When the international professional services company Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu brought together nearly 400 new executives from corporate offices around the world at its 2004 New Partner Seminar in Los Angeles, a key objective was teaching attendees how to manage cultural differences. Rather than presenting a linear and potentially boring lecture, Deloitte engaged participants in a half-day interactive training exercise called “Working Across Cultures.”

In general, Deloitte's New Partner Seminar is designed to welcome the new execs, provide them with opportunities to build networks, and advise them on how to establish relationships with clients and colleagues. In particular, a crucial part of the Deloitte mission, says Daniel Kerr, Deloitte's New York-based director of global development, is for attendees to understand both the opportunities and challenges of cultural differences, and how these differences impact individual behavior.

Deloitte's mission was accomplished using an interactive-learning technology from New York-based LCI Communications called Unison. During the “Working Across Cultures” session, attendees were initially seated by country at tables of seven participants each. Every table was presented with best- and worst-case cross-cultural scenarios from Web surveys about cultural differences and behaviors. Using keyboards and LCD screens available at each of the tables, the participants came up with what they believed would be the most appropriate responses to the worst cross-cultural scenarios. Later in the session, the seating patterns were changed so that there was an international mix at each table.

Participants then reviewed the recommended behaviors that their colleagues had entered into the program, and used their own observations to judge whether those behavioral responses would be effective in bridging different cultural values and orientations in a real-life scenario. With almost 400 attendees sitting through a half-day session, the key was “keeping them engaged,” as well as getting useful results, says Kerr.

Corporate Turnaround at Standard Life Direct

By late 2003 the Direct to Consumer Division at Standard Life, the United Kingdom's largest mutual assurance provider, was, according to communications director Aileen Hunter, “really struggling” with reduced sales margins all across the U.K.

The response was a radical reorganization involving a staff reduction of 60 percent; a new name, Standard Life Direct; and the goal of creating a company culture fueled by collaboration rather than the traditional sales-driven “what's-in-it-for-me?” attitude. “It took a huge leap of faith to think we could turn the company around,” Hunter says.

One of the crucial first steps was a one-day motivational launch event called Direct to Success! that was held in June 2004. It was the first time all 220 employees of the new division had been brought together in one place. The objective was “involvement and belief,” according to Hunter — “involvement” in the sense that employees should participate in making some of the key decisions about the launch, and “belief” in the reorganized company.

Standard Life Direct used a variety of teambuilding, brainstorming, and consensus-building exercises to accomplish its goals, including interactive technology from Unison. Using a network of tabletop computers and keyboards, participants entered their feedback from the various sessions and submitted questions and opinions during presentations — real-time feedback that was immediately compiled to help shape the day's content.

In one session, a Unison application called U-Select gathered employee feedback to help define the new division's key operating values. Attendees broke up into tables of seven and discussed 51 words that best described those values. The 51 possibilities were reduced in successive brainstorming sessions until the attendees, as a whole, decided on the six words that best defined the division's core values.

Once that was achieved, the attendees were divided into six groups, which, using Unison's U-Think program, came up with definitions of the selected words. Those words and their definitions are now found on posters situated strategically around the division's offices.

The result of the daylong launch was “fantastic,” Hunter says. Post-event surveys found that 97 percent of the attendees considered the meeting “very or extremely worthwhile,” and that 79 percent left the event “completely believing” in the eventual success of the new division.

How Unison WORKS

A typical meeting using an interactive technology from New York-based LCI Communications called Unison will have a room filled with tables, each with an LCD screen and keyboard, all linked in a local area network. The technology can also be used in multiple rooms across remote locations. It offers a series of interactive functions with names like U-Think, U-Ask, U-Talk, and U-Learn. For example, U-Learn is described as a “training accelerator” that can generate real-time assessments and certifications of participants engaged in live training sessions. www.unison-meetings.com