Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Sourcing Materials

This past weekend, I held a workshop with ELTA Rhine on customizing training and materials lights lessons.  During and after the session, it was clear that sourcing materials was an issue for trainers looking to focus on relevance.  Let's dive a little deeper into the topic of materials and examine what we need, why we need them and where we can find them.

Assumption 1 - There is a difference between "talking about business" and "talking to do business".

This is Evan Frendo's concise and clear statement about not only materials, but also about the tasks we ask our learners to accomplish.  It is great for the learners to 'teach us their business', but this falls into the first category and will not accomplish all the training needs.  We have to balance both types of activities.

The problem for trainers is that materials "about" business are much easier to find.  The internet is full of them.  Let's take a simple example.

You are training a group in production and one of your can-do statements is that they can explain the production process.  You decide to use a YouTube video about how Lego blocks are made, mine the video for key language and have the participants give talks describing their production process (maybe even on the shop floor).  It's likely that this is a useful skill, but it does not fully simulate a meeting to discuss changes to refine the production process.  We are a step short of achieving full relevance.  Wouldn't it be nice to have an example of the real meeting?

Assumption 2 - Getting the "real thing" is nearly impossible.

We can hypothesize all we want about recording real meetings and presentations.  The simple fact is that we will probably never get the approval to do it.  Non-disclosure agreements are key part of doing business, but they are only a baseline for trust.  There is still a 'need-to-know' level of integration.

The main reason why recording real meetings is a no-go is because the learners are not lab rats.  They are trying to do business in these situations.  Politics, reputations and personal relationships all come into play in meetings.  It is generally best if we don't ask to record them for 'research purposes'.

Assumption 3 - Real meetings are much different than the recorded models in the course book.

Meetings are messy affairs.  I'm convinced that meetings are the most difficult skill.  Topics appear out of blue, there is so much interference (semantic, cultural, pronunciation, technical, etc.) that its a wonder they work at all.  But for the trainer, the most difficult part is that meetings contain highly detailed information exchange.  For an outsider, it is very difficult to 'script' a meeting and practice it.

Additionally, meetings can be very boring.  There are many books and websites about effective meetings for good reason.  Employees are often justified for hating them.  Even if I did have a recording, I probably wouldn't play it because everyone would be asleep.  Most participants and chairpersons will acknowledge that their meetings could be better, but they probably can't say exactly how they should improve.

Example dialog with a participant:

Me:  How could the meeting be better?
Them:  Some people are giving too much information about their topic and it is not interesting for the group.
Me:  Okay, where is the line?  How much information is too much?
Them:  Well, they should only talk about what has an impact on the others.
Me:  I agree, let's try it... in your area, where is the 'information line'?  What level of information is valuable for the others (including the manager), and what is too much?
Them:  Hmm... good question.  That's difficult to say.

Okay, so what can we do?

1.  Gather artifacts.  Emails and PowerPoint slides are relatively easy to get.  One main constraint is the group setting.  If you have learners from different companies and/or departments, the materials cannot usually be used in class verbatim.  They typically need to be altered to conceal the information.  I will often use emails and slides to create my own 'similar' materials - using the same language, but with different content.  Even if you can't get them digitally, just looking at them is helpful.

I call them artifacts because like a researcher, these are any item which reveals something about communication.  Artifacts fall into two categories - communication itself, and evidence of communication.

Communication itself:
- Emails
- Presentations (the written communication)
- How-to's
- Forms (e.g. change request forms)
- Reports
- Handbooks
- Contracts and other formal documents

Evidence of communication:
- Meeting minutes and agendas
- Presentations (evidence of the verbal part)
- Descriptions of meeting (like for a communicative event needs analysis)
- Diagrams and charts
- Excel spreadsheets
- Workflows and flow charts

While these artifacts cannot always be used to re-enact the exact situation, they will often get you much closer.

2.  Research English in use.  I generally use several sources for this.

First, if you haven't read Almut Koester's books on workplace discourse, now is the time.  I also recommend Patrick Lencioni's Death by Meeting and Five Dysfunctions of a Team because they are narratives with great dialog from meetings.

Second, I have used transcripts from meetings to identify some key language.  If you enter "meeting transcripts" into Google, you will find many transcribed sessions from government meetings, hearings, presentations, etc.  I don't use them in class because they are horribly boring, but there are some great phrases.  The problem with these is that they are too organized.  Real meetings are generally more chaotic.  For emails, Evan Frendo has recommended the Enron corpus and it looks promising.  Sadly, I haven't had the chance to go through it.

Third, I use my own life.  I have meetings, write emails, make telephone calls, etc.  I have used my inbox several times in training as the basis for language work.  I collect phrases and vocabulary from meetings I have with other trainers, clients, etc (even if the meeting is in German).

A note about Listening: Collins English for Business by Ian Badger.  This book made quite a splash a few years ago for its recording of real people.  I use it and I like it.  Sadly, there are too few examples of dialog.

3.  Refine role-plays and simulations.  

It is a good idea to ask the participants how the rehearsed situation differs from the real thing.  Inevitably, they will give you a list of things you can't really change, such as accent.  However, they may also give you ideas for your next role-play.  For example, if I get the feedback that some people in the meeting speak too quickly with higher vocabulary, then I might participate in the next meeting and try to fulfill that role.

So, I admit that sourcing materials/resources for customized training is not easy.  But I guess that is the nature of the beast.  If sourcing materials were easy, it wouldn't be customized training, would it?

One final note - observing real meetings is really the best we can do.  I am lucky enough to have a project in which that is possible.  But I understand that this project is different.  It has strong management and participant support is limited to a specific team with in a department.  I have offered to observe meetings in other projects to no avail (after all, you have to get the buy-in from all the participants).  If you find the opportunity... take it.

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