Millions are spent by corporations on assignments abroad, international job rotation, or global trainee programs, in order to develop the cultural intelligence of associates. A recent study has shown, however, that international non-work experience is much more conducive for developing cultural intelligence than spending time abroad for work purposes.

When you think about it, this is not that surprising. Managers sent abroad tend to approach the new target culture from a business perspective. This for sure triggers cultural learning, but this learning (1) does not reflect the full complexity of the (cultural) paradigms and interrelationships at play in a particular situation; (2) favors cognitive and rational processes of stimulation and reflection, rather than deeper attitudinal or behavioral changes. As a result, existing patterns of thinking and interpretation are less challenged and less reconfigured when only interacting in business contexts, which again leads to lower levels of cultural learning.

The study has shown that international experiences not related to work are more conducive for developing cultural intelligence. This has two implications: (1) When hiring people to positions that require cultural intelligence, the importance of having spent time abroad in non-work related contexts should trump work-related international experience; (2) when developing cultural intelligence, corporations might want to begin to think about releasing their associates to non-work related development programs, or at least to design international assignments that contain rich learning components outside the workplace.