How to write corporate training materials | Book review

How To Write Corporate Training Materials.jpg

Title: How to write corporate training materials

Authors: Evan Frendo

Publisher: ELT Teacher 2 Writer | Smashwords edition

Year of publication: 2014

Companion resources: NA

Source: Complimentary ebook from the author

A couple of years ago, I met a teacher (let’s call her Meera) at a conference who’d been working with tertiary institutions on a freelance basis. Meera wanted to get into corporate training and was wondering if she could partner with me on a project. I didn’t really have anything for her at the time but a few months later I found myself on the phone with a client who desperately wanted a bespoke solution rolled out for an urgent need. My schedule was chock-a-block at the time and I didn’t have the bandwidth (as we say in corporate circles) to design the materials and deploy someone else to teach the course. So I asked them to take things forward with Meera (who I judged as fairly competent), which they did.

Little did I realise that I’d done them both a great injustice. Meera was utterly unprepared for the engagement and the client had assumed that she was on the ball because I’d recommended her. I know we often bandy about the bland encouragement to General English teachers that Business English and ESP courses don’t require them to be experts in business, management or a particular industry and that their expertise in language will help them sail through. I’m afraid it’s a claim that’s simultaneously true and false.

The uninitiated teacher or trainer risks missing the forest for the trees. Meera apparently did an intensive needs analysis but her focus was very narrow and the sorts of information she collected caused her churn out or select run of the mill language exercises with token nods to the business setting.  Her materials were completely divorced from the context that her learners worked in and required language for and the specific need that she had been called in to address.

Knowing what to look for and how to feed these insights into materials-design comes with experience, and it helps if you’ve spent time with a corporate setup in a business/operational role i.e., not training or teaching. In the absence of that kind of experience, Frendo’s How to write corporate training materials could be a useful primer.

A key strength of this book is the extent to which it aligns practices to what typically happens within organisations. The idea that we should “investigate discourse practices” instead of merely collecting language needs, strikes a chord with me. Beyond educating the practitioner about process and projects, and SOPs and SIPOC charts, Frendo offers a series of incisive tasks that raise awareness of language, strategies and issues we ought to consider when developing corporate training materials.

My favourites include task 6 which draws on research by Williams (1998) comparing the language prescribed by coursebooks for functions within meetings with actual usage.

Agreeing

Examples from contemporary textbooks:

  • You’ve got a point there.
  • I totally agree with you.
  • Absolutely. / Precisely. / Exactly.

Examples from real-life business meetings:

  • Mmm
  • implied by the function ‘accept (e.g., yes)
  • implied by not disagreeing
  • nods

Frendo goes on to state:

It is easy to see why St John described business English as ‘a material-led movement rather than a research-led movement’ (p15). It is writer’s intuition, rather than what we know about discourse, which has been leading the way. And many commentators feel that not much has changed since that article was written.

There are also several transcript-based tasks that draw attention to features of Business English as a Lingua Franca (BELF) including “code-switching, ellipsis, silence, incomplete utterances, repetition, deviation from ‘standard’ English” all of which Frendo suggests as worth exploring in the training room.

I found the section on techniques for gathering this kind of evidence interesting. There were some that I was familiar with such as language snippets, recordings, corpus analysis, work shadowing and questionnaires and others that I’ve never actually used such as simulated conversations and anecdote circles (sort of like an FGD but more informal).

Task 11 is another interesting one. It asks the reader to analyse an annual report and identify authentic texts that could be used for different roles and needs. I wonder how many Business English trainers have actually read an annual report.

There are also case studies of training projects Frendo has worked on and the solutions he facilitated. Again, we see a strong integration of what actually happens in organizations such as scrum meetings and how this might unfold in a training programme.

How to write corporate training materials is a useful compilation of practices for someone who is making the transition from General English to Business English/ESP and it’s particularly relevant to those who are working as independent consultants. However, it’s also full of insights for practitioners who have been consulting in corporate contexts for a while because it questions some of our practices, especially when we rely on intuition, rather than observation and research to inform our design.

You can purchase the book from Amazon as a direct download or through the Kindle and you can read more about Frendo’s work at his site.

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This is crap | An intercultural competence activity

This activity is based on an article by Erin Meyer titled How to say “this is crap” in different cultures. Meyer recycles some material from an old Internet meme about British-Dutch cultural differences. Nevertheless, it demonstrates differences in how people convey feedback linguistically quite well.

intercultural feedback

Image attribution: Meeting by Howard Jefferson | Flickr | CC BY-NC 2.0

Objective 

Raise awareness of the cultural gap caused by direct vs. indirect approaches to giving feedback  and allow learners an opportunity to discuss ways of mitigating risks arising from these differences

Materials

Make copies of and cut up the table titled ‘Anglo-Dutch Translation Guide’ in this article. You don’t need to use the entire table as participants might take too long to unjumble it. Select four rows that your learners might find interesting.

Procedure

  • Board the phrase “this is absolute crap” and ask participants if they would ever use this phrase while giving feedback to a colleague about some work they’ve done. Ask them to discuss the reasons for their response with a partner.
  • As you take whole class feedback, you’ll find some participants articulating a softer response such as “this is sort of what I was looking for”. Board these.
  • Derive that some cultures are more explicit or direct in communicating feedback.
    • Upgraders: These direct cultures tend to use upgraders such as absolutely, strongly, or totally before negative feedback to strengthen it such as “This is absolutely inappropriate”. In these cultures, “this is absolute crap” may be perceived as acceptable.
  • Point out that other cultures are more implicit or indirect as perhaps with the utterances shared by the participants for softening the message.
    • Downgraders: These indirect cultures tend to use downgraders such as kind of, sort of, a little, a bit, maybe and slightly to soften the blow. They might also use a type of downgrader called an understatement such as “We are not quite there yet”.
  • Ask participants to categorize some national cultures based on whether they are relatively direct or indirect (bear in mind that indirect cultures like India often perceive themselves as more or less direct).
  • Board participants’ suggestions and circle the UK & the Netherlands.
  • Signpost the cutouts and state that the cutouts belong under three headers: What the British say, What the British mean, and What the Dutch understand. Ask participants to work in groups to put them in the right categories.
  • Get participants to identify the gap between what is being said/meant and what is understood and the problems this might create.

Action planning

  • Ask participants to think about the kind of culture they come from – indirect/direct – and consider their own personal orientation to giving feedback. Do they use upgraders or downgraders?
  • Have them imagine a situation where they are working with someone who has a different preference to feedback than them, what could they do to ensure that they are not misunderstood or don’t end up damaging the business relationship.

Reference: Meyer, E., How To Say “This Is Crap” In Different Cultures in the Harvard Business Review, Feb 2014.

Repeat again | An evidence-based matrix activity

A matrix activity or game is an instructional strategy for getting learners to categorize, come up with solutions, or discuss points presented within a grid. This particular activity is based on research presented in the ‘Defend your research’ section of the Harvard Business Review.

communication.png

Image attribution: Phone by HanZhan | Flickr | CC BY-NC 2.0


Objective 

Redundancies (such as the one in this activity’s name) are seen as a sign of a poor communicator but a study in this area reveals that there may be a strategic purpose behind repeating yourself. The activity challenges learners to question popular perceptions about redundant communication and reflect on how they assign tasks to their team members.

Pre-work 

It might be a good idea for the T to read this HBR article – Defend Your Research: Effective Managers Say the Same Thing Twice (or More)

Materials 

You’ll need copies of the activity handout for each participant.

Procedure

  • Lead in to the activity by asking participants to discuss in pairs how they go about assigning a task to a team member. You may want to give them an example such as “You need your team member to create a report for you” – how will you go about assigning this task?

Part A

  • Distribute the activity handout and ask participants to read the two caselets individually and fill the communication matrix. You may need to signpost the example and demonstrate that they need to do two things. First, put ticks and crosses based on which modes of communication they’d use in that situation. Second, rank their ticks based on what they’d do first, second, third, etc. Point out that they don’t need to necessarily have more than one tick.

Part B

  • Ask participants compare their matrices in pairs and discuss the rationale behind the modes they’ve selected.

Part C

  • Ask participants to now read the summary of the research provided in the handout. They should compare their own ideas to the findings of the study.

Part D 

  • Get participants to discuss some reflection questions on whether they agree with the study and why managers might be increasingly using redundant communication.

Action planning

You may want to conclude the exercise by getting participants to do some action planning. In light of this research, are there any changes they would want to make to their approach to assigning work?

Reference: Neely, T. & Leonardi, P.M., Defend your Research: Effective Managers Say the Same Thing Twice (or More) in the Harvard Business Review, May 2011.

Using project management principles in the classroom | IATEFL webinar summary + reflections

The reason I’m singling out this webinar out of the eight or nine events that comprised the IATEFL online conference which took place last weekend is its title. Using project management principles in the classroom (with the subtext – bring out the team player in your learners) was certainly full of promise for someone like me who frequently works with organisations where everything happens through the all-encompassing framework of the project.

project management

The speaker, Nathan Arthur, described the gaps between university and work which EAP does not bridge. He suggested that project management principles could help resolve this through a “subtle paradigm shift”:

  • In the physical layout of the classroom to make it look more like a conference room
  • By using real plays (where Ss presumably play themselves or present their own views) instead of role plays
  • EPM (English for Project Management) in lieu of ESP & EAP.

He also discussed how current EAP objectives could be extended to make them address EPM needs:

Develop academic skills >>> Develop professional skills

Develop critical thinking >>> Develop team thinking skills

Guide Ss through realistic situations for university >>> Ss manage themselves through realistic situations for the workplace

Focus on the core skills for academic study >>> Focus on the core skills needed for workplace teamwork

Nathan went on to describe how Ts can run projects using the framework of a project cycle (Initiation, planning & design, executing, monitoring & controlling, closing) and offered an example of a task he’d conducted which involved revamping the university newspaper.  He imposed some constraints on the Ss in terms of cost, scope and schedule and expected them to work with a team of 10 to produce the first run of the newspaper in 3 weeks. He also assigned a project manager. There are some tasks associated with each of the project cycle stages (e.g., brainstorming during planning). Nathan explained that he didn’t correct them or provide language input during the activity (by which I assume he means over the course of the 3 weeks) but waited till the end to provide guidance on words such as milestones, green light or sign off. He also added that he observed some cultural issues (Chinese deference to hierarchy & French uncertainty avoidance) but it wasn’t entirely clear how he dealt with these.

He then mentioned four roles based on his observation of student participation in projects: dominator, shrinker, shirker and joker. He suggested that these transformed into four leadership types, dominator, supporter, delegator and coach (drawn from The Mindful International Manager, Comfort & Franklin, 2011). This mapping seemed quite arbitrary to me – for instance, why would it be natural for the humorous student to take on the role of the coach?

Nathan also coaches students on debating; he had an interesting idea around getting Ss to debate for and against two types of chocolate bars (Mars vs. Bounty). He also spoke about bringing team building activities into the classroom to bring out language and teamwork (spaghetti & lolly pop towers etc.) and made a brief mention of Kapla blocks for similar tower building activities.

Finally, he presented a list of ideas he hadn’t tried out yet but could be used for classroom projects:

  • Create your own start-up
  • Build an app
  • Publish a book of poems/short stories
  • Write an exam/syllabus and have Ss teach the first class
  • Go on field trips to film festivals and write film reviews

During the course of the webinar, there was an ongoing discussion in the chat box about whether the approach being discussed was really just a form or combination of TBL and PBL. One attendee in a way concluded this discussion when she stated “It is TBL, but I think the point is that EAP is sometimes too far removed from the actual target after conclusion of the uni course.” I agree that EAP is divorced from the real language needs that Ss face when they join the workforce but I also feel that Nathan’s suggestions, while undoubtedly interesting and potentially useful, don’t go far enough to bridge that chasm.

Several years ago at a BESIG event, Evan Frendo spoke about mirroring contemporary project practices in the tasks we design such as adopting the framework of agile methodology (popular in IT) and setting up scrum calls because these would better prepare Ss (whether they are already working or about to start work) for the actual challenges they face on the job. A key difference between agile and waterfall (its traditional project management predecessor) is the degree to which it is iterative and relatively egalitarian. Agile promotes a sense of ownership and a spirit of speaking up and sharing. These are invaluable skills for the modern workplace and if we can help shape the language that Ss use while enacting these business skills, they can potentially be more confident, fluent and accurate when it comes to the real thing.

To equip Ss to be successful team players in projects at work, we need to provide language input and feedback within the context of projects that attempt to replicate work patterns in the industries they are headed towards (not just generic college projects) where the T takes on the dual role of project delivery head and language coach.

Image attribution: Project Success by ken fager | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Personalised learning programmes | A BESIG workshop summary in 3 activities

Last weekend’s BESIG workshop, facilitated by David Petrie, was titled Personalised learning programmes – a pick and choose approach. David touched on issues such as personalised learning, differentiated instruction and teaching the student instead of the lesson. Towards the end of the webinar, he shared three activities for using students as resources and offering personalised learning:

1. Office modals 

Ask Ss to make three lists:

  • Things my boss makes me do
  • Things I think it’s important to do
  • Things it would be a good idea to do around here.

Personalised learning

Ss explore the items in these lists by reframing them using some suggested modals.

2. Office gossip

Ask Ss to work in pairs to share some hopefully innocuous gossip. Then put Ss into new pairs and have them share the gossip they heard using reported speech.

3. The meatloaf game 

Ask Ss to write down ten things that are a part of their job role that they like doing and ten things that they hate. They should write each item on separate piece of paper. I think ten’s a bit much for even a medium sized class – five might be more manageable. 

Have Ss crumple the chits and play snowball fight with each other. Call time after a minute and have them collect chits so they are all equally distributed. Ss spend a couple of minutes reading through the chits – there’ll probably be some items that they dislike doing. They should negotiate with other Ss to trade job responsibilities so they have a list of things that they more or less like doing.

Techtip: Appgesyer 

David, like many of us, uses Google Forms to collect data during the needs analysis phase. He suggests distributing the form through a web app so it can be accessed easily on mobiles using a tool called Appgeyser which reformulates your web-content for the mobile device (Here’s an example he’s created). I’m not sure I see the point of doing this. Google Forms accessed via a normal mobile browser seems to display content fairly well and it makes sense to pin a web-app to the user’s mobile screen only if you want her to repeatedly access the link. David uses QR codes to share the Appgeyser URL (but you could do this with a normal URL as well) and Appgeyser offers a short URL. I see two issues with this: QR codes cause more problems than they solve especially when Ss are expected to use their own devices (and they’ve really not taken off in India); and the Appgeyser short URL is really not very short and would benefit from additional shortening using Goo.gl.  Appgeyser is worth exploring but I think there are far simpler and more efficient ways of distributing surveys created in Google Forms.

References

Lesson aims & business outcomes

Lesson aims and objectives

I recently saw this lesson aim in a Business English lesson plan that someone had created for a demo lesson as part of an interview.

To clarify the use of the past perfect in written business communication.

It identifies the target language and the use of the verb ‘clarify’ suggests that the Ss may be familiar with this form but are perhaps using it inaccurately. It also identifies the context for the language use. A fairly well-articulated aim, right? Well maybe in the world of ELT but not in business. After all, who are the consumers of lesson aims in corporate and business training? Sponsors, managers, HR folks and training heads. And what do the aims written in this way mean to them? Absolutely nothing.

Here are some aims from lessons plans that have come out of the business and ESP section of Onestopenglish, a couple are in fact by big names like Adrian Doff. If you were a delivery manager in a software company or an operations manager in a manufacturing firm  or an HR person in a consulting organization, what would these aims mean to you?

Rate the lesson aims on a scale between 1 to 5 where 5 describes a business performance outcome and 1 essentially describes what the teacher will cover or what Ss will learn in the lesson. But, rate them not as a teacher/trainer but a business sponsor.

A. To review important elements of good business writing in English, especially for letters and emails

B. Match a selection of functional questions and responses

C. To produce a description of the production process or the part of the production process they are responsible for or familiar with.

D. To use common expressions for talking about problems and difficulties.

E. Reviewing and extending positive adjectives, giving and receiving compliments.

F. Help medical students to write a case report.

G. To practise and expand vocabulary and phrases associated with fundamental market concepts
and activities.

H. To practise polite language used when taking customer orders

I. To talk about scope for doing things.

You probably feel that these are relatively better than that initial past perfect one. I’m afraid most of them are in fact meaningless to business managers. The two that are somewhat better and would probably get a 4 are F and H. Both talk about things the Ss will do on the job. On the other hand, E is clearly a 1. Even aims that seem ostensibly businessy may in fact not strike a chord with managers such as A and G because they don’t define business performance outcomes or what the employee will do back on the job with this newly honed skill.  You may have assigned C a score of 4 or 5 but this aim, albeit extremely job specific, does not describe the context and criteria under which the employee might do this and therefore is not a business outcome.

My perspective on this comes from many years of working closely with corporate entities on language training. Most organizations use some sort of competency framework to manage learning, drive performance, and ensure role readiness. The workhorse of competency frameworks is the performance outcome that describes what people do or should do back on the job. When sponsors are reviewing course outlines and design documents, they are always trying to fit the aims and objectives they read back into their existing competency frameworks.

I’ve actually taught a course along the lines of lesson aim C. It was for assembly plant workers at a pharmaceutical company and one of the situations they needed to speak in English was with USFDA auditors who would ask them general questions about their work before specific ones about SOPs that needed to be followed. Here’s a simple lesson aim that speaks directly to the managers of these assembly plant workers who worry about their employees fumbling when interrogated by these auditors.

Describe the drug manufacturing process they are responsible for with minimal hesitation to USFDA auditors during a formal plant review.

When the whole point of Business English or ESP  in corporate settings is addressing performance gaps, we can’t keep churning out lesson aims that make sense only to us. Moreover, articulating aims as business outcomes makes business sense as well . When program sponsors see clearly defined business performance outcomes, they are more likely to be receptive to the solution you’ve designed. I know it’s difficult to let go off the ingrained language and style of lesson aims that we are conditioned to write as a result of teacher-training courses but in the context of business, it’s something that’s well worth doing.

Image attribution: Darts by Richard Matthews  | CC by 2.0 

Discussion functions | A turn-taking activity

Discussion functions

A couple of days ago, I wrote about a course I taught last week where I needed to encourage my Ss to speak up. The other activity I used to spur my Ss to participate more actively in discussions was one I borrowed from Leadership Games by Stephen S. Kaagan. I must confess that I didn’t really focus on turn-taking as a skill as much as I did on giving Ss doable ideas for making their voices heard but it could be used quite effectively to practice language for turn-taking. I thought this was a very successful activity.

Materials 

Discussion function cards for each person, you’ll need 1 NT, 1 S, 1 I, 2 Qs and 4 Bs as in the image.

Procedure 

  • Divide your class into groups of 5 or 6 but no more than that or it will get unwieldy.
  • Write up a key for the cards on the WB or on a slide:
    • B: Build on an idea shared by the previous speaker.
    • NT: Introduce a different topic into the discussion.
    • Q: Ask a question of a speaker or the group.
    • I: Interrupt the discussion.
    • S: Synthesize or summarize the points made by other speakers.
  • Announce the topic for discussion. I used this one: “How do we as a service line or an organization stay innovative in an extremely competitive market?” Set the timer as appropriate and allow the Ss to discuss the topic.
  • Each time Ss speak, they must use one of the cards, slapping it on the table as they take their turn.
  • Ss must try to use up all their cards by the end of the discussion. They should be careful to space out their contributions so they don’t end up exhausting their cards too early. This should encourage them to listen to their colleagues and then comment appropriately instead of just hogging the limelight.
  • Debrief the activity by asking Ss to reflect on how they participated in the discussion and what they would do differently if they were to run the activity again. Ask them which cards they found easy to use and which cards more challenging. Did any of the cards compel them to participate in a way they wouldn’t normally do in a meeting?

Adapted from Discussion Functions. Kaagan, S.S., Leadership Games: Experiential Learning for Organizational Development. Sage Publications, 1999, pp.77-79