Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Business English in 2014

Like many of you I assume, I have finally emerged from a tunnel of work (and reentered another).  After a few weeks of vacation, I am already looking forward to a great 2014.  I will be doing a bit more travelling and hopefully will pick up on a few more ideas to explore, test, and evaluate in my training.

Here are a few topics I see for arising in Business English training for 2014.  This is my professional development guide (and blogging) agenda for the new year.

1.  One of the big topics from the BESIG conference in Prague was the mix between skills training and language training.  Here are my initial observations.
  • Naturally, we like to think of ourselves as more than simply English teachers.  The career conjures up memories of Mrs. Friedhof standing at the chalk board hammering away at the past perfect.  Our pride and ego which drive us to self-development are vulnerable to such misrepresentations and we work hard to fight this image.  So, it makes sense that we not only integrate skills training into our service, but also market these abilities.
  • The skills training we are talking about has a broad scope.  I have been asked by students to help them with technical skills and working with software.  They have also asked me to help them with other areas of digital literacy.  Of course, there is great scope for business communication skills like presentations, effective meetings, and negotiations.  Most trainers I meet are already incorporating intercultural communication aspects in the training.  Finally, I meet trainers who are cognitively incorporating team-building, management, and creative-thinking skills in the BE classroom.  Which skills are within our mandate and which are not?
  • Finally, there is the price issue.  Scott Levey of Target Training touched upon the pricing issue and over-delivering services in his pre-conference session in Prague.  He is right that pricing this offer is certainly a concern.  At what point have we accomplished what the customer is paying for without "giving away the farm"?
2.  Like all industries we are facing creative destruction from external factors.  Businesses and organizations are quickly eating away our ability to find customers and offer significant value.  Here are some external factors I have identified.
  • Public education systems are improving and Business English proficiency upon graduation is increasing.  Secondary and tertiary teachers and lecturers are becoming more adept at the communicative approach.  Mandatory study abroad programs are increasing English exposure and mastery.  This is causing three effects.  1)  Learners are demanding more specialized training (more ESP).  2)  Doubting that a trainer can deliver such training, prospective customers are convinced that their English "is good enough".  3)  Proficiency is increasingly a mandatory hiring requirement and companies are less likely to invest in training.  This attitude filters down to the education system and students/parents are more likely to take the learning seriously and as life skill.
  • English is diminishing as a differentiating skill.  As globalization progresses, the well of learners in proficient countries like Germany is drying up.  Currently, we are benefiting because the companies have globalized their operations down to a technical/operational level without considering the employees' skills.  But we are reaching the bottom of the organizational hierarchy and the market is drying up.  In short, English ability is a given and no longer a decisive factor in reaching personal career goals.  Instead, other qualifications and training are more important and more valuable for both companies and individuals.
  • Technology and the low barrier for entry is allowing virtual training to eat away at revenues.  One example is Colingo, a company which offers online English teaching.  Check out it's YouTube channel for more about their operations.  I once saw a recruiting video (from another company) for native-speaker teachers online at $9 per hour - perfect for college students!  When the customer cannot differentiate the offers, where does that leave us?
  • Combined with the virtual training factor is that e-learning software is becoming more effective.  In the past, language learning software was limited to lower levels of Bloom's Taxonomy.  Next, it was able to evaluate a specific user response.  Now it can evaluate a range of user responses.  The technology will continue to improve to a point at which the difference between face-to-face or virtual training can be replaced by software.  Luckily, humans require relationships and interaction.  But this continues to be a price threat.
  • Finally, automatic translation tools are becoming more accurate.  I foresee a day in which my German students speak German into a microphone during a virtual meeting and nearly flawless English is heard on the other side.  The other participants respond and German comes through on the other side.  This development is being helped by specialist translation memories.  I use SDL Studio for my German/English translations and the opportunity for creating specialist glossaries and context specific translation is amazing.  I give Google about 5 years before they have mastered the world's top languages.
3.  We are still stuck in the materials dilemma.  My estimation of the problem:
  • Published materials are pedagogically sound and effectively work through Bloom to achieve proficiency and even mastery.
    • They offer continuity and repetition.
    • They reduce the burden on the teacher/trainer to conduct research and writing.
    • But, we are now all aware of copyright infringement and if we preach ethical behavior we must also follow it.
  • Self-written materials take so much time that they are unprofitable.  It takes so long to write gap-fills and other lower learning level exercises that we cannot possibly keep up such a workload over time.  The steps takes hours we cannot afford:
    • Step 1 - Research desired linguistic area (create word list, examples of grammatical structures, phrase list)
    • Step 2 - Create lower level exercises (identification, meaning, translate, explain, etc.)
    • Step 3 - Create higher level exercises (analyze, explain, differentiate, argue, etc.)
    • Step 4 - Use in practice (scaffolding still needed)
    • Step 5 - Master
  • We have found a compromise with framework materials.  But are we really using them to their fullest extent?  
  • We do not have time to write material.  I found out recently that I am in class much less than many of my comrades (only about 17 hours a week).  I have more out-of-class time, but that does not mean I have more time.  The basic fact is that we cannot be expected to write a new course book for every class.
  • Finally, considering the aspects above, we have to value trainee-trainer interaction time as the highest value activity.  How do we maximize our interpersonal time?  What focus do we need to have when we are talking with students?  To what extent are we 'material' and a which point do they need other material to succeed (basic learning, usage, reference, etc.)
4.  We still do not have a workable methodology for Business English Training.  It is clear from the recent presentations I have seen (sadly, Business English blogs are extremely rare) that we have not yet found our own identity in either English as a Second Language or in corporate training.  We are either working through frameworks in the ELT world or from corporate training like coaching, sales training, etc.  We need an approach which is unique.  We need a benchmark for evaluation.  We need a methodology and network which provides consistent and measurable development structures to extend the field.

Certainly, some approaches are ubiquitous and represent good practice.  We are doing needs analysis and using the basics of performance-based training.  We have incorporated technology along with the rest of the world.  We have introduced goal-setting and reflection.  We are working on the business case for English training through evaluation.  Also, the Dogme movement has awakened responsiveness as a key skill in training design.  The learner is the focus again juxtaposed against traditional academic teaching where the teacher is the primary focus.  In short, we are on the right path.

The final element for Business English training in 2014 is to design a methodology for this specific market.  It must draw upon ELT and corporate training.  It must declare certain principles and concepts as most important.  Consequently, it must be applicable in practice down to the lesson plan level.  It must also be communicable to customers to generate value.  Finally, it must be adaptable to fit new paradigms of technology and market development.

I am convinced that this methodology exists in other domains; areas where complex systems are an everyday occurrence.  Our industry is not alone in 2014.  Others are also facing questions of specialization, creative destruction, and resources.  But I am convinced that by looking at similar industries we will find the solutions to improving training effectiveness and the leads/sales ratio.

I am looking forward to 2014... I think this will be a great year for Business English Training.  I wish you the best of luck in your classes, feedback, and sales negotiations.