The needs of the business V’s the desires of the learner

The lesson has begun.  We have conducted and have our super detailed needs analysis to hand. We make a start on the lesson’s based on our interpretation of the needs analysis ( handling conflict on a telephone,  vocabulary relating to merges and take-overs, analysing data, writing effective business emails etc).  However something is wrong. 4 weeks, 2 months, 1/4 year  (whenever) into the course and motivation seems to be going down, energy is low, the fun is disappearing, attendance is dropping, the learners are beginning to prioritize other things, the lessons are becoming slow and painful and just getting the learners to talk becomes a hardship……what could be wrong?

Now I want to state as I’m sure you would agree, there isn’t one sole reason for this happening.  It could one of a number reasons.  Even so, I have recently had a discussion with one of my colleagues Charles Rei (click here for his blog) that relates to the above scenario and also one of the possible causes of it, which to a degree is a problem we both face & also  that many other Business English trainers possibly face on a regular basis.  Now admittedly the above scenario is a bit extreme, and I have to say it certainly doesn’t happen like that in mine or Charles’s lessons (If it did, I would certainly think about finding a new career!), but it did prompt me to delve a little bit deeper into my thoughts and to think about this challenge which I would like to share with you today.  The challenge I pose is….

If there is a clear gap or difference, do we as Business language trainers focus on the needs and expectations of the business &  investor or do we focus on the desires & expectations of the learners?

The first thing I want to mention is the needs analysis.   In the past and quite recently I have read  many great articles and blogs on how to conduct an effective needs analysis and also read plenty of stimulating literature covering what information & details should / must be obtained.  This is all well and good.   However, even assuming we created & used simply the best and most amazing method of gathering this business informationand  the information gathered is complete and accurate.  Let’s assume this enables us to clearly understand the functions, communication exchanges, tasks and responsibilities of our learners, departments and business.  This in turn then allows us to create an all thrills singing and dancing syllabus / program.  Doall these assumptions then equate to highly effective and productive learning, activation and retention?  Does is it even significantly contribute to the cause?  I guess at the very is possible (a maybe).  I don’t want to dismiss the importance of the needs analysis, but I think we shouldn’t fall into the trap of assuming if we do a good analysis and we learly cunderstand the leaners job and their business English needs, we in-turn really know their true desires.

Of course sometimes we work with learners that have genuine business English desires who are driven, who want to succeed and progress in their careers, these people have desires which are in-line with the business’s expectations, thus there is no issue and usually no problem with attendance and motivation when sticking to pure business themes which are harmonious to the learner and business and thus no conflict with the investor.

However there is a flip-side to this.  Quite surprisingly, there seems to be more and more learners taking part in company based business English courses that are financed by the company, who have no or very little desire to learn out-and-out Business English.  These learners for this post are my focus…

First of all we have the learners with zero or next to no exposure to English in their jobs who somehow manage to slip through this net (with ever-increasing surprisingly big holes).  Why don’t these learner have a desire for business English?  This should be easy & clear to understand and explain, but just becuase they don’t use English in their jobs, does this mean we don’t necesssarily have to focus on business contexts.  After all  the company is paying for the lessons!  Why is the company financing it you may ask?  That is for a different post.

Secondly, what about the learners who do interact internationally using English, who do have real business English needs, who maybe even want to progress their careers in international business, but for some reason they still have no real desire to really learn & focus on Business English that is important & relevant to their jobs.

The question I ask is not, why don’t they want to learn Business English that is relevant to their jo? But rather, how do we train them, improve their Business English, keep them motivated while at the same time meeting the expectations of the business & investor?  Needless to say this can be a delicate and sensitive problem.  Here are some of my insights and idea’s.

First let’s go back to the needs analysis. Think about it.  Does all this data, input and information from the needs analysis always mean & equate to ‘what the leaners really want & expect’ (i.e  their desires)?  In my humble opinion, certainly not  & sometimes not very often!  What all this info on business, personal and departmental functions  always does mean and equate to though is –  the business’s or investors needs.

When we drill-down, this needs analysis info is simply the needs of the business so their employees can perform more efficiently and make the business more profit!  Take away the employee from the business and those needs for that learner don’t generally exist anymore (unless the learner is highly career orientated and is committed to improving their business English).  However let’s not hide from the fact that the learner is an employee / asset of the business, so those needs are real (for the business), but they are external needs, not normally the powerful  internally motivated needs of the leaner.  The learners powerful desires & expectations are often different (sometimes very different) to the needs of the business.  Fact!

However when you step back from all this ‘the company needs this, the learner wants this’,  there usually is a common interest between the business / investor and a motivated learner?  The wish or interest in the learner learning & improving their English!  That’s why the business is paying for the class and that’s why the learner is giving up his time and sat down in your lesson.  This common interest is what I like to focus on.

I totally understand as an in-house business English trainer that I have 2 customers to satisfy and it would be crazy and unjustified to neglect the business needs and expectations.  But I would be equally if not more so in-sane to neglect the learners desires and expectations.  So how do we progress with learners who want to improve their English but don’t want to deal with business English?  We have some options;

Option 1 = Focus on business needs & business contexts.  Result = demotivated, uninspired, bored & frustrated learners = minimal language acquisition and retention, a drop-off in attendance followed by no learners = no class or course.  Result = Total failure.

Option 2 = Focus on learners desires = motivated, happy & engaged learners = good chance of productive lessons = promotes language improvement & acquisition.  Result = Successful.  However, evenrually the investor learns about the lesson context & direction and pulls the plug = no lessons and no more learning.  Final result = Failure

Excuse the basic nature of my summary above, but this is a snap-shot of the reality I have faced & do face.  Think about option 1.  Would you read a book or watch a documentary on TV week after week that was based on a topic you didn’t have the slightest interest in learning about?  If you were in a bar and you met someone new and you were talking  about a topic that you had no interest in, would you stick around?  It’s a no brainer!  You would be off like I flash.  I think anyone who would rigorously pursue this option by putting the business needs first in my opinion be it in 3 months or 9 months is ultimately destined for failure.

Regarding option 2.  It is obvious this is a more successful & more effective alternative & focus for the promotion of learning.  But it is heavily dependant on having the investor on-board & agreeing to teaching outside his direct business needs and contexts orhim simply not knowing .  Frankly it’s not likely to happen, certainly not too often.  So the success is only partial & temporary until the lessons are stopped by the angry investor who is unhappy with the service I have provided because from his perspective I haven’t met his direct business needs.

There is an option 3:  The option I try to  use but let me assure you it’s not always plain sailing and problem-free.

First of all I want to point out an opinion I have.  I believe an investor or an English trainer is being too anal and short-sighted if they think talking about travel, the personal lives of the learners or having a debate or a meeting about a non-business topic ( for example racism in sports) has no place in a business English classroom.   Isn’t the whole idea / objective to get the learner producing language to promote retention and activation be it through writing or speaking.  Does it matter is we are debating, having a meeting and discussing football racism instead of a meeting in the context of Quality management or Production or forecasts and sales.   Certainly there is a vast cross-over in language form & structure & lexis that is used in a general context and also in a business context.  For example, when debating racism in sport we are using  language for clarifying, interrupting, putting your point across, controlling the participants, agreeing / disagreeing etc – these are all used in the corporate meeting room too.   Is Business English just general English put packaged differently (packaged meaning same structures and forms – just different vocab & lexis)?…I don’t want to say yes, but I am certainly leaning heavily to the ‘yes’ side.  As long as the learners are engaged, committed and producing language that has similarities and can be related back to business English, that can be reviewed, corrected, improved and built upon, shouldn’t we as trainers be happy, shouldn’t the investors be satisfied?  I certainly think so.

About my personal strategy or approach.  It could possibly be described as quite cute, cleaver, deceitful, manipulative even though I am sure it is shared by many,  more so probably from the Dogme followers.   It’s just based on keeping an open mind, being flexible, spontaneous and creative.  It about looking for and waiting for those moments / opportunities where you can take the lesson into a more business English direction that is more in-line with the need of the business / investor.  Of course it isn’t always possible and I am certainly not saying this allows me to fully meet the needs of the business.  Sometimes a full lesson or 2 might go by that has involved 100% non relevant business specific language and lexis.  But even so, the learners have had a real opportunity to practice & improve their English which in turn benefits the company.

I also believe that a key part of making this ‘needs balancing act’ & also training in general successful is having wide WIDE open communication channels between and with the learners.  An essential part of this is feedback, be it lesson by lesson or periodically.  A little word of caution though, I believe you have to be ready to drop your ego & I know best attitude and any stubbornness you have, and be ready to listen, accept and change.  Remember everyone is different!

Finally I focus a lot on helping the learner to become a more effective, a more responsible and more independant learner.  Helping them build their awareness of the language, of language patterns.  Introducing effective memory and retention techniques for vocabulary.  Discussing new learning and teaching methodologies.  Introducing learning tools and showing them effective effective learning resources on the web and how to use them.  Discussing possible self learning opportunities, how to record language, how not to, using & making a learning port folio…the list goes on and on….!

To summarise.  In my humble  opinion it all simply boils down to..genuine motivated learners need & want to improve their English.  If the learners improve their general or business English, they will improve their work performance relating to their English tasks.  It goes hand-in-hand!  Okay if the focus was specifically focused on their business needs and focused on business language contexts great, but that is not always possible.

My final question:  Isn’t a happy motivated learner who has succeeded in improving his business language say by 50%  achieved by sometimes focusing on general English a better option than a demotivated frustrated learner who was forced to learn Business English and in reality improved their business English by 10% or possibly 0% because he/she left the course?  Only you can answer.

I would like to end the post now, but one other question or issue has just popped in my head is “What do we do when the class has mixed needs and desires – some want to focus on more standard English and others who are career driven want to 100% focus on business & work related skills and language”?

I hope you have enjoyed my post I hope it poses some interesting questions and insights for you to think about.  I would love to gather some feedback on how other trainers deal with or would deal with this problem.  Thanks for reading.



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3 responses to “The needs of the business V’s the desires of the learner

  1. Charles Rei

    Great post and well thought out. I’m glad we had the chance to discuss this because we each have our own ways of dealing with this scenario. I’m with you that language functions and skills can be integrated into any context, but here’s my challenge question for you.

    How often when I ask about the goals of students do I hear the phrase, “It’s the words, I just don’t have the words…” So, how do we get that vocabulary into the mix without focusing on a business context? In particular, I am talking about the nouns. For example, if the employee works in logistics, there are certain terms they should be able to use effortlessly (bill of lading, incoterms, quarantine, etc.) The verbs are less difficult. For example, I just ran a set of lessons on advertising, ending with policies restricting ads to children, smoking commercials, visual pollution, etc. It was very interesting for all and allowed us to integrate ban, limit, regulate, permit, prohibit, etc. But if the investor needs are like getting a child to eat their vegetables, how do you inspire them to take all their vitamins?

    By the way, have you seen the Lifestyles course book series? The authors do a great job of mixing business and general English. It offers a few ideas (with adaptation).

    Great post and I look forward to picking your brain some more. I have tons to learn 🙂

  2. Greetings young Jedi master (Charles). The force is strong with you but you have much to learn. 😉 Thanks for the comment

    Regarding your question, how many times do I hear the words? “I just don’t have the words”. My answer is probably just as much you.

    Occasionally I have Ss saying the above but they have no interest in focusing on this in the classroom as they are in context with it every day at work. I have found that in this scenario, it is best to teach them how to become more independent learners by building their awareness and how to effectively record and recycle the lexis and terms. For me this is a MUST for all learners.

    You say “if someone is working in a logistics department then there are certain words he should know”. From the businesses and his jobs perspective, yes he should know them, but does he personally have a real desire to know them? Let’s remember what you think he should have, what the business thinks he should have isn’t necessarily what he really wants. Correct me if you disagree, but if this guy genuinely wants these phrases and specialised nouns then he will be motivated and driven to obtain this vocabulary, so in reality there should be few issues with starting the lesson with a clear business focus and in a business relevant context.

    Assuming we have to be a bit more tactful and manipulative. Say we have started the lesson with an open book and the lesson through conversation either naturally or maybe with some gentle trainer lead direction, ends up on a logistics context. You can break away from the conversation and get them to brainstorm and pool vocab / lexis in a mind-map, encourage making collocations, explore other derived forms, synonyms, fire-up the internet get them to find new language using online dictionaries / searches, feed in your own phrases. I often start simple Q&A sessions using these news pieces of lexis and asking questions using as many wh question words as possible. For example ‘to hold in quarantine – why should something be held in quarantine, how often…how many, what is in quarantine at the moment, why? The questions don’t have to be earth shattering, it is just to get them talking about the target lexis and promote retention and so you can check their understanding. Or even get the Ss to create their own questions. All of which produced more language for review and improvement.

    Another cool way is a method I got off someone’s blog not so long ago (called ‘Open English’). However this needs a little preparation but it sooo simple. I can show you tomorrow. Basically you have photo (for example of a logistics / distribution centre. The from the photo lexis is elicited (they can add their own to the blank (hence the name ‘open English’) worksheet and you can add your lexis (that you think will be useful) From this vocabulary, there is a multitude of simple tasks that can be done to generate language that can be reviewed and improved and should promote learning

    Or alternatively get the Ss to bring in their own photos – this could be an open theme or if you want to focus on logistics insist that the photo is relating in some way to this theme.

    Another method is getting the Ss to find their own article and create their own comprehension and vocabulary questions for the next lesson. You can even then further use the article in the next lesson using any other useful language it contains or for discussion.

    Finally, recycle, recycle. Try and find a fun method. Use games and maybe a little bit of friendly competition.

    I know it can be hard to introduce all the required and colourful terms and lexis at the drop of a hat, but there is no reason why more vocabulary can’t be introduced in the next lesson as a link and continuation of the last lesson.

    Greetings and have a good evening Using technology Jedi Master

  3. Okay Yoda 🙂 We could back and forth on this all day. That’s what makes working with you so interesting.

    I think on the whole we agree that learner autonomy and open channels of communication are important. But you seem to be suggesting that this will someone cause them to go out and fill the language gaps themselves. I am not so sure about that.

    Speaking for myself, I know my German needs work. Some days I am C2, some days I feel like I can’t order a beer. I want to take some classes to help make it more consistent. But I wouldn’t actually be able to tell my teacher exactly what I need. And I am a language teacher! Second, I don’t have the time, energy, or motivation to go out and self-study. So I am willing to pay someone to find out what I need to know and then deliver that training. Sure, I want classes that are interesting. Definitely, I want maximum speaking time. Also yes, I want to be able to make some decisions about my lessons. But on the whole, I want the trainer to do a needs analysis, put together lessons to fulfill these requirements, and give it to me. I think many my busy professionals have much the same mentality.

    So, because the learner may not know what they need, sometimes some starting points help. The organization helps with this by providing certain can-do statements (it may be a whole range, or only a few specific points). Their specific job provides another great starting point because success breeds motivation (notice I use the corrolary of your “motivation breeds success” thinking). I know I’ve hit one out of the park when I hear the feedback, “This is exactly what we need for our jobs.” Sometimes the most direct path is the easiest. Fun, yes. Enjoyable, yes. Directly applicable… also yes. I certainly cultivate and encourage learner autonomy because it will give them more than we can ever hope to cover in a 90 minute lesson. You make a great point about adapting to learners, open the lines of communication, recyling material, bringing in student material, etc. All great.

    But at the end, I would rather find a way to motivate the learner to reach the job performance measures than change the performance measures to fit the learner’s wishes.

    You have a great teaching style; we both know it. I look forward to hearing about your next lessons and bouncing ideas back and forth.

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