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.

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