Learning Languages at Work: The Best Case Scenario

Timothy Phillips

Traditional language training at the workplace is “expensive and ineffective,” says Timothy Phillips, Managing Director of the Cologne-based company SKYLIGHT GmbH. Together with Henkel, the manufacturer of home-care brands and cosmetics with 52,000 employees worldwide, SKYLIGHT has developed a new blended methodology that makes language learning directly relevant to the business. At OEB, both companies will present the “Scenario Management System” before its official launch in January 2010.


by Andrea Marshall


In Timothy Phillip’s experience, traditional language training mainly focuses on linguistic skills. “But businesses don’t need language experts”, he says. “They want their employees to get their job done in an international environment.” Besides, conventional face-to-face-training is costly, while the average attendance rate only amounts to fifty to sixty per cent.

Fotolia – © Ewe Degiampietro


This clearly indicates the need for a more effective and dynamic approach, with the challenge being to enhance employees’ international communication skills in their specific work situations, rather than imparting purely linguistic skills. To achieve this, it was decided to use a combination of online and face-to-face training.


In cooperation with Henkel, Timothy Phillips and his team developed the new blended learning methodology, the “eCLTC – Scenario Management System”, which focuses on business communication goals and is immediately relevant to the learner’s role within the business context. The Henkel concern champions this “best-case scenario” for language learning.


What differentiates the Henkel concept from other systems on the market is that rather than putting learners into artificially created communication situations, “scenario learning” is authentic. The system provides an open framework: It is the participants themselves – supported by the trainer -– who define the course content (see box). The participants work their way through specific scenarios that are not only related to their jobs, but to the skills required by their specific roles.

How a “Scenario” is developed

The eCLTC-Scenario Management System is designed as a support system for both trainer and learner. The trainer is the facilitator of scenario development. The skill of the trainer is to elicit the business process know-how from the participants in order to structure this knowledge into an efficient learning process/scenario.


At the same time, the trainer can use this opportunity to involve the learner group in a dynamic learning process in which the group itself develops a typical scenario relevant to the group as a whole. This process in particular lends itself to team training in which various members of the same business area develop scenarios typical for their work, facilitated by the trainer.


In a first step, the learner defines these skills and communication competencies, e.g. in the form of a “can-do” statement. In the case of a Marketing Assistant, this could be: “I can give/receive information on familiar departmental topics via standard e-mail/telephone; I can make arrangements”. Specific goals are set.


Once the competency framework – made up of six levels – has been defined, the scenarios can be entered into the system. There are ready-made scenarios that serve as models but, preferably, participants and trainers develop the scenarios themselves. Each scenario consists of four or five interconnected activities, and each activity is supported by a number of resource modules or functions (e.g. language content that provides vocabulary or self-reflection). The expert trainer ensures that all resources directly support the learner in achieving the goal of the activity.


A sample scenario has Marketing Assistants setting up a meeting with international colleagues to discuss marketing research results for a new cosmetic product. Invitations will have to be e-mailed to the participants, and the assistant could, e.g., get a phone call from the agency saying the survey will not be ready in time, which would require sending another e-mail. And so on.


“In traditional language training, the employee will study standardised modules on how to write e-mails or learn the vocabulary of complaints”, Timothy Phillips explains. “In our new task-based system, the language input is embedded in the specific job context. The participants learn the vocabulary and skills as they go along.”


At the end of the learning process, there is a comprehensive assessment by the employee, the trainer, the employee’s manager and the training manager.


However, the role of the trainer is more challenging than in conventional courses. Hence SKYLIGHT will start “training the trainer” sessions as of 2010. At OEB, questions such as trainer expertise, trainer authoring versus learners authoring their own resources, as well as departmental team development as part of the learning process will be discussed.


Given the flexibility of the “Scenario” system, it cannot only be implemented in international business communication but in all areas of role-based, business-process-oriented training. In addition, it can be used in vocational training, as well as in higher education institutions.


At OEB 2009, Timothy Phillips from SKYLIGHT GmbH and Winfried Albrink from Henkel AG & Co KGaA will present Making Learning at Work Relevant: Scenarios and Blended Learning as part of the session Demonstrate Value – Engage Business!, which will take place on Thursday, December 3rd from 11:45 – 13:00.

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