Training teachers to teach business culture

by Barry Tomalin and Dominique Vouillemin

Does business need culture? You bet it does. As business globalises at increasing speed, companies large and small are sourcing new supplies, seeking out new markets and new clients and engaging in JV’s (joint ventures) and mergers and acquisitions in countries from China to Kazakhstan. International research suggests that up to 70% of new international ventures fail or fail to reach full potential because the partners involved don’t take into account the cultural differences of the companies involved.

Does this affect teachers of business English and modern languages? Absolutely. The dominant international language of business is (still) English and likely to remain so.

In countries like the UK and the US they also need to develop modern language skills.

This is why IH London has become a hub for retailers expanding into continental Europe and further afield; a development that has benefited other IH World schools as well.

At IH London, we teach English and we teach modern languages. Also we train teachers to teach both on the CELTA and the Delta. We also train business English teachers on the CERT IBET course. So why not train teachers to teach business culture? That’s what we do on our 3-day intensive Business Cultural Trainers Certificate. (BCTC).

For business English teachers the BCTC is an important arrow in their armoury of training tools. It gives them and their schools something different that they can offer their business clients. It also gives them extra and new techniques they can offer their business English students in the classroom.

It’s also potentially a financial winner for schools. In Paris, for example, business English students at CEFR B2 level are learning Business Communication skills as well as improving their business English. These courses can be offered at management training day rates, which are way ahead of language training rates by student hour.

But teachers need to be trained to deliver it and increasing numbers of teachers and consultants are doing so. So what do they need to know?

Well, just as teachers learn the principles of teaching grammar, vocabulary and pron, and the arcane theories of Dogme and ELF, business cultural teachers need to know the key approaches of the ‘culture gurus’, Geert Hofstede, Fons Trompenaars, ET Hall and Richard Lewis and John Mole. On the first day of our 3-day intensive training programme, we summarise their ideas but more importantly we show them how to put them into practice with business critical incidents.

Critical incident methodology is a vital component in business cultural training. These are simple five or six line situations which illustrate a cultural issue that can arise in business. We present these situations and elicit solutions using the principles our ‘gurus’ have evolved.

Here’s one for you. A company is sending its supply chain manager to China to source components for the European business. He is experienced and speaks Chinese. Unfortunately, he has a problem. The Chinese director won’t meet him. Why not?

If you understand Hofstede’s concept of power distance the answer is simple. He isn’t senior enough. To meet the director and initiate the negotiation, his boss has to go too, at twice the cost and twice the time!

We teach teachers how to create their own critical incidents from theirs and other’s experiences and practise how to use them with a group. That’s our first day of the 3-day intensive.

Most business culture and communication training courses are one or two days long. It’s obvious that you can’t teach everything people know about a culture in one or two days so

we teach teachers in how to research a market, create a market cultural profile they can give to their students and where to go to find the information. Both creating market profiles and critical incidents are project activities which can also work in the business English classroom at B1 – C1 levels. One great advantage is that students feel they can use their business skills and experience in English.

However, all alumni of the BCTC programme agree that the jewel of the 3-day intensive course’s crown is the practice in designing and structuring a cultural training programme. We do three things. We give the teachers a fictional client and get them to have a go in groups at designing and presenting their own programme in a ‘pitch’ to the client (us). Then we help them understand how to structure a one or two day programme and what to put in each slot. Finally we demonstrate and practise what interactive activities they can do to elicit the cultural information. This is what we do on days 2 and 3 of the 3-day intensive.

As an example, it is very important when dealing with a new market to find out what you can about your client’s expectations. We use a technique we adapted from a US consultant, George Renwick, which we call ‘First impressions’. It’s simplicity itself. Find a partner and ask them three questions.

  • Tell me something that will make a good impression in your country
  • Tell me something that will make a bad impression in your country
  • Tell me a key national characteristic of your country

Obviously, not everybody is from a different country, although our groups are pretty international. But everybody has experience of another country, either through travel or work, and the activity always works well and generates some surprising answers. Chinese delegates often say their key characteristic and what they look for is sincerity. Romanians say hospitality.  Once again, this is a technique that works really well in international general and business English classes from B1 to C1.

So, in a nutshell, that is how we go about turning business English teachers into business cultural trainers. And the feedback shows it works. Delegates report an increase in confidence, acquisition of new techniques and skills and above all, the jewel, how to design and structure their own cultural training programmes. They also love the training tips and the new international friends and contacts they make on the course.

Oh, and one more thing, rare in this business. We also share our experience in marketing

business cultural training. What is your USP (Unique Sales Proposition) as a cultural trainer?

Where do you find your clients and what are the seven steps from contact to contract?

IH London designed the programme but we share it with other IH schools and have taught the course at IH Newcastle, IH Intuition Languages, IH Madrid, IH Milan and in Moscow, Riga, and Vilnius and even as far afield as Chennai in India. If you’re interested, try the techniques we’ve described in this article and get in touch. Remember the world’s exporters and directors trying to internationalise their operations need you.

Author’s Bio: Barry is Director of Cultural Training at IH London and Director of the Business Cultural Trainer’s Certificate.
He is Visiting Lecturer in Cultural Awareness and International Communication at the University of East Anglia, London Academy of Diplomacy and author of ‘The World’s Business Cultures and How to Unlock Them’ (Thorogood) and ‘Key Business Skills’ (Harper Collins).
He works with companies throughout Europe to help them optimise international communications.
You can reach Barry at or