Many people think of the United Kingdom as a nation of tea drinkers all speaking the Queen’s English. Be assured that, during the past 15 years as a talent development professional traveling extensively across the United Kingdom, I have had the absolute pleasure of working with a diverse range of learners, from individual contributors to board-level executives.
My experiences in working with British learners in both face-to-face and virtual environments have provided me with the opportunity to meet some amazing people from all corners of the British Isles. I remember quite a linguistic adventure in having British learners from a pharmaceutical company whose speech ranged from very thick dialects from Scotland (which, as a native of Aberdeen in Scotland, I was comfortable with) to heavy accents from Newcastle. The Irish lilt and the Queen’s English from London and the South can be a wonderful cocktail of accents for the traveling trainer.
Being Scottish has made the job of supporting British learners less challenging for me than maybe for those of you turning to this chapter to better understand the culture of the British learner. It is important to win trust and establish credibility as a trainer when meeting the British learner. Brits like to understand the expert they are learning from in the training session. I learned this while supporting clients in developing sales specialists, managers, and other training professionals in a wide range of subjects.
Of course, every country and culture appears to have its stereotypes or misconceptions. There are nuances and best ways to approach and work with learners from the United Kingdom. In this chapter, I will share experiences as well as many tips and best practices. The British are unique and independent (especially given recent events around Brexit and the Scottish referendum), yet they share some similarities with learners from other cultures. I am eager to provide you valuable insight into the world of the British learner.
People and Culture: Get to Know Your Audience
Britons are insular in nature, part of Europe but separate from it at the same time. They are hardworking, driven by deadlines, and divided by a centuries-old class system. They like their privacy but are also obsessed with celebrity culture and gossip. They are skeptical with a strong sense of irony (Brake 2017).
Most British people are relatively well traveled, with a strong awareness of world events. They are individualistic and nationalistic and can be pioneering and entrepreneurial. At the same time, Britons are still considered very polite and formal by the rest of the world and are driven by a strong sense of fair play (Brake 2017).
British society is also highly diverse, with many second- and third-generation immigrants forming sizeable chunks of the population and ethnic minorities developing a stronger voice. Due to the globalization of the workforce around the world, the learner audience in any training event is unlikely to be 100 percent from a single culture. Britain has benefited from a migrant workforce over the years, with the open borders initiative with the European Union (EU) allowing the free movement of people within the 28 EU states. There has been a compelling influence from other cultures on the British way of life that has made British trainees very multicultural in their experiences.
British English is a minefield of nuance and understatement for anybody not familiar with the culture. Indirect, ambiguous language (and humor) are often used to mask the speaker’s real feelings and intentions. The British prefer to avoid argument and confrontation, as this is often felt to be embarrassing. Politeness is paramount to the British, who use a lot of “please” and “thank you” in their language and will often apologize for disturbing someone before asking them a question. Humor (especially irony) is an acceptable way of defusing tension, building rapport, and expressing criticism. Inside jokes may be used to build group solidarity.
A street sign in Kent, England. British language (and humor) is often nuanced and understated.
Rather than say no directly to a request, they may become vague and suggest the possibility of acceptance, even if they have no intention of doing so (this is done so as not to cause insult). In a dialogue, people will wait for their turn to speak because it is not considered polite to interrupt. Too much silence will feel uncomfortable for most, as will excessive verbal expression or gesturing.
Britons have a healthy respect for deadlines. Once committed to one, most professionals would view a deadline as a promise to deliver and feel morally obliged to do so. Arriving on time for meetings will often depend on the attendees expected. If higher-ranking management is present, then timekeeping will be stricter. Project meetings without management present may start 10 to 20 minutes late, depending on the company culture. It is acceptable to use this time for refreshments and social chit-chat until most people have turned up.
Getting Started: Conduct a Needs Assessment
In the UK market, like many other markets, there’s pressure on organizations to align learning to business goals and requirements. There is a great emphasis on making learning support business growth, and as such, there is more scrutiny from senior stakeholders on ensuring that training creates return on investment for the company, rather than just providing training for training’s sake.
Here is some guidance on how to conduct a proper needs assessment in the United Kingdom:
• Discovery phase. Learning professionals need excellent investigative skills and persistence to work with client organizations. In many instances, training needs analysis is completed by the L&D contact within the customer’s organization, or they have a strong view that a specific training need exists and want to move quickly to the development of the training content or program. Remember, Brits do not like to be challenged. Proceed with caution.
• Stakeholder interviews and observing. Common methods of establishing training needs are based around exploration with various groups within the organization—these may be stakeholders within the business, focus groups, or learner groups. These groups tend to provide concrete examples of training needs and gaps upon which the learning architect can create the optimal learning journey.
• Assessment and evaluation. Many employees prefer to see concrete evidence as to where the skills gap is so that they can visualize what knowledge, skills, and competencies need to be developed. Profile tools like Myers-Briggs, StrengthsFinder, DiSC, and Firo-B are used in corporate Britain, where an output of current state is provided and gives insight into how the learner is doing as well as showing what changes may need to take place. The British learner enjoys and takes pride in having a good sense of where they are in their careers and learning.
The Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD), the recognized professional body for HR and people development in the United Kingdom, found the following key trends in its 2015 survey of learning and development. By heeding these trends when you’re conducting your needs assessment, you’ll be better equipped to deliver effective training.
First, in-house methods are most common. On-the-job training, in-house development programs, and coaching by line managers or peers remain the most popular development methods, in line with findings from previous years. In particular, three-quarters of organizations currently offer coaching or mentoring, and an additional 13 percent plan to offer it in the next year. Most expect to increase their use of coaching and other in-house methods.
Learning technologies are more common in larger organizations. They are more likely than smaller organizations to include e-learning courses and blended learning among their most common L&D practices and to anticipate growth in the use of various learning technologies.
Most L&D content is developed from scratch. There is considerable variation across organizations, but on average, about half of L&D content is developed by internal or external L&D practitioners, two-fifths through adapting or curating existing internal or external materials, and a tenth through user-generated content.
Itineraries: Plan the Learning Journey
Learning journeys in Britain are expected to be a lot more than a traditional “e-learning sandwich” (adding e-learning on either side of the learning event). The use of technology in learning is not new to the British learner. In fact, according to research conducted by Bersin by Deloitte (2016), the learning journey should consist of many different moving parts.
L&D professionals looking to provide a training solution in the United Kingdom must leverage more than traditional face-to-face training. It has become increasingly apparent in recent years that L&D practitioners are seeking equilibrium in training, attempting to reach employees in diverse, complementary ways.
While instructor-led training is still the primary L&D delivery method (32 percent of training hours), it has declined 45 percentage points since 2009, when it accounted for 77 percent. Online training accounts for just over a quarter of L&D delivery methods. And informal, continuous learning—especially experiential learning, on-the-job training, collaboration, and feedback—are becoming increasingly prevalent (Bersin by Deloitte 2016).
Research from Towards Maturity (2014) also indicates that half the L&D professionals it surveyed are using 16 different technology options to support learning, including e-learning, live online learning, learning management systems, and online assessments. This extends beyond face-to-face training, which accounts for around 56 percent of the learning journey, and into digital and virtual learning, with blended programs being offered more and more to the British learner (Towards Maturity 2016).
All that said, education in the United Kingdom still affects what training techniques are acceptable as best classroom practices. Consider these best practices from my experience:
• The British learner tends to favor more conventional teaching methods. They are naturally somewhat reserved in their view of more unconventional methods that trainers bring to add creativity and innovation to training. A good example would be that a British learner audience may not be too keen on stepping into creative sessions using paper clips, pipe cleaners, and rubber bands, because they may see the utilization of these items as being trivial or unimportant to training. There are always exceptions to the rule, but in the main, Britons expect their learning to be served up in conventional ways.
• The British learner is educated in the very traditional way, where an educator is leading the session with learners learning from and with the educator. Expect to be challenged by British learners—they are very comfortable with doing this. Learners do not mean to insult the educator’s expertise, but are simply trying to get a better understanding of the topic.
• It is good practice to support the line managers of the learner group in being able to hold a conversation and inquiry with the learners as they go through the learning journey. Provide managers checklists and tools that support the learner group in applying what they learn.
Most organizations conduct some form of evaluation or measurement of their L&D initiatives. Many organizations will use learner and customer satisfaction surveys. Few organizations that I have worked with have taken evaluation or measurement beyond Kirkpatrick Level 1 smile sheets.
That might be changing, however. Research from CIPD (2015) shows that “20% (of organizations) assess the behavior change of participants by evaluating the transfer of learning into the workplace. Evaluations are considerably more widespread and more in depth in organizations where L&D is aligned with business strategy and where the development of L&D capability is encouraged and enabled.”
Packing Lists: Logistics, Technology, and Resources
Few challenges will face the global trainer coming to the United Kingdom to deliver training. There are many airports, both international and national. The road links and public transport infrastructure provide excellent access between the main cities, with car rentals widely available. One word of caution, however, is to leave plenty of time for journeying around. Distances between cities may look relatively short, but the United Kingdom is a small island that is well populated. And remember, driving is on the left side!
Technology-wise, the United Kingdom is well served, with high-speed Internet access in most major cities and 3G or 4G cellular networks supporting roaming mobile phone service. The technology devices available to the traveling trainer vary from one facility to another—most hotels, conference rooms, and training venues will supply regular computer projectors or TVs to hook your laptop up to, either using the conventional multipin VGA or HDMI adapters.
Power sockets in the United Kingdom use a three-pin configuration, so bring a travel adapter, widely available at the airport and major shops. Some training venues can provide adapters if they support a diverse international traveler community.
British learners will expect the trainer to be fully prepared for the day, to be first in the room, and the last to leave. In preparing to train in the United Kingdom, here are a few more elements I suggest you consider:
• Itinerary. Lay out the itinerary and plan the time that it will take to travel between the airport and training venue. As stated earlier, the United Kingdom is very densely populated, and many cities have multiple suburbs to navigate before reaching city centers. Likewise, the training venue may be in a rural area (a trend in the United Kingdom is to have hotels and training venues placed in the countryside, which may limit travel options).
• Resource requests. Check ahead with the training venue to determine any special needs. The usual trainer toolkit of computer projector and TV, flipcharts, and refreshments are commonplace, but if there are specific requirements, do not assume that because it is usually available in your country it will also be available in the United Kingdom.
• Materials. It’s best to have all materials shipped to the training venue, or source a local printer early in the planning and have them shipped locally.
Largs, meaning “the slopes” in Scottish Gaelic, is a resort town in Scotland. Many UK training programs are hosted outside big cities.
Customs: Body Language Dos and Don’ts
Brits are unique in their body language. Here are some general tips:
• British learners are not tactile. They often display discomfort with perceivably intimate physical contact, such as hugging or back-slapping, in a formal situation. Unlike other European countries, there is no kissing on the cheeks to welcome people; a firm handshake will suffice.
• Personal space is also important; set up training rooms so that every learner has adequate room. Britons are very territorial about their personal space, whether it is their desk, their car, or their seat on the London Underground. Don’t stand too close to a British person when addressing them or put your hand on their arm to make a point, as they may shrink away feeling uncomfortable.
• Use gestures sparingly, and keep emotions in check. Observe British learners for a short while to see how much they do or do not emote before deciding whether it is just the culture that appears to be showing a lack of emotion, or whether they are not connecting with the training topic. If training British learners in a virtual environment, where personal space will be invisible, still be cognizant of potentially limited emotion.
• Putting your hands in your pocket while speaking is considered too laid back, and is regarded as rude.
Climate: Create a Warm Learning Environment
The British learner is typically very receptive to training and will engage very well with fellow learners and the trainer alike as they come together in a training event. They are naturally curious, and appreciate strong signposting of agendas and receiving a clear understanding of what they will be doing during the training.
While the language in the United Kingdom is English, like many countries, various regional accents and dialects may cause the traveling trainer to be somewhat challenged. However, as a nation, Britons are used to others asking them to repeat themselves several times because of not being understood at the first attempt. In the United Kingdom, there is much fun poked at individuals with different accents, and in general, it is taken well.
If a group of learners is coming together for the first time, there will be a natural curiosity among them of who else is in the program. Participants enjoy good introductory activities at the start of a session, such as interview and introduce your neighbor, or network and establish common interests or themes. However, if the group of learners knows one another, trainers can jump straight into the training without having to do detailed introductions.
Of course, part of the reason for doing introductions is for trainers to know more about their audience. To avoid the perception of an unnecessary introduction, be creative in establishing why the group should do them. For example, using a topic-opener activity, which includes a brief introduction, will work. My favorite is to use topic continuum knowledge lines: Draw a long line on a whiteboard. At one end of the continuum, write “little awareness of the subject.” At the other end, write “expert on the subject.” Have participants line up according to their understanding of the subject. Then ask them to introduce themselves and to explain their position or experience level. This exercise also identifies who may need more help and which participants may be able to assist others. Another quick idea is to use a pre-event questionnaire or survey.
Things to Consider: Handle Classroom Challenges
British learners won’t intentionally bring any unique challenges to the traveling trainer. However, common challenges may come from:
• Reluctant learners. These learners attend training because they are told to or because it is part of the standard development. I have found that this type of learner responds well to being asked to consider how they can use the information, rather than feeling they have no choice but to attend.
• Interruptive managers and colleagues. In today’s time-pressured business world, managers or colleagues of the learner often interrupt the learning event itself. It is not something, in my experience, that tends to be intentional or deliberate—more just the pace of business life and the demands on our time.
• Time. Be very clear in the time commitment involved in the training session. Provide clarity around stop and start times, breaks, and when learners can step away from training if needed.
• Technology in the classroom. This is more of a business challenge of the ever-connected learner, but be wary of learners using tablets or smartphones in the classroom unless they’re meant to as part of the course. Our ever-connected world means there are potentials for distraction and interruptions all through the day. British businesspeople are likely to have multiple devices, with phones provided by the company as well as their personal phone. Audiences are accustomed to being asked to switch devices off, but that may cause challenges with Millennial learners using digital note-taking—many use smartphone cameras to capture slides. Be clear on what is and is not acceptable.
Tips and Warnings: Advice for Nonnative Trainers
In having trained thousands of British learners over the last 15 years, here are some guidelines for the traveling trainer:
• There will be expressions in your vocabulary that may not translate well with the British learner. Trainers from the United States often use sports phrases about baseball, like “hit a home run” or “knock it out of the park!” Baseball isn’t a mainstream sport in the United Kingdom, so the analogy likely will be lost in translation.
• British learners aren’t keen on trainers who spend large amounts of time sharing how successful they have been, war stories, or anecdotes that do not relate to the learning event. Modesty is an inherent trait in the British character. Be measured in the amount of time devoted to establishing credibility, and remember that the training course is about the content and what they can do with it.
• British learners make good volunteers—be comfortable with eliciting help from learners in setting up activities or annotating flipcharts while debriefing activities.
• British learners tend to emphasize style over substance. Generally, they favor a less enthusiastic and flamboyant style than some trainers use while presenting.
The British learner has many differences and similarities compared with other nationalities, but the key to collaborating, communicating, and connecting with any learner audience, as we know, is to get to understand them better. Half the challenge trainers have is creating an environment in which learners trust, respect, and are comfortable working and learning with us. We owe it to them to ensure an environment that can help them to learn, work with others, and see how they can apply what they learn. I wish you much success working with fellow Brits!
About the Author
David Smith is co-founder of Virtual Gurus, a global consulting firm supporting organizations in leveraging the potential of web-conferencing technologies to be more effective in meeting, presenting, marketing, and training virtually.
David is a globally recognized thought leader, a published author, and a keynote speaker on the opportunities and challenges that digital technologies like Adobe Connect, WebEx, and Skype for Business can bring virtual colleagues and clients. He is a passionate speaker who brings high levels of energy, practical tips, and advice to his audiences, allowing attendees to take actionable ideas and best practices back to the workplace.
Bersin by Deloitte. 2016. UK Corporate Learning Factbook 2016: Benchmarks, Trends, and Analysis of the UK Training Market. Oakland, CA: Bersin by Deloitte.
Brake, T. 2017. “Infographic: Top 10 Insights to Understanding British Business Etiquette.” Country Navigator, June 1. https://countrynavigator.com/blog/infographics/infographic-understanding-british-business-etiquette.
CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel Development). 2015. Annual Survey Report: Learning and Development 2015. London: CIPD.
Towards Maturity. 2014. Modernising Learning: Delivering Results. London: Towards Maturity.
———. 2016. Unlocking Potential: Releasing the Potential of the Business and Its People Through Learning. London: Towards Maturity.