Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Value Chain of Business English Training - Chapter Three: Outsourcing

Outsourcing value...

In the first chapter of this epic post, we discussed the value chain of Business English training.  In the second, we looked at how qualifications can add to that chain.  In this chapter, we will look at how we outsource various elements.  In essence, this is the ‘follow-the-money’ of ELT.

A few years ago, one of the companies I work for decided to outsource their IT services.  As a support activity, it was not directed related to generating value for the company’s customers.  The provider who took over the services basically said, “Look, this isn’t your core business, you aren’t experts in it, and if you let us take it over, we will do it cheaper and faster.”  The company agreed and suddenly all the IT services came from a different company... for a fee.

We do the same thing with our support activities.  I hire a tax consultant to support my operations.  Sure, I could file the monthly VAT returns myself and produce all the financial statements, but that is not my core business and they can do it cheaper and faster.  I hire a part-time secretary to do all my invoicing and billing.  I have outsourced my administration.

We can take this a step further and outsource our marketing, sales, and infrastructure as well.  By working for a language school, we are sacrificing a certain amount of the income.  They control that side of the value chain.

Materials...

But the real outsourcing comes from using published materials.  For this post, we will ignore the “how to teach” books and instead focus on the learner-centered materials.  Just like the IT example, course book writers and publishers basically say, “We know which skills the learners need, we can break them down into sub-skills, and we can present this knowledge in a useful way.”  In many cases, they are right.  Published materials work, I have no doubt.

However, I have certain reservations about outsourcing my primary value added activities.  I can see that others feel the same way.  Often this comes in the form of half steps.  For example, a trainer may conduct a needs assessment and even go so far as to analyze those needs into sub-skills.  Then they will photocopy a range a published materials to fulfill those sub-tasks.  This effectively cuts the publisher out of the value chain and leaves more for the trainer.  In reality, the school may encourage this behavior because they are actually pocketing the difference.  They are telling the company that they create customized courses (which are sold at a slight premium) but are only paying the trainer for the value added of training delivery.

This is one of the most delightful ironies of the ELT field (Business English included).  Many of the same school directors, directors of study, and teacher trainers who are developing their career to write for a publisher are encouraging or ignoring ubiquitous copyright infringement at their institutions.  But it all makes sense from a business point of view.

The key to this system is the assumption that the client and the learners do not know the difference.  And in many cases they don’t.  However, as someone who writes all of his own material I can say that there is a HUGE difference in value to the customer when you say, “I did a corpus analysis of your field and I wrote this exercise booklet on 40 verbs that are common in your field.”  As long as the materials I write are pedagogically sound and support the sub-skills I am looking to train, they add considerably more value than photocopying published materials.

This weekend the BESIG is hosting a free online conference all around materials.  The talks they have lined up appear to address this issue head on.  I believe that writing materials for clients is one of the greatest values I provide.

The key to outsourcing the value chain is knowing what to leave to others and when.  In general, most companies do not outsource their primary activities.  In Business English training, however, sometimes we may need to focus only on the things we are paid to do.  If I am only allocated the training delivery step, I will expect the school to provide me with a needs analysis, an assessment tool, and materials for the training.

But in reality, there are many trainers taking less pay than the effort they are putting in.  In thenext chapter we will look at how to gain more control of the value chain.

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