By Amy Sitze

When John Dees began developing computer-based training (CBT) for an oil company, he faced all the usual challenges. The students, who had to learn a new software program, had varying levels of access to training. The technology available to them ranged from painfully slow modems to zippy T1 lines. And the company needed a training developer who understood both computer software and oil field terminology—a tough combination to find.

But that wasn’t the least of it. The oil company happened to be located in Venezuela, and had just rolled out an English-language software program that was tough for Spanish-speaking employees to grasp. Because the employees were spread across several sites—some were even on oil ships—instructor-led training was close to impossible. So the company called on Houston-based Kitba Consulting Services, Inc., where Dees is a technology advisor, to provide both CBT and Web-based training (WBT) for thousands of Venezuelan employees.

“We did a lot of homework up front on this project, and we were still faced with surprises,” Dees said. “It’s the proverbial Pandora’s box, where you don’t really know what you’re getting into until you’ve opened the box.”
This article originally appeared in the February 2000 issue of Inside Technology Training and appears on TechRepublic under a special arrangement with the publisher.

Training around the globe
As national boundaries continue to blur in today’s global marketplace, more and more companies are opening the Pandora’s box of international training. For many of them, technology-delivered training is the quickest and most inexpensive way to reach large numbers of employees spread across the world.

However, anyone who has translated or developed CBT in other languages warns that the process is far from easy. It means months of research and preparation. It takes in-depth knowledge of the cultural issues in the target country and an understanding of the technology that’s available. And it requires flexibility, creativity, and a willingness to look past the old ways of delivering training.

Budget lots of translation time
The most obvious issue in a training translation project is the language itself. There are software programs that can help with the basic translation, but experts say that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

“People who don’t have a specific background in translation don’t realize how complex it is,” said Laura Tomassi, project coordinator for Wilson Learning Corp.’s e-Learning Division in Emeryville, CA. “It’s not just taking a script and putting it into a new language. It takes a lot of editing and proofreading and adapting.”

Tomassi is part of a team that recently developed a CD-ROM training program for the carmaker Fiat in Italy. The CBT teaches technical information and sales skills to about 10,000 salespeople who are selling Fiat’s new Punto in at least 10 different countries.

Kristina Nemeth, project manager for the Fiat training, recommends overestimating the translation time by 50 percent or more. In her project, the script went back and forth between the development team and the translator numerous times, making the process more time-consuming than expected.

Finding a common standard is crucial
To further complicate the translation process, some countries have a number of distinct dialects. The Spanish spoken in northern Spain is different than what’s spoken in the South, for example, and Mexican and Latin American Spanish are entirely different animals. But how far should you go in addressing regional or national differences within a language?

“Usually there’s one core or default that’s accepted by everyone,” said Wendy Collins, director of design and development at the Princeton, NJ, office of Raymond Karsan Associates. “You have to hit the middle ground and find the version that’s going to work with the most people.”

Of course, that’s not as easy with technology-based training as it is in the classroom. A stand-up instructor has some room for error, said Ian Frid, project manager for IBM’s PC Institute, which trains Big Blue’s sales, technical, and service professionals. Frid is part of a team that recently translated a WBT course on SCSI subsystems into French, Italian, German, and Spanish.

“It’s easy to stand up in a classroom and fire off colloquialisms and analogies,” he said. “You can tell by the audience’s reaction if you said something that didn’t come through. On the Web, you have to make those adjustments from the word go.”

Managing culture shock
Of course, good training involves more than just text translation. And as soon as you start adding more interactivity and personalization to your course, you’re bound to run into cultural issues.

Even something as simple as a color choice can make the difference between training that flops and training that flies. When developing CBT for the Venezuelan oil company, for example, Dees and his team had to be careful about the color schemes they used for incorrect answers.

“We had to tone down the colors for feedback to make sure it didn’t come across as an affront,” he said.

Dees also had to tweak the Help function in his training. The course initially included a 20-page tutorial to help users navigate the CBT. In Kitba Consulting’s experience, U.S. users generally appreciate having a tutorial as a backup, even if they choose to dive into the course without using it first. Not so in Venezuela. The client requested that Dees condense the Help menu into one page, because Venezuelan users didn’t want their coworkers to walk by and see them using a tutorial.

Keep examples neutral
One way around cultural issues, said Collins, is to keep your analogies and metaphors as neutral as possible. That’s especially true if you don’t have the budget to create a new training program for each country. “Something that plays to the U.S. Star Wars generation might not play to a European audience,” Collins said. “You sometimes sacrifice the creative metaphor to make sure it’s sensitive to multiple cultures. I don’t think that’s a bad thing — I think it’s a trade-off.”

In some cultures, said IBM’s Frid, the use of WBT encourages entirely new ways of learning. His team used its WBT course as a prerequisite for classroom training on SCSI subsystems. The idea was to impart basic technical knowledge through the WBT, and then use classroom training for hands-on practice and experimentation.

An unexpected benefit of the WBT, Frid said, was that the social pressure that inhibits classroom training in some cultures disappeared on the Web.

“Especially in Scandinavian countries, we found that people are not as willing to debate and discuss and disagree in the classroom because of peer pressure,” he said. “The Web allows people to experience the training without that pressure. Generally, when people in those cultures hit the classroom portion after doing the WBT, they’re a little more open and willing to question.”

Technology is always a variable
One of the most challenging parts of delivering CBT or WBT to multiple countries is the technology itself. Frid’s team started its design with a modem speed requirement of 56 Kbps but quickly realized that 26 Kbps is considered speedy in many countries. In Venezuela, Dees had to develop the training for a lowest common denominator of Explorer 3.0 and Netscape 3.0 on a 486 machine.

Even if you’re dealing with a fairly high-tech audience, international training introduces more variables and more potential problems. That means additional testing and quality control, said Raymond Karsan’s Collins, who has worked on several CBT translation projects.

“It’s not even necessarily because it’s a different culture,” she said. “It’s just more people carrying more laptops and working on more PCs, which introduces more complexity.”

She advises doing your homework at the beginning of the project to determine what types of access and technology your users have.

Balancing possibilities and realities
In many cases, choosing the right technology is a matter of compromise. Collins once worked on a CD-ROM training program that contained about 40 minutes of full-screen, full-motion, interactive video. When it came time to translate the training into multiple languages, Collin’s client, a major defense contractor, chose to run closed captioning under the video instead of going through the extra time and expense of dubbing voice-overs. In the trade-off between aesthetics and dollars, cost was the driving factor.

Frid and his colleague Qamar Hasan, who is IBM’s PC Institute manager in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, found a compromise for their course, too. They didn’t like the typical text-based page-turner approach of most WBT, but they ran into bandwidth issues as soon as they tried to add interactive video and audio. So they developed a Web-delivered course for countries with easy Internet access and modified it for classroom or CD-ROM delivery.

“Full streaming video with lots of interaction is not where the Web is at for the world at the moment,” Frid said. “We had to come up with a happy medium.”

The result was better than Frid and Hasan expected. The Web-based course received a student satisfaction rating of 81 percent in the United States and 92 percent in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. And Hasan said the number of classes the PC Institute delivers through nonclassroom methods has risen from three courses in 1998 to more than 20 in 1999.

Frid said the biggest key to any CBT or WBT translation project is keeping an open mind.

Always something new to learn
“We’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way, and it hasn’t been easy,” he said. “Our cost and scheduling estimates are getting better every day, but we still have a lot to do and a lot to learn.”

Amy Sitze is editor of Inside Technology Training.

Have you ever had to translate something into a foreign language? Check back next week for the next translation installment in this series, and in the meantime, send us your experiences with translating classroom presentations or CBTs into another language. How important will this be in the future? Send us your ideas.