Developing Cultural Intelligence: Online Learning Communities

Developing Cultural Intelligence: Online Learning Communities

by Felicity Menzies

Cultural skills are best learned by engaging in real or simulated face-to-face exchanges with diverse others. However, virtual learning communities can be advantageous when developing Cultural Intelligence.


Reduce triggers of differences

Visual cues (for example, language, race, religious dress, age, gender) in face-to-face interactions can trigger unconscious biases, stereotypes, or negative emotions that can inhibit or disrupt open and honest communication.

Virtual interaction diffuses the effects of visible triggers of difference. This increases openness to new perspectives, enhances willingness to share personal experiences, and supports greater risk-taking (for example, asking questions with respect to sensitive issues). Those outcomes enhance cultural learning.

Safe learning environment

Online environments that have well-defined protocols for contributions and that are actively monitored by facilitators are safe learning environments.

Asynchronous learning

Online communities facilitate learning outside the constraints of time and place. Studies have reported that asynchronous learning allows more time for trainee participation, analysis, and reflection. In addition, the process of responding in writing enhances learning outcomes.

Asynchronous learning can be particularly advantageous for trainees for whom classroom discussions are conducted in a language other than their native tongue. These employees may find it difficult to keep up with the pace of the classroom discussion. In linguistically diverse classrooms, virtual learning communities help to support equality and inclusion.

Ongoing learning

Online communities provide a medium for ongoing, informal learning once formal training has ended.

Diverse networks

Members of online learning communities can quickly connect with others who possess the cultural expertise or knowledge they require in order to solve their intercultural challenges or improve project outcomes. Cultural experts can also join learning communities. This opportunity to provide real-time expertise is limited in classroom-based training.


Diverse online learning communities provide access to a deep repository of new ideas and resources that learners can tap into, synthesise, and integrate for driving innovation. Online communities can be far more diverse and global than would ever be possible in a classroom setting. They provide access to a richer collection of differing and often conflicting perspectives, and are therefore more representative of global cultural complexity.

Social support

Online learning communities act as a nexus of social support. Members share their frustrations, challenges, and learnings. This can help buffer stress and exhaustion when dealing across cultures.


There are some challenges to effective online learning:

Privacy concerns

Individual or cultural concerns regarding privacy may mean that some individuals are less comfortable participating.

Unequal participation

Some members (for example, second-language learners) may lack confidence in their writing ability. Others may not be experienced in forming online relationships. Facilitators need to be alert to the possibility that online communities of learners may isolate some individuals, and they should proactively manage these programs to encourage the equal participation of all learners, without making anyone uncomfortable. Setting minimum and/or maximum limits to the number of posts or messages from each member of the community can help to encourage equal and balanced participation. Providing guidelines for members on how to write and review a contribution before posting can be useful for alleviating fears about contributing to an online community.

Resource strain

Managing online learning communities requires a significant time commitment on the part of the facilitators.


Online communities of learners can be created with a range of various communication technologies. These include chats, threaded discussions, and social media tools.

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Felicity Menzies is CEO and Principal Consultant at Include-Empower.Com, a diversity and inclusion consultancy with expertise in inclusive leadership, unconscious bias, cultural intelligence and inclusion, gender equity, empowering diverse talent. Felicity is an accredited facilitator with the Cultural Intelligence Centre and the author of A World of Difference. Felicity has over 15 years of experience working with and managing diverse workforces in blue chip companies and is a Fellow of Chartered Accountants of Australia and New Zealand. Felicity also holds a Bachelor of Commerce and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology.