May 2013

May 1st, 2013 by Mark Shillabeer

Successful delivery in China for a leading international University

About 5 or 6 years ago, I was part of some internal thinking at Steps about how we could work more on a global basis. We had sent teams across the world since the early days, but this was about taking the behavioural programmes that we do and working with local teams to deliver it with a local perspective. I remember thinking at that time about countries that we could work in, but have a clear recollection of dismissing the thought of working in China as ‘impossible’ – it would just be too ‘difficult’. The exploratory work that we did at that time didn’t actually come to that much. It was a few years later that we started, in response to client need, to develop global teams and we have now run programmes with local associates in nearly every continent (come on Brazil/Argentina, give us the call!).

The main focus of this recent programme in China was 10 x 2½ hour sessions on Diversity Awareness for a leading international university. The campus is roughly 50% Chinese and 50% international staff, as indeed were the Steps team; myself from the UK, Marlo - an American based out of Germany and Marshall and Tannia from China itself. Crystal, a Shanghai resident originally from Hong Kong, joined us for a few days too.

The opportunity came on the back of some successful work for the client in the UK.  So, how did we get on out there?

I went out in February to conduct some research and used that as an opportunity to meet and audition some Chinese actors in Shanghai. We found a small but fantastic team to work with and Marlo and I returned 6 weeks later to run the programme in association with 3 of them. They were 100% committed to making our trip a success. They dived into their unknown – drama-based training – and supported us with ours; a new culture and a very different language. We laughed together and learnt from each other for ten days in some beautiful (and hot) spring East China weather. The sessions were really well received and we think we achieved our aim of getting a conversation going about how they can work together effectively within this unique international HE environment.

That’s not to say that we didn’t have challenges - getting the local Chinese staff to contribute was difficult, albeit anticipated. They were very engaged with the drama and understood the humour we use to find our way into the issues, but many of them would not naturally want to contribute openly to the discussions. And let’s not forget that this is an international University in so many ways, so we were working with participants from all over the world, for whom English is not their first language.

Therefore one of the first things I learnt was the need to slow down (not at all easy for me!). We also introduced a lot of group discussion exercises; asking each group to nominate a spokesperson to feed back thoughts and ideas. This meant that individuals didn’t feel that they were going to be put on the spot in front of colleagues but at the same time we could still challenge them to discuss, debate and be involved.

I don’t want to trivialise the complexities of working in different cultures (and this is only the very first baby steps in what will be a huge journey in China), but despite the above, the true power of drama is that it has the ability to really connect with people on a visceral level, to engage them in a way that no other learning medium does – wherever they are. Bringing together our knowledge and experience with the local understanding of our China associates was the key to this.

Are we ready to set up business in China and conquer this huge, developing market?  Not just yet. But have we demonstrated our ability to work there with large multinationals, using drama to challenge, debate and engage all of their staff? Definitely.  And do you know what?  Considering the places we have done this in the last couple of years, we are starting to get good at this now...


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