Cross-cultural learning is now essential for work and life

After World War II, but more so since the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, higher education internationalists have touted the importance of cross-cultural learning and understanding (CCLU) as a response to globalisation and in the interests of mutual understanding, peace and cooperation.

While politely acknowledged during this period as a component of 20th century education, CCLU (then referred to as inter-cultural communication) was rarely given space beyond the rhetoric and a small number of courses focused on a few students. It was something nice to do or advocate, but not essential if measured via its scarcity in curricula and the relatively small number of students who were significantly involved.

This has since changed somewhat. Institutional rhetoric about the importance of CCLU (and multiculturalism) is pervasive. It is typically referenced in institutional mission statements, research claiming to better define CCLU and its outcomes is more frequent and CCLU is incorporated into a somewhat wider array of coursework.

More needs to be done to mainstream CCLU broadly into curricula, especially in student active learning experiences. And, more precise and valid research on CCLU’s operational meanings and outcomes is needed.

However, the big challenge for 21st century CCLU is to move it beyond the halls of academe to the lives and work settings of graduates. For CCLU to have impact beyond formal education settings, it needs to be exported as essential knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) for work and life.

This is a challenge that is only partially recognised and addressed by a few organisations, such as Expertise in Labour Mobility based in the Netherlands, which work to link labour market needs to building positive CCLU workplace environments. In a 21st century global labour market, such efforts need to become the rule and not the exception.

‘What’ and ‘how’ skills

Several years ago, the United States Office of Personnel Management conducted research about core employee KSAs (knowledge, skills and abilities).

They concluded that there are two dimensions to the ‘qualified’ employee: (1) ‘What’, which is needed in technical job-specific KSAs; and (2) a set of ‘how’ KSAs for workplace effectiveness (for example, interpersonal skills and sensitivity, environmental awareness, empathy, flexibility, listening and speaking, diversity in perspective, self-knowledge, awareness of impact on others, negotiation skills and comfort with differences).

While the ‘how’ KSAs are essential for a multicultural global labour environment, employers are often complicit in ignoring or discounting them in favour of the ‘what’ ones in hiring decisions. According to Rutgers University’s employment centre research, employers are risk averse in their hiring practices.

Seeking precisely trained and experienced candidates who will be able to step into today’s jobs with little or no added training (plug and play) is shortsighted. It ignores the inability of formal education systems to produce the ‘perfectly’ knowledgeable and skilled job candidate for contemporary and evolving needs.

It ignores the role that CCLU can play in filling KSA needs gaps in a timely fashion and it also ignores the potential long-range pay-off of employees who have companion ‘how’ and CCLU skills that support their contributions to ongoing knowledge and practice updating in the work setting.

Among the most powerful change, learning and growth catalysts is having to interact with people, especially people who are different. The skill of seeking, discovering, understanding, learning and incorporating differences is essential in a global 21st-century work environment because of several new and emergent factors.

Cross-cultural and interpersonal skills in the workplace and in ordinary life are change facilitators for constant learning. As work and life team memberships typically undergo frequent change, opportunities for learning new ideas and applications increase with the new blood of changing group members. This makes learning new knowledge and skills less dependent on direct contact with formal education systems.

What makes CCLU essential?

Four factors combine to turn CCLU in work settings from nice to essential and to make them a vital supplement to formal learning institutions. The impact of these factors was less easily seen a few years ago. But now they combine to make CCLU in work and life essential.

• Higher education internationalisation hasn’t gone away and won’t, but rather is morphing and becoming more complex. The global spread of higher education capacity and quality in teaching and research multiplies the diversity of relevant cultural settings, perspectives and global players for discovering cutting-edge knowledge and the best talent. Higher education, lifelong learning and work must continuously cross borders and cultures to access the best in ideas and talent.

There are ongoing shifts in dominant global cultures and their relevance such that CCLU needs continuous refreshing. COVID and Zoom have played no small role in the expansion of virtual cross-border learning.

Bottom line: There is more internationalisation, not less, and it is more globally diverse with complex interactions in life and work, even on the shop floor in a small town in the middle of nowhere.

• The World Economic Forum currently puts the half-life of learned KSAs at under five years on average and shrinking – more so in emergent fields. What we have learned is superseded or becomes irrelevant by the quickening speed of change in cutting-edge ideas and talent.

This places a premium on how fast one can learn or use something new and discount the old ways we live and work. Even more problematic, we have barely begun to comprehend the full ramifications of artificial intelligence (AI), except that it is highly likely that AI will increase the speed of change.

Bottom line: The need for knowledge and skill renewal is inexorably accelerating.

• Educational institutions are slow to revise curricula to keep pace with changing knowledge and skills needs. Using presently dominant pedagogies, the cycle time between design and the delivery of new knowledge and skill programmes and degrees to labour markets is far too long for the 21st century.

Bottom line: Traditional higher education is handicapped in the timely revision and delivery of new KSAs when it comes to curricular and course revisions for the rapidly changing 21st-century workplace and society.

New pedagogies may offer partial solutions. Micro-credentialing in its numerous forms, such as lifelong learning, building-block credentialing in stackable non-degree credentials, ‘re-skilling’ and certificates documenting KSAs, have emerged as a means in higher education to respond to labour market needs more flexibly, quickly and with greater focus. But even these take time from idea to delivery. They too are insufficient to meet the ‘hot and now’ real-time innovations needed in jobs.

Bottom line: Almost by definition, degrees and formal higher education programmes are insufficient to fill KSA labour market gaps.

• Knowledge discovery and learning have moved from the individual to groups, and now to international team models (this is especially obvious in emergent and technical fields), whether in virtual or face-to-face formats. The continuous learning that an international multicultural environment provides is a prime source of cutting-edge talent and ideas.

Bottom line: The growing reality of pervasive multicultural teams in work and life are the contemporary environments for accessing global pathways of knowledge and talent.

Selling CCLU

There are challenges to selling CCLU beyond those who are already its converts. CCLU must be sold on practical and documentable terms to the unconverted. Priorities for strengthening the impact of CCLU in work and life include the following at a minimum.

It is insufficient for education settings to introduce concepts and rationales for CCLU but provide little or no experience of working in multicultural teams and group settings.

The integrated use of international students on campus or local immigrant populations mixed with domestic students in problem-defining and problem-solving assignments can provide that experience.

Virtual classrooms teaming students from several national settings and institutions can also provide CCLU experiences.

One-shot experiences such as study abroad programmes provide a taste of CCLU but are also insufficient to provide in-depth learning and experience.

What is needed are multiple active learning opportunities (for example, field research activity, internships and practical experiences) that are integrated throughout curricula, expanding and reinforcing the kind of environment that will more closely match what happens in 21st-century work and living environments.

Assessments of learner CCLU skills and behaviours in such experiences should be routine companions. To be effective, CCLU cannot be a piecemeal, one-time add-on to learning (for example, the idea that you are all set because you have studied abroad). What is needed is CCLU integrated throughout curricula to eventually normalise its use for lifelong learning and adaptability.

CCLU needs to be delivered by frontline academic staff so that it stands the chance of being integrated into core institutional missions.

A director of education abroad championing CCLU is different from the frontline course faculty promoting it as a part of their instructional responsibilities. Embedded in this are large implications when it comes to training and educating faculty regarding CCLU.

Measuring the benefits

To move beyond espousing something that people may accept as nice but not essential, we need to devote more attention to research that documents and validly measures, in concrete terms, the desirable outcomes and impacts from CCLU in job settings. Assessment criteria need to be grounded in employer- and labour-market-defined terms.

Relatedly, more robust and timely feedback from employment sectors regarding emergent KSA needs as well as new KSAs developed in work settings can help reinforce the interactive and mutually supporting relationship between CCLU educators/trainers and the employment sector.

One potential benefit of employing those with CCLU experience is that the odds improve of the employee becoming a longer-term asset, overriding shrinking half-life challenges of cutting-edge knowledge and skills. How so? Intercultural and interpersonal skills facilitate continuous lifelong learning from others in multicultural life and work team settings and across global labour markets.

John K Hudzik is professor and vice-president emeritus at Michigan State University in the United States and past president of NAFSA: Association of International Educators and of the Association of International Education Administrators. He is a recipient of several internationalisation awards from associations in North America, Europe and Australia.