By Carl Binder PhD, CPT and Jae Lee

Human performance technology (HPT) concepts and models, as we know them at ISPI, have evolved from research and application in the United States, and subsequently in other Western business and academic cultures.  Much of the practice and language of performance improvement assumes a Western cultural perspective, with little or no conscious awareness. This has interesting ramifications for efforts to extend HPT to other cultures, especially those in Asia.

Our work in recent years to introduce HPT, specifically Six Boxes® Performance Thinking (http://www.sixboxes.com), into Korean business culture has raised challenges and opportunities that prompt discussion about cultural differences.  The presentation entitled “Adapting Performance Improvement Models to Korean Business Culture” at the 2013 ISPI conference will explore such cultural differences and their implications.  As presenters, we offer the perspectives of an American HPT thought leader and a Korean senior business leader with extensive global experience, in an effort to illuminate and expand the conversation about such cultural differences and their impact on HPT practice.

We anticipate discussing factors that include:

  • Greater emphasis in Asian culture on collective performance: Asian business cultures emphasize teamwork in ways that are not quite the same as in the United States. Teams, including both leaders and those whom they manage, assume collective responsibility for outcomes. This may make it challenging to define individual accountabilities, difficult for Westerners to understand the decision-making process, and less acceptable for individuals in Asian companies to be called out individually for reward and recognition without embarrassment.
  • Avoidance of losing face: What Americans might consider routine setting of clear expectations and providing direct feedback can set the stage for “losing face” in an Asian culture. Thus, two powerful performance levers emphasized in HPT models and interventions–expectations and feedback–may be difficult to implement in Asian organizations in the same way as in Western organizations.
  • High concept-based learning: Korean managers and team members, often former elite students in high school, college, and graduate training, tend to be very hard-working and serious “students,” focused on understanding conceptual background as a prerequisite for application. While this can be a great strength, the U.S. trend toward performance-specific training and support can be at odds with what Americans may view as an “academic” approach to learning and training in Asia.
  • Focus on personal characteristics: Asian culture often emphasizes the personal virtues and characteristics of employees in both employee selection and development. This has the advantage of leading to an extremely hard-working, respectful, committed, and relationship-focused workforce. It presents the challenge that HPT methods, which emphasize systemic organization-level interventions and performance variables over individual factors, may prove difficult to implement in environments where character trumps system. One of the great benefits is that employees with this cultural background may work hard and persevere, even in the midst of poor management systems, while American employees may more rapidly become cynical about the organizations that employ them, leading to disengagement.

We recognize that the above examples, like those that we will discuss in our presentation, are broad generalizations, with nuances and exceptions that deserve more detail. We hope that our presentation, viewing one another’s cultures from across the table, will help to illuminate these and other cultural differences that offer both opportunities for gaining important advantages and possible sources of frustration in the application of HPT, if approached without awareness and forethought.

CarlBinderCarl Binder, co-founder of the Performance Thinking Network (www.sixboxes.com), received ISPI’s Honorary Lifetime Member award in 2009 and Gilbert Award in 2012. He is a thought leader in performance improvement, instructional design, evaluation, and organizational change, with many articles, chapters, and columns in ISPI’s publications. Download many of his publications at http://binder-riha.com/publications.htm.




JaeLeeJae Lee is executive vice president of GS Caltex (www.gscaltex.com/eng/index.aspx), a Korean energy company with $48 billion annual revenues. As an HR executive holding a University of Chicago MBA in Finance and International Business, combined with experience at Western companies including Citibank, Procter & Gamble, and Allianz First Life Insurance, Jae brings broad cross-cultural business perspective to GS Caltex.

To learn more about this and other educational sessions at THE Performance Improvement Conference 2013 in Reno, NV, April 14-17, please go to www.ispi.org/content.aspx?id=1582. Register today at www.ispi.org/content.aspx?id=1600!