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Learning to Cross Cultures

Thursday, January 01, 2009 | Category :
    • In the News

It has been 22 hours since the team has had any sleep, and the commander of the small four-man squad is just as tired as the rest of his men. In that time, his team has marched about 12.5 miles and encountered civilians several times. Every such encounter is fraught with potential danger. Now the team has finally reached its destination village. The commander breathes a sigh of relief when the local police chief courteously welcomes the team into his office.

His sense of relief goes away, though, when the chief asks him and his team to stack their weapons off to the side, where they would be out of quick reach if needed. Just as the commander is trying to figure out a polite way to decline, he hears a groan from somewhere in the back of the building. Is a prisoner being tortured?

The marching, the sleeplessness and the fatigue are all real, but the "village" is located in North Carolina, and all the "villagers" are soldiers in the U.S. Army, dressed up to play their roles. It’s all part of an elaborate 12-day "culmination exercise"—or CULEX, in Army terminology. The exercise is designed to test the skills of adaptive thinking and leadership of Special Operations Forces civil affairs and psychological operations personnel in the Army’s Reserve Command.

"Adaptive thinking is about cross-cultural communications," says Maj. Eric Le Gloahec, a special projects officer at the Army’s John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. "It’s not just problem-solving. It’s thinking outside the box."

These out-of-the-box cross-cultural communications skills are crucial to civil affairs and psychological operations personnel, who will encounter Iraqi and Afghan civilians in real situations like the scenario described here. The civil affairs function deals with civilian populations wherever the Army is.

"Their job is to advise the commander of how his military actions, building projects [and other actions] will affect the general populace," Le Gloahec says. The psychological operations function builds support in the general population for the Army—and demoralizes enemy combatants.

"About two weeks prior to the CULEX, [soldiers] receive an eight-hour course in adaptive thinking and leadership," Le Gloahec says. Then, just prior to the field portion of the exercise, the trainees engage in up to 90 minutes of computer simulations based on America’s Army to review and apply the adaptive thinking instruction they’ve received. "We have an after-action review after each scenario," he says.

The simulations provide "backfill" information, so the soldiers can get some hints and clues about what’s occurring in the village, says Kristin Richmond, an industrial organizational psychologist and principal and founder of Tailored Training Programs, the company that develops the live culmination-exercise scenarios and the complementary America’s Army simulations. An example of "backfill information" in the simulation would be a virtual interaction with the family of a live scenario character.

Despite the simulations’ brevity, Le Gloahec considers them essential. "The simulation teaches the soldiers more skill sets," he says. "We can raise their ability in dealing with foreign cultures so when they do the CULEX, it lets instructors raise them to a higher level. Simulations are an enhancer, a multiplier—they let us push the troops harder in the CULEX. We don’t use simulations to reduce training, but as an enhancer and to push them further."

America’s Army adaptive thinking simulations have obvious applications to today’s global business world, where cultural differences can be the biggest obstacle to success in another country. Realistic simulations of engagements with foreign business people could give employees a chance to correct all the faux pas before ever stepping on a plane.

"One of the biggest benefits of simulations is that you can stop them at any time and do an evaluation of where everyone is," says Joe DiFilippo, a consultant with BTS and an eight-year veteran of the Army, where he both participated in and facilitated a number of simulations that were not based on America’s Army. "People can stop and realize what just happened [and] see their impact on the situation. You can start and stop anytime, and you can go through it again."


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