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For many years English lessons at companies were considered a mere benefit. They were more or less expected by employees and readily offered by their employers. As a consequence, in-company English was often first to go when the crisis came. The question is whether many companies haven’t thrown out the baby with the bathwater.

Of course, nobody can afford to have English lessons during working hours for the fun of it. However, many corporate leaders seem to underestimate the price they pay for not providing any English training at all. The inability to be firm but polite on the phone can cost you hours per month. Poorly written emails can mislead or offend customers and lead to unnecessary escalations. Finally, knowing skills but lacking the ability to communicate them well cancels the effect of the professional business trainings companies do still spend money on.

Well-planned English training focused on acquiring skills can help improve gross margins and increase productivity by boosting employee performance and effectiveness. So, how can you keep the baby while getting rid of the bathwater?

Well, first of all, be selective. Select key employees and invest in upgrading their skills. Common practice when it comes to business training, but surprisingly rare with English training. When testing new students I used to ask how often they used English at work and it never ceased to amaze me how frequently I heard them say: “Never, really”.

Secondly, get a clear picture of the English skills they need and target only those. It is not enough to test the level of English an employee has and ask them what they need. It is important to first identify the tasks they have to perform in English and then create short exercises or role plays that mirror them. Training will focus only on the English skills needed to perform tasks they were not able to carry out satisfactorily. This kind of detailed language audit also allows you to put together people with similar targets rather than just a similar level of English, thereby making the training more relevant and efficient.

“If acquiring skills does not make individuals more valuable, training is not worth it.”

Michael Schrage (2008)

Thirdly, match expectations. There can be a conflict between what the company and the actual students in the class want, expect and perceive. This is particularly true for English lessons which are mostly perceived as an enjoyable break from daily duties or an opportunity to improve grammar. Let them know in advance that these are trainings, not lessons and inform them what they will be about and especially what they won’t be about. Also, the fact that content should add business value doesn’t mean the form can’t be enjoyable.

Furthermore, English training, just like any other business training, is most likely to add value when the needs of the individual and the organization coincide. So why not build English training credits into an employee’s career planning?

Finally, and possibly most importantly, follow up. The only way you can get a return on your investment is if the employee implements the English skills obtained in the training. Here, the role of the manager is crucial by helping create the conditions under which implementation will be successful.

When Class started in 2000, the main focus was on improving employees’ level of English and giving them the confidence to start using English at work. Over the past 10 years we have done so successfully. Now that companies have little trouble hiring confident speakers of English the challenge lies in helping them to be more effective in their jobs.

English training that is planned, treated and perceived as professional business training can get you there. And this is a baby we can take care of.

Ed Wienk

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