Education First: Why it’s best to invest in language training – Andy Bailey
In many ways, companies have reacted to the economic downturn in much the same fashion as in previous crises. They have become more reticent to hire and invest, choosing instead to build strong cash reserves. Many have looked to consolidate their strengths and bolster efficiency, rather than venture into new territory. In other ways, however, their behaviour has been quite different.
While two decades ago many companies chose to look inward at their domestic markets, today there is a growing sense that recovery will be driven by further geographical diversification. A recent study by the Economist Intelligence Unit found that 90% of executives surveyed were planning to do more international business over the next three years. It also reflected the belief that overseas revenue will come to make up an increasingly large share of overall revenues in the near future.
According to Andy Bailey, chief marketing officer of corporate language learning at Education First (EF), this is borne out in the way that companies are choosing to allocate their resources. While cuts are being seen across departments, the amount going towards linguistic education is, if anything, increasing.
"Language learning is almost the last thing people want to cut back on," he says. "Businesses are increasingly looking beyond their borders, not just as a way to get themselves out of difficulty, but as a long-term growth opportunity. That starts with being able to communicate internationally."
Reap the returns
EF is the largest private education provider in the world, with around 15 million students in 50 countries. The organisation has been offering services in the corporate space for 45 years, so it has a good idea of what makes an effective language-learning initiative. Bailey has identified a few issues of which CEOs should be wary, the most significant being effective measurement.
Many companies do not know how much money they spend on language learning, although such amounts are often considerable. Even those that do know don't necessarily understand what impact this investment is having on the business.
In Bailey's view, this needs to be evaluated before any programme can be put in place.
"During our sales cycle, we help a business understand how much it spends," he explains. "We then figure out how to measure real investment in language training and evaluate how this is helping the business. You need to ensure a good return on investment, particularly in the current economic climate."
Bailey believes that return on investment can be split into four areas - efficiency, managing risk (in businesses with a strong safety element), motivation and knowledge. Integral to ensuring positive results is ensuring that you do not overreach. The anglophone world accounts for a quarter of global GDP in terms of purchasing power parity. It is estimated that 1.75 billion people have a degree of proficiency in English. Even Japanese companies, which were once fiercely resistant, are now starting to make English mandatory. In Bailey's view, organisations should accept the benefits of this trend.
"Businesses sometimes say to us, 'We would like language training in English, French and German'," he explains. "Sure, we can teach these things, but you will not get the returns you want. It is likely that 97% of your business needs will be in English, so it doesn't make sense to spend money on the other 3%."
Be a leader, not a laggard
Any system put into place today must be cloud-based. A whole generation has grown up with the expectation of online access to learning materials, and not meeting this could reflect unfavourably on a business. From a practical standpoint, cloud-based learning allows a company to offer standardised instruction to a whole organisation.
"The cloud is a classic leaders and laggards issue," Bailey explains. "A teacher that comes in every Friday cannot train a thousand people. And if you have several teachers, there is no consistency from class to class. At the same time, a growing number of people in the workforce have become accustomed to using the internet at school and to help with their homework. It's important that leadership development managers recognise this."
EF combines traditional methods of teaching with a more sophisticated platform of delivery. The company brings the teacher to the student no matter where they are or when they want to study. This is made possible via online classrooms run every hour of the day by real teachers. Classes can be conducted one on one or to small groups of students, and learners receive frequent feedback on both their oral and written skills.
EF also has a number of executive institutes to which senior management can travel in order to immerse themselves in their chosen language.
"We are a one-stop shop, and large organisations in particular tend to like a mixed approach," Bailey says. "It would be great to take people to a foreign country and immerse them in the language for a long period of time, and in specific cases we can do this. But it's not cost-effective for thousands of people.
"We also offer a kind of virtual immersion via the internet. It's a real school and a real curriculum that covers all the nuances of the English language."
EF uses advanced software to provide an accurate assessment of employee language levels before, during and after a training programme. This provides an overview of key performance metrics, as well as enrolment numbers, attendance levels and learner feedback, so employers can evaluate whether the programme is resonating with employees. It also allows companies to accurately calculate the return on their training investment in terms of competence progression, which has a knock-on effect on employees' productivity and efficiency. This information can be compared across divisions or countries.
English as an employee benefit
Such programmes are having a particularly big impact in emerging markets. Companies that operate in countries with restricted talent pools don't want to impose further limitations by insisting all job applicants speak English. Offering English lessons is not only beneficial to the company, but also has a positive effect on the national workforce. Other companies have seen the power of offering language lessons as an employee benefit: it is an asset that can help attract and maintain staff.
"One of our customers is a very large Swiss-based multinational," Bailey explains. "They offer language training not only to their employees, but also to their employees' families.
"It has really boosted morale; in fact, it is seen as one of the most significant things the company has done for its employees in years. These benefits have an impact on well-being, which in turn has a positive impact on the business."
The move towards new markets is a long-term trend to which all companies have to adjust. English is quickly becoming the international business language and the internet will further accelerate this trend. If companies go about it in the right fashion, language learning can offer a return on investment in many, not necessarily obvious ways.