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View some Global eLearning programs

Ericsson’s Online Learning program

UNDP Electronic Platform for Learning

Resources to help you span the globe

Lionbridge Technologies

Visit the Global Business Web Portal

CIO’s Globalization Research Center

Articles on localization and globalization

Web Site Globalization: The Next Imperative for the Internet 2.0 Era. IDC. Report can be downloaded from the eTranslate website

Say it again with Feeling A. Welner in Fast Company Sept 2000.

A small world: eTranslate helps GE with nuances of going global P. Musich, eWEEK 8/12/00

Gaining On Trust: Trust in the Wired Americas. Cheskin Research, 07/00

Global Handmaidens At Your Service E. Abreu, The Industry Standard 2/28/00



Outside London in 1995, I delivered a series of TCP/IP and Internet basics workshops to IBM’s senior level staff from around the world to help prepare them for the coming eRevolution. Managers came from as far as Russia and Egypt, each with a special set of concerns and opportunities from their countries and business practices.

By now we’d assume these classes would be delivered online. Why not? What better way to learn about the Internet than by using the Internet?

Five years later, however, the reality is that elearning across national boundaries doesn’t always work as smoothly as we’d like; good programs are hard to find. Issues range from expectations to privacy and our old friend time. Remembering my days in that London classroom, I’ve taken a close look at the issues all companies face when they consider moving content online to reach a global audience.

But, before digging into the issues and their implications, I want to touch on the compelling reasons to settle these issues:

1. According to IDC, in a new study on globalization: the percentage of American users will drop from one-half to one-third in the next 3 years as global use increases; 92% of the world doesn’t speak English; 43% of today’s Web users are non-English speaking; and over the next few years, Internet use is expected to grow by 79% in Asia, 123% in Latin America, and over 2000% in Japan.

Specifically on the learning-front (when everything works) this means:

2. One e-savvy education department may be able to support people all over the world.

3. Educational programs can be offered just in time, no matter the time.

4. No need for those classrooms, right? Wrong, but at least, you may need fewer.

5. You are likely to save some travel costs (either from flying a trainer in or flying students to another location).

6. Students may have access to a far wider set of programs than your trainer(s) can deliver.

Compelling reasons aside, elearning is still at an early stage of development. More is unknown than known. Working through all the details remains difficult and problems only escalate when spread across miles, languages, and cultures. Privacy, costs, language, localization, culture, learning, and technology are all daunting, but critical factors when going global. Many businesses forego worldwide reach because of these issues.

Providing education across the globe is no easier. I hope that the issues raised here will help you and your organization (be it an internal department of a multi-national, beginning to offer programs across the globe, or a training vendor thinking... “Let’s go to China next!”). These are just some of the critical factors you’ll need to consider before you make your move.


Do you know when and where keeping records on learning blurs the legal line? Eilif Trondson, Director of the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) Learning on Demand program has spent much of the last 20 years working with organizations all over the world wrestling with learning and technology. Trondson points out that the Internet may give a boundary-less sense, but politics exist even in cyberspace. “Although there are efforts underway to deal with privacy and get some uniformity within the European Union, a quagmire can occur from many situations such as, differing legislation from country to country and even within countries with local authorities who disagree.”

Despite the overwhelming pressure around ecommerce, research indicates fewer than 15% of people using the Internet have ever knowingly put their credit card or personal information online. Some argue that the remaining 85% don’t realize their information is available online if someone is looking for it today, Peoplemany peopleare still very concerned about their privacy online. This partly reflects an attitude that anarchy pervades the web. A recent Cheskin Research study reports that many people believe there are essentially no rules for the way information is managed and protected across cyberspace. In the absence of rules, people feel a heightened sense of risk when engaging in transactions. The same holds true for learners.

When a company misuses your credit cards, you might be out $50* and the time to clear up the matter. But, if your employer discovers you’re short two credits to actually graduate or that you failed the quiz on your company’s core product; you might be out of a job. Many employers don’t even alert employees that they track this information.

Trondson reminds us about the power of organizations built to protect the rights of their members. “In general, privacy is a considerable concern. One of the key reasons for this concern in Europe is the strong role of the unions. The unions are very apprehensive about accessible data such as when someone has taken an assessment or test. Now that it’s possible [with Learning Management Systems] to examine these individual results, they are even more concerned.”

After spending the last decade living, working, and consulting in countries outside the U.S., Kellee K. Sikes, head of Pioneer Technologies LLC, recalls some client’ learning snafus. “Depending on the country you work in, the laws of the land can be demanding. A global elearning client found the German laws prohibitive to maintaining detailed records on employee’s competency based on training exercises. In France, to receive desired government subsidies, another client found themselves under a mountain of required paper work detailing each employee’s training plan.”

Data stored in learning management systems can include everything from benign resume information and classes you’ve attended to test scores and comparisons with your coworkers on attitude, aptitude, and competencies. No one should treat this information lightly, but I have yet to see instructions to managers requesting they treat this information with the same sensitivity as salary or performance data. Have you added that to your management training yet?

Implications? Look at the differences between privacy legislation and regulations (and talk to any affected union representatives) before tracking employee’s competency and performance data. The human resources department in the countries you are working in should be aware of the “legs and regs,” as well as the overall climate for tracking this information. Just because learning management systems seem the efficient route in the U.S., they might be far from effective in other countries.

Who pays?

Do you know where the money for elearning can come from? Historically, in most European, African, Middle Eastern, and Asian countries, the state provided education indirectly through tax dollars. Companies in these regions find it hard to accept the increased responsibility and costs associated with the evolving elearning programs.

In many countries, there is a “different set of expectations around who pays, which will involve quite a shift. It will also probably take a bit of time before recognizing that, ‘Hey, this is my responsibility to pay for and it’s not something that will just be given to me,’” points out Trondson. “The idea of going out and buying elearning modules over the Internet could be a much more difficult proposition in Europe [and some other regions] than what we’ll see in the United States.”

Tomás Heguy, Vice President of eTraining for Intermanagers, an executive-level content provider in Latin America, shared a contrasting view. “That’s not the case in Latin America because the state has not been very efficient. There’s corruption, lack of resources, and our public services are not very good. Education is far from ideal so people don’t assume that you can receive good education for free.” Businesses, he asserts, are very willing to pay for good, branded content, from recognized authors and gurus. Just don’t expect them to pay for materials where they can’t see the immediate value to their employees.

To blur the line even further, the British government is considering setting up an e-university. If they go ahead with plans, it would be a global initiative, offering elearning beyond the U.K. Government involvement, at this level, brings up even more thorny issues.

Are private companies prepared to run into government initiatives or private/public initiatives where there’s a fair bit of public money involved? And whose money is funding this? The public monies of one country are potentially in competition with the private work of others. Are you ready?

Implications? If you envision selling elearning programs into some countries, you may be surprised to find shrewd business men and women wondering why they would want to spend money on your program when education is something they expect to be provided by the government for free. In other countries, you might be talking with the wrong group; it’s the employee with the purchasing power. And in other countries, without solid business results, or brand name recognition, there’s no point in trying to sell anything at all.


Can you speak the languages of global elearning? Language is often the first issue people think of when looking at offering their programs to another country. Ironically, though, language is often the last issue actually addressed. That’s too bad because it’s the overriding issue affecting impression and receptivity.

“People may speak English [in Latin America], but when you have to do everything in English, the challenge is much more daunting. And if you’re going to introduce something that is somewhat of a stretchlike elearningwhich is a different way of learning for people who are used to more human interaction, you better make it easy or as easy as possible,” notes Heguy. “We are developing everything in both Portuguese and Spanish because people are much more comfortable in the local language. Over the Internet, language is a clear differentiator.”

Translation has certain cost implications and when you don’t know how many people who speak a certain language will be using your product, it’s hard to justify the cost. How can you meet the learner’s needs and still keep the programs from being incredibly expensive? Companies have to decide whether they can afford the upfront cost and who will pay it.

Companies who translate are often shocked by the estimated costlet alone the reminder of ongoing translation to coincide with updates and improvements along the way. The shock dissipates though, when they consider the cost of first training in English and then retraining in the local language because the English training didn’t take.

Talk with someone who has translated a software product (or even an instruction manual) into another language to get a realistic picture of the challenges. Not only are there vocabularies the translator might not know, but they also must adapt sentence structure, significance, and colloquialisms to convey equivalent meaning. One translator compared translating a training program to translating poetry. You have to capture both the direct message and word-transcending nuances one-for-one.

Implications? The single strongest held belief around elearning is that it will save companies moneynot force companies to spend more! As a result, many companies try to hold off on translation investments for as long as possible, until they see how they will provide a return. Be cautious, however, with that plan. For people to use elearning programs and share their wonderful experiences with others, you need to meet learners’ needs so they are comfortable with and willingeven interestedin trying and working through the programs again and again. That often means creating programs in the local language whenever possible.


Once you’ve covered language, what about the rest of translation? To further complicate the translation process, some languages have a number of distinct dialects. Spend time in Australia and you’ll discover English words can take on very different meanings than those in my hometown in the American Midwest. Localization refers to the process of preparing written words in software or documents for a very specific target language, or dialect, and its culture.

Trondson, a Norwegian, says he sees language issues come up between two countries most people think are very similar: Norway and Sweden. “A Norwegian friend of mine looked at some learning materials from Sweden and felt so uncomfortable with them he couldn’t use them.” If that’s the case between two counties with similar cultures and language, how must it be between other countries that have even less in common?

How far do you go to address local, regional, or national differences within a language? And it’s not just the language, but knowing the culture and mores, the usage and tone. This is not just a rehashing of common personalization and customization themes you see on the web or even those of learning styles and language. Localization addresses how people look at the world.

Several companies have begun to specialize in localization alone. They localize both regular software or elearning programs to be better accepted in different countries and within parts of countries by different types of learners and within different cultures.

Pam Booker, Director of Strategic Alliances at Lionbridge Technologies, a well-respected localization company, warns, however, “The Internet makes [companies] instantly global, but not multilingual. Language is the most significant barrier in the online international marketplace.” Lionbridge localizes customer products in two ways: in readying code for double-byte language translation (for languages such as Japanese), and in translating content so that it makes linguistic sense. Not surprisingly, they find that most companies just look for localization at the tail end of a project instead of considering it in their design.

Implications? There’s more to going local than the translation of language. Localization helps people feel the material is written for them. If you don’t have expertise in local cultural and language differences, consider partnering with a firm that specializes in localization... but do that early on, not when you’re ready to roll out your program. You’ll need to localize some content, adapt other content to the audience, and create unique local content along the way.


Do you know how to culture your elearning? Culture is defined as the totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought. These can be from a particular period, class, community, region, or population and particular to a category, such as a field, subject, or mode of expression.

Much of our perception of education (category) comes from our elementary education years (particular period), which likely varied widely through the world (as a result of class, community, population, and region).

For instance, those who grew up without any exposure to technology rely more on personal interaction. For some, it can be quite stressful to get used to doing everything online when they are accustomed to learning from people they can see and hear.

Heguy reports, “Interaction will be an ongoing issue in Latin American. We have to overcome [our customer’s] fear over responsiveness and having a teacher available. There will have to be education on those issues for elearning to be successful.”

In Asia, school often entails sitting quietly in a classroom while the teacher offers gems of wisdom. “You won’t find any interactive, energized classrooms in Japan,” points out, Beth Scofield, LiNE Zine managing editor who taught English as a second language in Japan for several years. To make the differences painfully clear, she tells the story of delivering a lecture to several hundred businesspeople in Japanese, accidentally substituting the word carrot for people throughout the speech. “No one snickered or gave me any indication I’d made such a horrible faux pas. That wouldn’t be the case here. At the end of the talk, when I realized I’d made the mistake, I apologized (and the crowd laughed with me) but until they saw I had realized my error their etiquette kept them quiet and still.”

In other parts of Asia, the idea of an entirely online classroom hasn’t caught on either, but in a culture of quiet, students may feel completely unequipped to answer questions in front of their peers. In contrast, online learners can contribute to forums, chats, and virtual whiteboards in an anonymous way. eLearning can provide a more collaborative, interactive environment than a classroom.

Culture plays a role in topic choice and appropriateness, too. For instance, Alex Goldhagen, Executive Officer with Australian-based Advanced Strategic Technologies points out that, “While the business landscape differs only somewhat in Australia, the mental and emotional drivers of the people who work here are strikingly different from those in the US. Our clients and employees would not immediately understand the need for courses on racial integration or acceptance, drug abuse, equal opportunity or office politics.” Instead, Goldhagen he says, “there is a recognised need for education programs that help our people and organisations compete in the global market. Many Australian businesspeople feel a certain degree of inferiority to other western nations, particularly the U.S. And, since much of the market-leading technology is developed in the States, this need to keep up is exacerbated still further.”

And style? “If something has too American of a style, very ‘touchy feely,’ too personal, or even sentimental, people may mock it [in Latin America],” cautions Heguy. “There is a latent bias against the U.S. culture where the economy is efficient and you don’t have to worry about making the telephones work or about public services that cost a fortune.”

While living in Eastern Africa, I learned first hand that a society with very few resources and little ability to change their situation focuses on areas that other countries might not even notice. When needs are basic, you worry about small things.

Dave Grebow, President of the Readiness Company and an experienced worldwide training manager points out every culture does not consider elearning a desirable way to learn. “Learning on your own is not an acceptable practice all over the world nor is it viewed as the best way to learn. Sending an employee to class is a perk, a way that your manager said you were doing a good job and were ready to move on and learn at the company’s expense with an instructor in a class of your peers. eLearning can be viewed as a way of losing face or not being in the same league as those who went to instructor-led programs. In other cultures, though, it might be the key to success for both an employer and the culture itself. For example, with the use of elearning and telecommuting, companies can began to employ Native Americans who are preserving their culture by living on isolated reservations with other members of their tribe.”

Also, humor is often local. Despite the fact that TV shows like “The Nannie” can survive in foreign markets longer than they do in the U.S. what’s funny to one culture won’t likely elicit the same result in another. You have to pay attention.

Implications? Language and localization may reach your bottom line fast, but ignore culture and you’ll sink from the weight of the world. Since you face a large enough challenge asking people to attempt something new, try your hardest not to offend them along the way. Unless you’re creating different material in each culture, keep your stories, analogies, metaphors, humor, and even design as neutral as possible.

Time for Learning

Do you know what it means to make time for elearning? People around the world are sensitive to learning business-related matters on their own time and being asked to learn more on top of already-packed workloads. The issues may be different in various parts of the globe, but they all lead to the same concern. The line between working and personal time has blurred forever.

Gunnar Brückner, with the Learning Resources Centre at the United Nation’s Development Programme (UNDP), has created an Electronic Platform for Learning in-house with tools and Knowledge Navigator’s MyLearningPlace that rival any platform I’ve seen in flexibility and reach. But even given his platform’s power, Brückner lists time as the number one concern of his internal customers, UNDP employees around the world. He points out that, “People are overwhelmed with their day-to-day work tasks and believe they don’t have time to start something new even if it’s at their fingertips. It’s not automatically clear to everyone that accessing and using the electronic platform actually saves time.’

“This is where our learning managers and the people that we train in each country office come in. These are real people in each country being trained as learning coaches. They take on the message. If push comes to shove, they can talk to people and say, ‘Sit back and relax. Nobody is going to squeeze you any more. This is good for you, so let’s try to check it out.’ That wouldn’t be possible if we only had an electronic platform.”

From Argentina, Heguy offered a similar experience with his company’s new elearning programs. “People use it a lot at work: they stay for one more hour or they arrive one hour sooner than they did. They can work at home, but when they get home, they have the family. They also have to pay for the line or if your company provides a line, they tie up a line. If they pay, it’s not a flat fee. Family is very important here so this is not just about technology.”

Likewise, Europeans are also quite apprehensive about when they will find the time to learn in the workplace and whether their companies are going to assume they’ll go through most of the training at home. Remember the unions mentioned earlier? Think they aren’t concerned about people taking work home?

Remembering some European experiences, Sikes shares a common struggle for workforce training. “Asking people to work on their own time can be against the law. If the law says the workweek is 35 hours then it is 35 hours, period. In many parts of Europe, if you want the training done, you have to fit it in during the workweek or be willing to deal with consequences that can include paying over time or fines.”

Implications? We are all short of time and the blurring of the boundary between work and leisure is a fact. People are taking work home, including what they need to learn, whether they want to or not. This is something employees everywhere progressively face. To overcome the objections of harried employees, address time head on. Answer how long your program will take, how it can be completed within the workday, and break programs down into modules that can be completed one at a time between other activities. Recognize that different cultures have different expectations and beliefsmake an effort to learn the time values they live by.

Technology (Hardware and Bandwidth)

Do you have the technology for elearning? Earlier this summer, the elearning department at a worldwide accounting firm learned that the accountants in some other countries weren’t using spreadsheets to tabulate accounts. In Malaysia and Thailand, for instance, computers would have cost three or four times a worker’s annual salary. It was more cost-effective to hire people to manually balance the books. While this department assumed their global coworkers had access to computers, that was far from the case.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, several multinational companies have given all of their employee’s computers for home and personal use just to get them familiar with the technology. Nothing is consistent when it comes to technology around the globe.

Brückner may have one of the most daunting challenges. “The world is very complex and has many hot spots. UNDP is in all of these hot spots. Picture a person in Eritrea, Somalia, or Myanmar trying to learn online? They simply don’t have the access they need to use the system in its best way. But if it’s not provided for them, they are ticked off. If I promised you can take an online course and your connection is 9,600 baud, you’d be very frustrated, too. Technically, we’re between extremely good and extremely bad connectivity, so we try to replicate at least parts of our environment and send it out on CD-ROM to the country office so it can be installed locally. That’s obviously not possible with the offerings that require active online participation, but at least it works for our database driven content.”

While 56 kbps and browser equivalent to Internet Explorer 5 has become the lower-common denominator in the U.S. 26 kbps is considered speedy in many countries: IE or Netscape 3.0 on a 486 machine is the norm.

Brückner adds, “Our hypothesis is that bandwidth and hardware problems will go away so we cannot hold ourselves back just because a few countries still have them. Too many of the countries have infrastructure problems because management has not made it the number one priority. First they often have to overcome technophobia to be willing to try [the electronic platform] and find one offering that really helps no matter its performance.”

While bandwidth in some counties holds programs back, Trondson offers a different angle. “If Sweden meets its goal of having broadband to all the households by the end of next year, that introduces some very interesting possibilities for testing out broadband-based elearning and seeing what people like and don’t like once they can get anything fast. It’s important for elearning companies to think about where they should experiment and set up test beds for elearning.” Sweden would be ideal. So would Singapore with its nationwide broadband infrastructure, Singapore ONE.

Other technologies have wider adoption in other countries that would prove well suited for trials. When I ask companies for their mLearning strategies, I’m greeted by blank stares or excuses that mobile devices are not popular enough yet to develop a strategy. While handheld or mobile devices may not yet be ubiquitous in the U.S., they are in Japan and many Nordic countries. The Japanese have long been interested in experimenting and testing out hardware devices. Why not try out new programs there in anticipation of the coming boom in other regions?

Implications? Technical infrastructure and hardware pose conflicting challenges. Based on the part of the world you are targeting, you’ll need to make different considerations. Just don’t assume that the U.S. is ahead of everyone else. Take the opportunity to identify if the countries you are targeting offer you opportunities for testing and trying new delivery platforms or ways to work with very low bandwidth. Be at least as resourceful as you learners have to be.


Trondson concluded my interview with him by saying, “There are lots of culturally different ways of learning, where you combine some of these different elements to make the whole thing more interesting, particularly for a given audience, a given age bracket, a given cultural or ethnic background. I think we have a hell of a long way to go but I’m kind of optimistic. Enough innovative people out there can see they can make a buck on this if they do it right. I hope they will. We’re just in the beginning. Two, three, four years from now we’ll see some very interesting things that will be much more effective in terms of providing learning that is meaningful and can, in fact, have an impact on performance.”

No doubt elearning across the globe introduces more variables and more potential problems than targeting your content and message to a local audience you know well. You will need to pay even more attention to testing, quality control, and creating a user-centered design. But if you’re willing (or required) to make the adjustment, your return can be of proportions never seen before in the education field. I await your success and your stories.

* Many credit card companies only hold the customer responsible for the first $50 of unauthorized use.

Marcia Conner is CEO of the Learnativity Alliance and Editor-in-Chief of LiNE Zine. Armed with an undergrad degree in International Relations, she intended to go into Third World Politics and is not quite sure how she landed here. Along the way, she’s lived and worked in 10 counties, across 3 continents. Too bad she hasn’t found a reason yet to brush up on those Swahili skills. Write to her (preferably in English) at or visit her on the web at




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