Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Why Business English Training is like a Smart Phone

I had a discussion  recently with a fellow trainer about drafting and using performance objectives (can do statements).  In the discussion, I used the simile of a smart phone, but I did not really have my thoughts in order.  So here is a clearer discussion.

Anyone who works in marketing these days will tell you that we have moved from the era of mass production to the age of mass customization.  Product managers and marketers are continually trying to find ways to create products which support the individual needs or wishes of consumers while at the same time retain the benefits of serial production.

Few products demonstrate the power to mass customization more than the smart phone.  A smart phone by itself has relatively limited value and does not really differ functionally than its dumb phone ancestors.  It makes phone calls, it saves phone numbers, it can transmit and receive data (i.e. internet) and it hosts a range of utility functions like a calculator and alarm.  Perhaps the only significant addition is a GPS antenna.

Instead, the true power of the smart phone is ability to customize the functionality with apps.  "There's probably an app for that," is no small statement about the power of the device.  The apps on my phone are probably very different than yours and our phones likely reflect our priorities, lifestyles and needs.  We may have the same model phone, but we have completely unique products.

What can you tell about me from my suggestion list?
So let's take a closer look at smart phones and how they relate to training.  I tend to think of the CEF levels as the model of phone - the processor speed, the connectivity rate, the memory, the basic operating system, etc.  A lower performance phone will not run as many apps or runs them very slowly much like a level learner has very limited flexibility in communication.  By comparison, the latest iPhone will run pretty much anything on the market and perform multiple functions simultaneously, much like an advanced learner.

Naturally, there are some basic functions every learner must be able to perform in English just like a phone must have a calculator, an alarm, a calendar, an SMS function and so on.  These are universal utilities which come with the operating system.  There is no customization and they are standard.  I generally think of A1 and A2 as the operating system levels in which I try to install simple functions like introductions, writing a simple email, using basic vocabulary and grammar, etc.  But once we have installed the OS, we can start inserting contacts and appointments, as well downloading some apps.

There are now over 1 million apps on Google Play and even more on iTunes, so the possibilities are endless.  I see three levels of apps.  First are the mainstream apps like Facebook, Skype and Adobe Reader.  These reach a large audience and typically perform routine functions.  In business English there are similar language items which nearly all learners will need.  For example, writing emails for request, giving opinions in a meeting and some general business vocabulary are fairly standard.  These areas are typically covered in course book, but sometimes the books go too far.

The second group of apps contains 'conditional apps'.  These are only useful for people who meet certain criteria but they may also be very popular.  For example, the Sparkasse (a consumer bank) app has over 1 million downloads, but only by Sparkasse customers.    In business English, these 'conditional apps' are the industry or job field skills.  Sales representatives tend to need more socializing, greeting visitors, talking about products and making persuasive presentations.  Accountants need more finance vocabulary and reporting financial results.  Customer service reps need more troubleshooting, telephoning and giving instructions.

Finally, there are the highly individual apps which reflect your lifestyle, personality and priorities.  The Lady Pill Reminder app is probably only for women using birth control (I wonder how many boyfriends/husbands have it as well).  On my phone, I have the baby phone app so that I can still visit the hotel bar with my wife while on vacation.  I am one of only a few thousand with the 1.FC Nürnberg app for my favorite football team.  I have the pronunciation app for work and a time keeper app to record my hours per client.  Although they may not be among the top 1000 in downloads, these are extremely useful.  The same is true for business English, working on language to fit a very specific situation is often the most useful for the learners.

Useful for freelancers?
I draw a few lessons from this metaphor.  The key lesson for me is refining the role of the trainer.  First, a trainer needs to know the 'app store' inside and out.  They need to know what is available and what the different functions are.  The trainer not only helps install and run the software, they also serve as the "Recommended for you" function.

The second lesson is in course design.  The farther the developer is from the end-user, the more general the course should be.  Imagine buying a smart phone with a bunch of apps you do not want, do not need and cannot use.  The same is true for selling 'packaged can do statements'.  Minecraft may have more than 5 million downloads, but that does not mean I want it.  While packaging course objectives is easy, it is not mass customization.  Also, if the course is stuffed with required functions, the trainer will find that the student's memory is full and they can't install the truly useful stuff.

The third lesson is that general to specific is not always the best way.  Smart phone users often download highly specific apps before the general ones because of their priorities.  Do not be afraid to train communication and language non-linearly.

The final lesson is from programming.  App developers write code in functional blocks.  Each bit of code performs a specific function like initializing the data receiver.  When they write apps, they will often copy, paste and modify these blocks for compatibility.  The same is true for activity types and exercises.  Two very different lessons and courses can include copy and paste parts (with slight adjustments).  A good programmer always documents their functional blocks (nothing is more frustrating to a programmer than undocumented code), so a trainer should keep their activities neatly documented and organized.  But, they should also keep in mind that using the activity verbatim almost always results in a compatibility bug.

So, I will leave it to you to design your own software.  It is not an easy task.  But as I sit at this cafe watching everyone tapping away on their phones, I can see that customization is not only possible, but the new expectation.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Pre-experienced and Experienced Learners - Thoughts from Graz

I have been giving presentations and writing blog posts about in-company training for the last several years.  Especially with the presentations, I often have problems trying to fit the content to the audience.  The problem is that I am facing two separate market segments... in-company trainers (often freelancers) who typically have much greater scope in determining needs, selecting/creating materials and delivering training.  But also in the audience are the Business English teachers and lecturers who have less control over the learning objectives, resources and methods.  Additionally, they face drastically different challenges concerning learner motivation, class size and assessment/reporting.  Not having experience operating in such a formal structure, I'd like to pass on some thoughts on what I see as those students enter the workforce and perhaps reflect on where I could see changes in institutional teaching.

Despite being in-company, I actually receive many pre-experienced learners.  My training is often aligned with the company's on-boarding program and the majority of new participants are in their first days or weeks at the company.  It is also normal for me to get participants who do not use English in their jobs yet, but it is coming.  In these cases, I feel I can relate somewhat to the challenges teachers face with pre-experienced learners.

I can draw several conclusions from what I see as these participants enter my training.

1.  Learners who had an English course which was aligned with their field of study had great advantages over those who only had a general Business English class.

2.  Motivation was much higher for learners who clearly understood that a) English would certainly be a integral part of their job and b) being able to conduct their job in English would be a competitive advantage for career progression.  Those who lacked this awareness were surprised by the reality of a bilingual working environment and suffered lower self-confidence.  They often had negative feelings toward improving their language.

3.  If an institution taught English as a practical skill, their graduates were much better prepared.  If the school treated English as a theoretical concept, the graduates were largely unable to adequately perform their tasks in L2.  This mindset was often reflected by the teaching methods and content.  Practical teaching focused heavily on production activities throughout the teaching, not just at assessment.  Unsurprisingly, those who emerged from a more theoretical approach were often overwhelmed by the apparent complexity of the language.

Let me give you examples of things going wrong.  You might be surprised at how often I am faced with entry-level accountants who cannot recognize the basic vocabulary from a balance sheet (almost zero new graduates).  Likewise, I routinely meet fresh-faced employees in the mechanical engineering field who cannot understand even the simplest terms like bearing, dimensions, or bolt.  I see this across fields with the exception of software.  I suspect that is because software terms have been developed in conjunction with the spread of English, they have an advantage because they often do not have L1 equivalent words.  However, you can see how wholly unprepared some of these learners are for performing their job in English.

Of course, I do not want to lump all educational institutions together.  There are many very good programs which are producing excellent international employees.  But the results appear to be hit or miss.  The one area in Germany which seems to be particularly poor is the apprenticeship path.  And this leads to a few observations about the content-need mismatch.

First, students and apprentices need English at a tactical level.  If course books reflect the nature of educational teaching, the content is far too managerial and strategic.  Even university graduates are entering the work force at a low level in the organization structure.  Most English communication at this level is problem oriented.  Companies have automatic processes/workflows and IT systems to handle routine tasks.  If everything runs as it should, very little communication is needed.  However, when the system breaks down, communication is needed to get back on track.  For example, missed deliveries, higher costs, missing files, incomplete reports, etc. are at the heart of communication.  New employees are not generally making business plans, discussing how to foster entrepreneurship in the company, devising a market campaign, or discussing who to promote and why.  Even among high-flyers, the company will not hand this much responsibility to a new employee from day one.  They typically have a separate development path in the company, but still deal with tactical matters at the beginning.

Second, far more English communication occurs internally or semi-internally than with customers.  Evan Frendo is right on the money with this observation and I cannot stress this point enough.  Most companies have strict communication filters between themselves and the customer.  In many cases, all external communication must go through a very small team in the corporate communications, marketing or sales departments.  There are a few exceptions to this, but they are all highly specialized.  For example, the customer service department speaks with customers, as will the accounting department in case of wrong invoices.  By and large however, entry-level employees are kept at arms length from the customer.  More English communication occurs semi-internally.  In this case, the employee needs to work with long-term suppliers or distributors.  While the communication is often between two companies, they work together so often and so deeply that they could almost be regarded as colleagues.  But by far, the most communication is internal - from department to department.  It is generally the consequence of off-shoring and outsourcing which are also the main reasons why English is needed so badly at lower echelons in the company.  A typical situation might be an email between the quality auditor in the home country and the factory in Romania.  Another example is the software developer in India and the tester in Germany.

Third, communication is highly transactional, but... it is far more complex that "Could you please...?"  I hear all the time from new participants that they want to improve "small talk".  When I scratch beneath the surface however, I find that what they really want is the ability to build relationships with their international contacts to ease the transactional nature of business.  They want to build trust with their global colleagues and suppliers.  The second aspect of communicating in companies is that students enter a high-context culture.  Office discourse is so difficult because of the body of shared knowledge, differing objectives and the hierarchical structure of decision-making and information flow.  While the email may be a simple request for clarification on the surface, the context can quickly land the employee in hot water.  I'm not sure this second aspect can be dealt with in education, but the teacher may want to keep it in mind.

So, what do I recommend?

1.  Create a balanced English program - one-third general English, one-third general Business English, one-third field specific "ESP Lite".  General English is important and under represented in the secondary schools (at least in Germany).  From the ages of 12-16, English is taught resembling CLIL.  Looking through the state school books, there is a chapter on Australia, the Big Apple, and reading about Obama's election.  I can distinctly remember helping a friend's child try to learn the words, abolition, underground railroad, whip, and quilt.  Can you imagine the topic?  I don't want to exaggerate, nor do I wish to insult school teachers at all.  I merely want to point out that some of the content prior to entering university is of marginal value in business socializing.  Also, by the time they enter the workforce years later, they often lack the simplest vocabulary to discuss their weekend.  I think ongoing general English learning would be very helpful.  I also think that general Business English is helpful as a foundation up to the intermediate level.  The problem with higher levels is the content of the course book.  Course books are generally organized by field:  one chapter on HR, one on projects, one on marketing, etc.  This works up to B1-B2 but then they become overly specific in the fields.  I think "ESP Lite" would be extremely helpful.  This will help the students prepare for the next steps.

2.  Take a step back from standardization.  I understand that a certain level of standardization is needed in an institutional environment.  However, I also observe that university level Business English teachers are an incredibly talented and professional group.  When I present at BESIG conferences, this is the group which makes me the most nervous because of their knowledge, expertise and experience.  I periodically lead standardized training with larger classes, but I always work under a very general set of can do statements.  Within the statement is enough room for me to maneuver.  I am able to conduct a modified needs analysis to refine the training.  The more detailed the can do statement, the more we rely on the institution's needs analysis.  In others words, the can do statement (and thus the assessment) had better be relevant or else we are wasting everyone's time.  I'm just thinking out load, but do these expert university teachers really need a step-by-step lesson plan with page numbers and activity types?

3.  Fortify the feedback loop from practice to content.  I currently have the suspicion from my pre-experience learners that many need analysis are conducted in Oxford, Cambridge or in the halls of Pearson Education.  Instead, I recommend shortening the feedback loop by drawing on a few resources.  Most institutions have a career placement program to help students transition to careers.  Where are graduates going?  What are they doing?  If a job is unfamiliar, read example job descriptions or visit the US Department of Labor Occupational Handbook for more.  Another idea is to build a relationship with HR groups and/or in-company Business English trainers in the area to get feedback.  For example, did you know that presentations are often much different in technical fields?  First, PowerPoint slides need more text because they must be clear without a verbal presentation.  The slide decks can travel far in the company without any meeting or spoken communication at all.  Second, verbal presentations are typically less than 5 minutes long and the most common visual aid is an Excel spreadsheet.  A presentation given in 'ELT format' is completely irrelevant.

In conclusion, I want to be very clear that my observations about the challenges in Business English teaching cannot possibly reflect every institution and every teacher.  However, I have questions based on the number of participants I see entering the workforce without the ability to conduct even the most routine tasks in their field.  Their brains are full of valuable knowledge and ideas, but they are locked behind the bars of language and skills.  I hope that my thoughts add something to the pre-experienced vs. experience learner discussion and I look forward to hearing your feedback.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Three steps for improving ESP training

I've always been proud of my customer satisfaction figures.  Naturally, when I conduct my appraisals of Kirkpatrick's 4 Levels, I continue to see a slight decrease in results from response to results.  But, what has recently impressed me was how the whole satisfaction curve is starting to shift higher.  Greater engagement, faster application, higher results across the board.  On the emotional side, it is great to feel the customer mindset change from, "It's great training," to "It's absolutely vital training."  On the business side, referrals are up and sustainable success appears within reach.  It's inappropriate to boast, but I am genuinely proud that changes I made in training style and course design are starting to make a difference.  I'd like to describe a few of those changes.

Anyone who has read this blog or met me will know how passionate I am about relevance in training and using performance-based training methods.  In practice, this often means using framework materials.  Taken to the next step, it means using only pens, paper, whiteboards and the internet.  The trouble with approaching training with such limited resources is that you are restricted to the collective memory of the learning team (me + the participants) and what we can immediately resource using the internet.  This poses a distinct challenge for handling ESP situations in which I am not an expert.  Google only handles ESP at a general level, and the participants doubt the ability of the trainer to understand the complexity of the topic.  So here are the simplified steps to ESP.

Step 1 - Get the critical mass of knowledge

Yes, that is right... research.  I know you have heard this before, but it actually takes less effort than you realize.  Here are few ideas for researching an ESP topic.

1.  The standard - have them present it to you in class.  No articles, no handouts, just a whiteboard and a marker.  "Explain this to me."  Check Evan Frendo's blog for an idea on how to do this.  Or simply draw this on the board.

2.  Have sticky fingers - someone brings up a concept or process in class, ask them to send you a diagram of it.  Visit them at their desk... collect artifacts posted around their cubical/office.  Can't take copies or get the information?  Contact your training coordinator to sign a non-disclosure agreement.  I've never had a client refuse... they want this level of relevance.  If a participant talks about a supplier/customer in class, bring it up on the internet and bookmark it.

3.  Text mining - Your chances of piercing the discourse community without text mining and corpus analysis are close to zero.  If you are relying on the ESL publishing industry for this, all I can say is good luck.  My dual language dictionary for engineering is twice as thick as my Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English.  There isn't the time here to go into corpus analysis and finding key words or clusters, but it doesn't take that long.  I recently encountered the need for vocabulary around air-cooled systems.  It took me less than an hour to find 200 key words from 'fins' to 'obstruct'.  

Where can you get texts for mining?  Start general... wikipedia.  Then move to specifics by visiting suppliers/providers.  Copy and paste product descriptions into a concordancer for key terms (usually nouns) and scan the text for verbs.  But remember, the goal here isn't to immediately create materials... that step will come.

4.  Use professional associations - Nearly every specialty field has a professional association attached to it.  Want finance?  Go to IFRS.  Want software service?  Go to ITIL.  Want project management?  Go to PMI or search PRINCE2.  Read a bit.

Remember, you don't need to be an expert, just have enough knowledge for the next step.

Step 2 - Demonstrate your knowledge constantly

Okay, so you have some research and knowledge.  You know some key words, a few acronyms and you have a general idea of how theory works.  Now it's time for the next step, use your knowledge.

Situation:  I need to teach my participants in the software department the difference in meaning between will, going to and the present continuous.  For practice, I can:
a) bring in an illegal photocopy from Murphy with sentences like, "Mary ___________ (attend) the party on Friday."
b) bring in an illegal photocopy of a technical English coursebook with sentences like, "Hans ________ (investigate) the bearing failure next week."
c)  write "I _________ (finish) installing the new compiler version." on the whiteboard.
d)  create a two part controlled practice exercise in which participant A creates sentences, then a gap fill for participant B.
Which should I use?

You probably guessed it right, option C or D.  The materials-light approach allows us to continuously create our own example sentences and relevant exercises.  We picked up the key words from our text mining.  We have a pretty clear idea of functions (i.e. grammar) from our needs analysis, diagnostic test and 'explain it to me' activity.  The goal here is three-fold.  We need to teach them the material so they can notice it, test it and use it.  We need to provide them with clearly relevant language input.  And finally, we need to demonstrate that we understand their discourse community for the next step.

Step 3 - Keep pushing them into more detail

In the past I stopped at step 2.  That generated good results, but there was a limit.  It wasn't enough.  Then I accidentally learned that framework materials were the key.  One of my favorite frameworks was the fish bone diagram which is used to analyze the possible root causes of a problem.  In general, the head of the 'fish' is the resulting problem and then then you add possible causes and contributing factors (a term from text mining) into the diagram.  I typically used this framework for could have, might have, etc.  But, then I figured out that as we drove the diagram deeper, the participants lost the vocabulary.  Even more troubling, it wasn't vocabulary which would appear in text mining.

This diagram led to all kind of activities...
1.  Vocabulary, of course... you have internet right?  Don't forget to check the professional association for the right term.
2.  Functions... you can take the results and build them into whatever is relevant.
3.  Skills... most problems are larger than one person and emails for request work perfectly here, meetings, too.
4.  Materials development... check off the words they know from your key word list and make materials within their zone of proximal development.

So then I tried other types of diagrams, like mind maps.  With a financial/tax/legal English client, we now have a working mind map over 10 levels deep as part of a PBL task.  Just keep pushing them for more detail.  As my Germans say, "Ach... die Wörter fehlen."  (Oh... the words are missing.)  But this is exactly my point.  In their discourse community everything general is already understood.  We need to get to the detailed tit-for-tat of their community.  Without research and without demonstrating understanding, step 3 will never happen.

But pushing them into more detail is the difference between great training and training they can't work without.