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Talking the same language

Published on Friday, 14 Sep 2012
A loose grasp of English has long dogged companies in China, but many are increasingly investing to improve staff skills.
Photo: AFP
Tom Kahl
Margaret So

Mainland China has an insatiable appetite for business English. It is a continuing need that, left unfulfilled, could throttle its industry giants’ future growth and ambitions for overseas expansion.

“This may be a one- or two-generation problem that will continue to require investments,” says Tom Kahl, president of corporate education provider GlobalEnglish. “While levels are going to continue to improve over time as more and more people are going to need to use business English to do their jobs as they work with people that are farther and farther away, it’s going to be a slow, gradual process.”

GlobalEnglish enables employees of multinational companies (MNCs) to learn business English through its online, on-demand software service and apply it immediately. Its company mission is “to advance enterprise fluency one company at a time”, and that is exactly what it is doing in China, where demand for its services has grown rapidly over the past 10 years.

“It’s going be a long-term trend. Individuals will continue to be motivated to learn business English because they know it means more money, a better life and more career opportunities. Businesses will also remain motivated because they’ve got global aspirations,” Kahl says.

“As the size of the employee base in China grows, so does the perceived need. These days it’s not just senior executives and managers that need English. We’re seeing significant growth in the variety of individuals we’re serving.”

The explosion in broadband internet services in China over the past decade has helped GlobalEnglish ride this wave. More and more people are able to use GlobalEnglish’s service because they have got better internet connectivity.

The company’s business nature also enables it to maintain a very scalable operation. It only has about 30 employees in China, yet it is able to serve its clients’ 30,000-plus employees.

To track the need for business English training, GlobalEnglish publishes an annual Business English Index report. Based on tests conducted with employees of MNCs, the report allows client companies to benchmark how they’re doing versus their peers and to see if their index is getting better or worse.

The report also presents an analysis at the macro level. For instance, in the 2011 report, China moved up to 4.44 on its 10-point scale, where one represents the beginner level.

“What’s unique about China is that it’s improving quicker than any other country. The way the Chinese are now operating international businesses, often by buying European and American companies, is making other economies see that English is becoming more important,” Kahl says. They know that their growth is going to depend on how well they integrate their operations. “It’s not just a China story any more. It’s a global story where Chinese multinationals are becoming major players.”

In order to sustain growth, MNCs are becoming less willing to leave their competitiveness to chance. “Three or five years ago, companies in China would view English as more of an employee’s problem. If he wants to improve, he must use his own money. Now, companies are willing to spend money to help employees improve their skills,” says Kahl.

MNCs have also recognised that English training can be a competitive differentiator for attracting talent. “If your company is willing to improve this key skill, it’s going to mean that you’ll be more promotable, more employable, and you’ll earn more money throughout your life. That gives employees more reason to come join this company over another,” says Kahl.

Unlike learning in a classroom setting, GlobalEnglish offers employees greater flexibility by providing them with tools that will help them get their job done and enable companies to put their English to work. “Every company has between 2,000 and 5,000 English words that they use in a unique way. We enable companies to input these words into applications which employees can get at through their mobile devices and browsers,” says Kahl.

“If you’re sitting in a meeting, you’re a new starter and they start throwing around jargon, instead of interrupting the meeting and looking ignorant, you can quickly look up those words on your app and understand the meaning. That’s a really big area in which companies want to put their English to work.”

GlobalEnglish’s range of products suit a number of different company needs.

“We’ve got formal-learning applications for online structured-learning experiences. We’ve got courses that cover level zero to level 10, so you can work your way all the way up the scale. There are self-paced courses with access to virtual classrooms and live-collaboration technology to talk with GlobalEnglish teachers online. And you’ve got other services like GlobalEnglish LinGo, a mobile application, to help you put English to work instantaneously. We also have a social-collaboration service called GlobalEnglish Bloom that’s a much more informal way for employees to feel connected,” Kahl says.

Customers can decide on how they want their employees to access GlobalEnglish. “Every company takes a different approach. Technically there are no restrictions. Any device that has access to the internet can access GlobalEnglish services. On average, half of the time spent using GlobalEnglish services is done so outside working hours. Some companies have a different view, however, where they want more control, so they only let staff use GlobalEnglish while they’re physically at work,” Kahl says.

To assess students’ progress, GlobalEnglish also provides a testing service – the Standard Test of English for Professionals (STEP). “Other tests like TOEFL are designed for more academic purposes. STEP is a business-application test. It tests people’s business English skills. Almost every GlobalEnglish user will go in and take the test to find out what level they are at and they’ll receive a plan for how to develop to the next level,” Kahl says.

About 200 companies representing a variety of industries use GlobalEnglish in China. Customers include technology companies Lenovo, Hewlett Packard and General Electric; heavy manufacturer Caterpillar; energy firm Emerson; and other MNCs such as HSBC, Baosteel, Shanghai Pudong Development Bank, Jabil and Hong Kong Broadband.

The universal theme that weaves its way through GlobalEnglish’s case studies is productivity gain. “A technology manufacturing company with big operations in mainland China reported that, on average, employees who had been utilising GlobalEnglish for a set period of time had improved their productivity levels. They were saving two hours per week through not wasting time asking people to help them with their English, read and write e-mails, or how to better participate in a conference call,” Kahl says.

The cost savings are difficult to ignore. “The old way of sending a few people to classes to improve their English was very expensive and inefficient. It cost five to 10 times per person to use this method versus GlobalEnglish,” Kahl says.

Another way employees use GlobalEnglish is as a tool for informal support. “People can access tools to help them put their English to work. Instead of the company using GlobalEnglish for 500 employees, now they’re looking at us for literally 50,000 employees. We’re seeing the number of people using GlobalEnglish grow dramatically,” Kahl says.

Kahl admits that many of GlobalEnglish’s newest and most innovative functions were conceived with the help of the users. “We’ve got a community online where we interact with our buyers and administrators. They learn how to better use our products and give us feedback into what features they want to see enhanced.”

Turnaround time regarding feedback is fast, with software updates that provide greater functionality released every three weeks. “Customers love that because they can see a nice evolution in our software that happens very routinely,” Kahl says.

While GlobalEnglish’s online model has been successful, many employers still see the value of learning English in a classroom setting. At HSBC, employees in the bank’s China offices (including Hong Kong) can enrol on various foundation and advanced training programmes that focus on key elements of effective business writing and grammatical accuracy. They can also enrol on advanced programmes which cover techniques for expressing complex ideas and issues more effectively.

“It is important to offer effective English training as it helps increase our staff’s confidence. English is still the key international language,” says Michael Fraccaro, head of learning, talent, resourcing and organisation development for Asia-Pacific at HSBC.

Most of those who attend the courses generally need to improve their English skills because they’re dealing with overseas customers or colleagues in other countries, Fraccaro explains.

In addition, HSBC employees can enrol in a comprehensive English communication programme comprising a series of evening classes held over a 20-week period. Covering both verbal and written skills, the programmes are intended mainly for employees’ personal self-development.

“Either a staff member recognises that this is a need that requires further development, or their manager, during development discussions, may point out that as part of their career development they should enrol in one of these programmes,” Fraccaro says.

Global firms with staff consisting mostly of professionals often do not worry about any shortages in business English skills. In the case of KPMG China, for instance, the firm’s meticulous recruitment process ensures that candidates’ English proficiency is at a satisfactory level for them to take on the job.

“When we recruit new graduates or experienced professionals, the selection process includes aptitude tests that are conducted in English. We also conduct individual interviews in English. Though we are not actually testing their English level as much as their analytical abilities with numerical data, we are able to decipher an individual candidate’s verbal and written English standard from the results,” says Margaret So, director at KPMG China.

KPMG’s recruits are mostly made up of university business graduates with a high level of English proficiency. So admits, though, that in terms of business English, “some individuals may not be as good as others”.

Help is available for those who need it. “Some may only need reminders, while others require training. We have English training classes available internally that are open to everyone,” So says.

Besides classroom training, most employees are able to brush up their business English while on the job and through feedback. “We’re a professional firm. We work as a team. Our people can rely on constructive feedback from managers and partners with whom they work,” So says.

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