Engaging our diverse workforce in training is a challenge for all of us responsible for developing our people to be individually successful contributors and drive the mission of the organization. We balance the needs for cost-effectiveness and opportunity cost of the employees time with the long-term benefits of our learning and training programs. Online platforms in training evolved out of the need for this balance, but we sacrificed a captive audience for the benefits of scalability. As an educator and trainer, I spent many years, almost a decade, struggling to engage adult learners in blended classes, part online/part in person, or fully online courses to develop their business skills in particular subjects and the soft skills that employers expect.online training engagement

The group of your employees that can become most disengaged with online training have a similar profile to the students I worked hardest to engage – those with cultural backgrounds different than the U.S. mainstream.

Let’s look at 4 core areas of online training and how to design the learning for maximum participation.
  1. Offering ideas
  2. Healthy debate
  3. Feedback and coaching
  4. Meeting deadlines


Note! Although I’m focusing on different cultures in this post, keep in mind the adaptations create a more inviting and successful learning environment for all participants.

Adapt these 4 core areas of learning to support success.

1. Offering ideas

Different cultures, even introverts, and extroverts, approach the practice of volunteering ideas differently. Cultures with a higher emphasis on individualism like Australia and the U.S. tend to participate freely and quickly, sharing their opinions with minimal prompting. Cultures with greater power distance or hierarchy might defer their participation until after a superior, or the facilitator, has given their input.

To adapt: Consider using an approach online similar to round-robin participation in a classroom setting. Establish the expectation through course communication tools how turn-taking will happen. Will it be by the first initial of the last name? Will you assign names to a list? Either way, provide that list to participants. Once everyone has contributed, then contributions may take a less structured form.

online training participation

According to research referenced in the Harvard Business Review, this round robin method works to encourage participation across cultures. “Recent research on teams of Americans and East Asians shows that such tactics result in dramatically more even contributions: Instead of taking five times as many opportunities to speak and using nearly 10 times as many words as their Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or Taiwanese colleagues, Americans took just 50% more turns and spoke just 4% more words when an inclusive team leadership approached was used.”


2. Healthy Debate

It is possible to learn and practice critical thinking when training online – provided the learning design supports and encourages debate. At the heart of a debate is disagreement and comfort with public disagreement can differ between cultures. A good measure of how specific cultures might respond to public disagreement can be gauged with Hofstede’s measure of uncertainty avoidance. Employees from cultures with high uncertainty avoidance minimize conflict and confrontation. If your participants also show hesitance to offer ideas before authority figures, they may stick with generic, agreeable, discussion responses online. Other learners may simply feel a lack of confidence when expressing and supporting their positions on a topic.

To adapt: Create an online persona who plays devil’s advocate. Sometimes participants will hesitate to disagree with the instructor, trainer, or facilitator. I create a character and give them a name, let’s call her Mimi for now. I start out by letting the class know that Mimi will take some possibly extreme positions, but one’s I’ve heard from students historically. I encourage participants to agree or disagree with Mimi, and using support from the training material, back up their position. One of my favorite posts in my marketing classes is to state that Coke drinkers are smarter than Pepsi drinkers. That gets our discussion rolling!

3. Feedback and Coaching
As a professor I hated grading. I know it’s one way to let students know the level to which they have a command of their material and their ability to demonstrate it. However, I’d much prefer to give feedback and coach my students to greater outcomes. Some cultures view receiving feedback as an opportunity for growth and accept it publicly or privately. Other cultures, particularly some Asian cultures who put a high value on saving “face” and group harmony, can become offended and withdraw in the face of public criticism.

“Praise in public criticize in private.” ~Vince Lombardi

To adapt: Particularly in a learning environment I’m a fan of the adage by Lombardi that cautions us to “Praise in public and [coach] in private.” This method of coaching is highly adaptable to training audiences with a variety of cultures. I’m not suggesting all public comment be positive filler, a gold star for every student, kind of reinforcement. Instead, consider pointing out how a participant has been successful in their learning and how they can be even more successful with (xyz) changes. Privately, guide and coach participants to reinforce and clarify expectations or correct behaviors that could disrupt their peers’ learning.

4. Meeting deadlines

When I bring up a discussion of how to manage deadlines, I’m often left with blank stares from the trainers I coach. “How, ” they ask, “could a deadline be interpreted differently?” My answer revolves around the motivation to meet a deadline, not the date itself.

online training deadlines

Predominantly, U.S. participants and those from Western cultures are deadline driven. In our culture, missing a deadline can be interpreted as not caring or being incompetent. Not all cultures view time this way. Some cultures, many from Eastern cultures, are relationship driven. Deadlines are targets or guidelines that can change for relationship building.

To adapt: A deadline online is still a deadline. To adapt to the perspectives of your participants, consider how you communicate those deadlines and what they have to gain or lose by missing it. If you send a communication about the deadline, consider sending it earlier than you typically would. Then, you have time to send other messages. Reinforce the reason the deadline is there, who could ‘suffer’ if it’s not met, and how meeting the deadline supports the class as a whole. When you incorporate task and relationship messages in your deadline communications you will find a greater portion of your participants jumping in to get things done on time.

“Best” Practices Rely on Context
The bottom line in training, learning, and business is that best practices are based on a specific set of assumptions. When we begin to examine those assumptions, figure out adaptations that benefit our communities, and incorporate them in learning design – everyone wins.

What practices have you tried and found to improve participation in your online training communities? Please share in the comments and let’s learn together.


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