Dilemmas, Opposites and Reconciliation: a Video Interview with Keynote Fons Trompenaars

Digital versus analogue, individual versus group learning…. our ability to reconcile opposites not only in education but in our societies as well seems more important than ever. Who better could we ask about the role of culture and resilience in how we resolve dilemmas than Fons Trompenaars, organisational theorist and Opening Keynote at Online Educa Berlin 2021

We are looking forward to hearing from you on December 2 in our Opening Plenary and it is great to have a chance already to connect. What kind of cultural differences have you seen globally around how people learn?

What I found, for example, is that there is a difference regarding the use of case studies. This is quite interesting because for instance Harvard’s management education is famous exactly for their use of cases. Most people in the US will say “give us an experience, and we’ll be able to generalise it and create a model”. But if you start with a case study in France (I’m stereotyping here on purpose, to make things very clear), people might get nervous and may question how serious they should take you. They will say “we have to start with a model, and can only create a case afterwards”.

Kolb is a cycle, a learning cycle, with different entry points into the circle. Your entry point will very often be dictated by the culture you are in/from.

Another example is the use of digital tools. Some cultures are more high touch, and they would appreciate face to face learning more. To them, learning is much more than only content. It’s whatever else too that happens in the classroom, or perhaps the respect they have for their professor. And the best learning context for them requires “the whole package”. While in other cultures people might say “just give us the content, Zoom is fine, this will be more effective than meeting face to face”.

We’ve seen massive disruption in education because of the pandemic. Can our cultures help translate dilemmas into opportunities?

Very much so. For instance, having a multicultural set of students at your university might pose a dilemma. It means you’ll have to think about how you can bring students’ different needs together (this is what we call dilemma reconciliation).

Doing so will be all about asking the right questions. The “right” questions might be: “how can I use the digital to deepen the relationship that is personal?” Or “how can our personal relationships, face-to-face, help us use the digital more effectively?” If we ask these types of questions we will rise above the dilemma of digital versus face to face. Instead, we should try to ask “how can one help the other”. That is what I would like to discuss, with a lot of examples, on the second of December.

At OEB the topic of collaboration and social connectivity will be part of the agenda in different sessions and presentations. Is there a reason why you place such a great emphasis on connecting different viewpoints?

First of all, it’s important for me personally because I was born out of a French mother and a Dutch father. There were always different viewpoints in our families and I almost implicitly learnt how important it was to connect them. Allow me to share an example with you here. My main point is that we’ll always need to connect more viewpoints to get a better insight into reality.

You’ve written extensively on cultural diversity and cross-cultural competencies for many years. Have you seen any trends or developments that make you hopeful or excited?

That’s a difficult question. There are hopeful trends, but there are also worrying developments. What worries me is that we see a lot of polarisation almost everywhere. For instance, in the US, in the UK and in Europe, countries are split, people are divided and there are groups that do not communicate with each other. That worries me.

On the other hand, because of digitalisation, so many hopeful things happen. People unite on another level (your conference is a good example). And people are increasingly able to connect and learn from each other because of digitalisation.

It is similar to social media: one might call it a blessing or a curse. A small minority with a big mouth can say anything without reference and hurt others. But we shouldn’t forget that it is such a blessing for people to be able to connect worldwide without limitations.

So my answer would be that there are troublesome trends that we really need to address. But at the same time, there are glimmers of hope!

OEB’s overall theme this year is “Learning Resilience”. Which thoughts or maybe questions does this instigate for you? And do you believe resilience can be learnt or taught?

I think so. Resilience can also be helped by creating a context where the chance of being resilient is increased.

I believe that resilience is increased by combining opposites. Digital versus analogue, privacy versus transparency, individual versus group learning, etc. My definition of resilience has to do with one’s ability to reconcile dilemmas. You can polarise digital and analogue, but it’s wonderful if you bring them together in a hybrid or reconciled form, like blended learning, this will make it much more resilient. Errors, and correcting the errors is the essence of learning. It’s not having errors. And it’s not only the correcting. It’s the combination of the two, so that from your exceptional errors you will learn. And that’s what increases resilience.

Fons Trompenaars will be speaking at OEB21’s Opening Plenary on Thursday, December 2 at 09:30. View the full interview with him here.

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