For the purposes of the Life Cycle Model, we have developed a simple formulation of the learning process that highlights three main phases: acquisition, awareness and embedding. This formulation
i. emphasises the key phases that require conscious attention for effective learning;
ii. provides a simple model to use in the planning and management of a project;
iii. makes it easy to link the learning stages to the main life cycle stages and to the key intercultural competencies.
Initial cultural learning may be restricted to limited knowledge acquisition. It might consist, for example, of acquiring contextual information about the less familiar culture with which a team is working. This would be the basic background information gathered pre-project. Such information helps participants to understand something about potential collaborators but is unlikely to alter their basic perception of their own cultural ‘make-up’ or how intercultural collaboration works. Insights will also be constrained by the quality and nature of the information available to the learner.
However, although acquiring knowledge about cultural traits, values and systems is an important step in building effective intercultural performance, it is by no means a sufficient one to guarantee that performance. A process of self-examination and targeted learning is also required to develop the competencies that will make the individual more effective in a culturally diverse team. Chief among these is what we can term “awareness”.
This consists of two main elements: developing self-awareness and reflection on experience. Success in intercultural collaboration will be significantly influenced by the participants’ ability to develop self-awareness both prior to and during the collaboration. Self-awareness is supported by developing a habit of conscious reflection on experience and therefore active learning from experience, which is regarded as integral to the learning process.
Using self-awareness to move beyond limited knowledge acquisition enables a more profound form of learning to take place. The participant uses both acquired knowledge and reflection on experience to question their own taken-for-granted beliefs and behaviours. The premises for their behaviour change as their assumptions are challenged and they are able to become more interculturally effective by refining their understanding and ability to respond to the behaviour of others. The development of self-awareness and active reflection on experience may prompt the learner to question and amend the assumptions on which their own behaviour is based.
The first two modes of activity are situated primarily at the level of individual learning, but we are also concerned with group and organisational learning – the way in which project teams and their host institutions might share this individual learning and become more effective in managing intercultural collaboration. The link between individual and organisational learning is through the explicit sharing of learning and through co-operative reflection that enables the embedding of learning into the procedures, systems and cultural norms of the larger organisation.
Conscious and explicit learning during the project experience can be compared to a process of iterative evaluation that enables learning to be fed back into the performance of the organisation. This means that the project team can adjust not only its future behaviour but also its procedures and systems. The changed behaviour of the project team can (with the right support) in turn impact the institution by recommending changes in systems, principles and priorities. Such changes will also, gradually, alter the culture of the institutions so that it may become more effective in its dealing with diversity. The expression we use to denote this is “Review, reflect, revise”: in other words, build conscious review into the project activities; give people a chance to reflect explicitly on their experience; agree to revise behaviour on the basis of the team’s shared learning.