasized. This can be called internationalization at home.


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Journal of Intercultural Communication, ISSN 1404-1634, 2004, issue 7.
Editor: Prof. Jens Allwood