Interview with Milja Tuomaala

Milja Tuomaala is the initiator of culture coaching in VALOA project/University of Oulu.

Culture coaching – from an idea into a service

How did you come up with the idea andstarted to work on it?

The idea struck me while thinking about how to help international students build working life contacts. I thought we’d need a so-called low-threshold service or cooperation, which would not take too much of the employers’ time and effort. International students are very competent, so I concentrated on how the regional companies could use their experience from their home country. This is how the concept of culture coaching came about: international students could provide culture coaching to regional companies and organizations.

Over the previous year, a very active international students’ organization was founded inOulu, NISO, the Network of International Students inOulu. We approached NISO about their willingness to cooperate and they definitely wanted to be involved. Planning and brainstorming was carried out together on a wiki platform.

At an early stage, Learning and Research Services of theUniversityofOulujoined in the planning efforts. The Learning and Research Services unit had held many internationality training events for regional companies, and we managed to get Bärbel Fink from the unit along.

How did you plan the training of the culture coaches?

The planning team set out to determine the competencies that the culture coaches would require. We needed teaching that would prepare the coaches to cooperate with company organizations and provide various kinds of coaching related to their cultural background.

Plans for the training of culture coaches were mostly made with Bärbel Fink who is a trainer at the Learning and Research Services. Earlier Bärbel had been involved in the planning of the ESF-founded VATU project whose goal was to improve the students’ preparedness to graduate and develop their working life skills during studies. The latter goal in particular coincided with the goals of the VALOA project.

The following objectives were set for the training:

To develop the culture coaches’ understanding and knowledge of the concept of culture in general; what is meant by culture, and where and how culture appears.To teach the coaches to describe their native culture in a wide range of contexts, and mirror their own culture with Finnish culture.To develop the coaches’ presentation skills, strengthen their credibility as consultants and develop their interaction with the audience.To teach the coaches to perform their tasks efficiently, which involves cooperation with the client, clear and close interaction, punctuality, customizing the coaching methods to the client’s needs, taking feedback etc.

How did you recruit the culture coaches?

NISO was responsible for marketing the idea to students. To apply for the post of a culture coach, one had to send a letter of motivation and a CV. We interviewed the applicants in four group interviews. The interviews were conducted by two persons: the international coordinator of the VALOA project and the vice-chair of NISO. The goal was to determine the students’ ability to tell about their own culture and to evaluate their presentations skills, confidence, creativity and ability to answer unpredictable, even difficult questions. It was absolutely required that the culture coaches had work experience from their home country. The letters of motivation were used to assess the applicants’ enthusiasm and commitment to the service.

If I were to make new selections now, I would also assess the demand for culture coaching regarding each culture region. Coaches from exotic countries have had very little assignments, and if we really want the service to be useful for companies seeking to internationalize their operation, we should concentrate on present business partners and growing economic regions.

What was the training like? What kind of feedback did you get?

The training of the culture coaches was very interactive and practical. Bärbel Fink, who is a trainer on multiculturalism, and Victor Arroyo, a communication and presentation trainer at Innovative Keynotes, utilized training methods that the coaches can utilize themselves in their own coaching. During the training, the culture coaches discussed the significance of culture in general, their own culture in depth, and the differences between their culture and Finnish culture. Each participant also gathered information and material on their native culture. The training consisted of 27 hours of contact teaching and independent work.

We got very positive feedback from the culture coaches. The spirit in the group was great, and all the students were very committed to the training. They praised their trainers’ innovative training methods and felt they had gained the necessary skills to work as culture coaches.

What has been most rewarding about the project?

Definitely the enthusiasm shown by the culture coaches. You can see it in everything they do. Everyone was devoted, and the group talked a lot and was very active. Working with these people is awfully nice, rewarding and inspiring!

It was also great that the project was included in the 100 Actions from Oulucampaign in July. The goal of the campaign is to improve the status of Ouluand highlight progressive and delightful actions/services.

What challenges have you faced?

Marketing the service has not been easy. We have marketed coaching directly to regional companies but also through various entrepreneur organizations and the Central Chamber of Commerce. Feedback has been positive and the companies have shown interest, but so far demand has been rather modest. Of course, a new service always needs some time to find its footing. Let’s hope that the credit from the 100 Actions fromOulucampaign brings culture coaching recognition among companies and increases the demand of the service.