Before I begin, I want to make something absolutely clear. I've not written this article to be my usual controversial self. The facts, figures and opinions have been based on conversations and business relationships with over one hundred training and human resource managers working in Bangkok-based multinational or Thai companies. I haven't plucked this article out of thin air. I was intrigued by the number of Thai training managers who now see English language training as a ‘necessary evil' - a low priority way to throw some of their company money down the toilet. English language training is something they've tried many times before but never seems to work. Students show little or no improvement. Many of the students don't even bother to turn up for class (I'll go into the reasons later). And yet the amazing thing is that companies continue to throw good money after bad.
In the words of one of Bangkok's finest language consultants (now retired), "95% of language providers in Thailand just don't deliver either what they promise or what the company actually needs. Only now, are the companies beginning to realize it and are saying enough is enough".
Many new teacher arrivals in Thailand have the notion that the corporate training market is the most lucrative to tap into. Many fly-by-night back-street language schools have set up shop and sat someone down at a desk with a phone directory in the mistaken belief that if you call up one hundred companies, tell them you're an English language provider, you can then sit back and watch the business (and money) come rolling in. In reality, nothing is further from the truth. It's one of the hardest areas to get into for the would-be teacher (certainly if you're operating on a freelance basis) and one of the fastest ways to ruin your reputation if you're a language provider that promises the earth and then fails to deliver.
What is corporate training by definition? It's when a company calls up a language provider or language institute and gets them to test a particular group of employees and then provide face-to-face tuition on the company premises. The employees/students can range from a group of receptionists looking to improve their overall communication and telephone skills to a solitary manager or director wanting to enhance his performance when delivering a Powerpoint presentation.
The most common form of training is what I call the 3T course (teacher, tape and textbook). A ‘qualified, experienced' teacher (hopefully) will go to the company twice a week (usually after company working hours) and deliver a business English course with both a textbook and tape in tow. Language schools dress up the title of the course with no end of fancy names (communication for business, etc, etc) but at the end of the day it's a course for everyday working Thais to improve their confidence and to stop them running into the nearest dark corner the moment a farang employee asks them a question.
Companies have been implementing the stale 3T courses for donkey's years, often cramming a ridiculous 15-16 students in a room barely big enough to swing a tape recorder. In my time I've even taught in company canteens because XYZ Computers don't have a spare room for the English class. I'm sorry, but you can't teach English and you can't study English in a canteen or reception area. I don't care how good you are.
Very often the material presented from textbooks (Business Basics and Business Objectives are two popular choices) is totally irrelevant to Thai students. There are long, drawn-out sections on taking a flight and ordering wine and a starter in a posh French four-star. What hope has a teacher got of maintaining any kind of interest level to a bunch of people who rarely venture further than the end of the street and whose idea of a ‘beverage with your meal' ends with a glass of water every single time. Of course, it's in the hands of the teacher to be selective with the textbook and omit or refrain from teaching the ‘boring bits' but when unpaid lesson preparation time is something of a luxury amid a busy teaching schedule, well, it ain't that easy.
The most popular time for students to study a 3T course is after work on a Tuesday and Thursday. Monday and Wednesday is a popular choice also. There's an initial buzz of anticipation as every student wants to get a glimpse of their new farang teacher, but then two weeks into the program, an employee begins to realize that staying behind after work for two hours to study English and then battling the traffic and getting home at 10 at night is not a lot of fun. As a result, class attendance plummets and the teacher's job is made infinitely more difficult as half the class who show up on Thursday is not the same half that came on Tuesday. Continuity goes right out of the window dragging progress along with it.
Spending large amounts of time as I do in multi-national companies, it's frightening to see the amount of pressure that employees are under in this new global environment. Employees are constantly being evaluated from those colleagues above them and those below. There are sales targets to reach, seminars and specialized training courses to attend, and then on top of that - the job they are paid to do. And then there are bloody English language lessons getting in the way of it all.
A handful of companies have realized that after a hard day's work is no time to study a foreign language, and have set up ‘early bird' classes, where the employees arrive at the office an hour early on a given morning and study before work, let's say 7.30am to 8.30am. I'm a very fierce opponent of early bird programs. I think they're a waste of time and money. Your average half-motivated Thai employee is in no fit state to study a language at such an ungodly hour. Then again - who is? Early bird classes are also a language provider's nightmare. You have to schedule a teacher to actually be in the training room for 7.30, bright and alert, and all the teacher gets out of it is an hours pay. And just pray that it's a teacher who doesn't have a fondness for the sauce.
The saddest companies of all are those who have given up totally on both the 3T after-hours programs AND the early bird courses, choosing instead to give their employees a fixed amount of money (usually in the region of 10,000 baht) and instructing them to go out and study at a language school of their choice. It's these companies that make me want to give it all up. It's almost as if they have washed their hands of English language training (which in effect they have) and are doling out ‘study money' as purely a token gesture. Thai training managers have said to me "well, it's better than nothing" To which I usually reply, "no, it's the same as nothing"
Laughably, the employees participating in this kind of scheme are often asked to select a school from a ‘recommended' list. I am yet to meet one single training manager who can tell me how a certain school has received the recommendation or even who has recommended it. How is it possible to gather and centralize feedback and progress reports when you have employees studying at dozens of different schools? As I said - the scheme isn't better than nothing. It's the same as nothing. I'm quite certain that ‘a list of recommended schools' is a dozen names randomly chosen from a phone-book anyway.
Don't get me wrong, in-company 3T courses can be very successful. I've taught some wonderful groups of students down the years at a time of day when they'd much rather be going home, but there are many hurdles to overcome. I call it the corporate teaching ‘jigsaw'. A successful 3T course has several elements (or jigsaw pieces) that come together to make the language learning experience an enjoyable one for both teacher and students. Class attendance needs to be as close to 100% as possible. The teacher needs to be an ‘edutainer' (a buzzword I hate but always find myself using). The material being presented needs to be fresh and relevant. The learning environment (the classroom) needs to be the right size. It needs to have the basics of a whiteboard and board-markers. You'd be amazed if I told you the number of times I've walked around company floors looking for board-markers that actually work. The room should also be comfortable (not too hot and not too cold) I once worked at a company where the centralized air-conditioning went off at 6pm and for the last hour of the lesson, the sweat poured of us. A couple of students almost passed out on one occasion. Why don't companies think about these things before they sign on the dotted line? The point I'm trying to make is that a successful corporate training program is made up of ‘jigsaw pieces'. All too often, some of those pieces are missing.
A step up from the 3T program is what I call ‘the specialized skills courses'. These seem to be gaining in popularity as multi-national companies decide to concentrate on improving the English ability of their higher-level employees and forgetting about those at junior management level. The most common specialized courses are presentation skills, meeting skills, negotiation skills and telephone skills. The content of the courses is pretty obvious but yet again I can't help but feel what an enormous waste of time they are. Take meeting skills for instance. Part of the program would probably involve the teaching of ‘interjection phrases' such as "I'm sorry but can I just butt in a moment?" or maybe "Sorry Tom, but I totally disagree with that opinion" In a European or American meeting room? -every time. In a Thai meeting room where you have the concepts of social status and ‘kreengjai' going full blast? - never in a million years.
The strange thing about specialized skills courses is that in a perfect world, you should always have an instructor who is experienced in delivering that kind of program. The modus operandi for the vast majority of language providers in Bangkok is to buy a book titled ‘Presentations made Easy' from the bookshop and put it in the hands of the first teacher available to do the course. Is it any wonder that the clients themselves complain? But when you have schools paying the same teacher rates for this kind of course as they do for all the others, then what can you do? The number of language providers who continue to consider the specialized skills program a program that any teacher can teach constantly baffles me.
There is an increasing demand for ‘management skills programs' - teambuilding, decision-making, delegation skills, etc. - really high-end stuff that in my opinion one Bangkok teacher in a thousand can actually deliver. I'm happy to say that your average back-street language school keeps away from this kind of program, but there are still a few willing to humiliate themselves and make a complete pig's ear of it.
Going back to my conversations with that now retired king of the Bangkok consultants, he told me "many companies in Bangkok have given up on using local language providers to implement management programs. I could name at least five companies that have gone as far as flying an instructor in from the USA and putting them up in a five-star hotel. The cost is phenomenal but if it is company policy to provide these programs to their employees globally then the cost is immaterial"
I'm going to ruffle a few feathers here but I lay the blame for this corporate training ‘crisis' at the doors of two separate groups - the low end language providers and the Thai HR/training managers themselves. I do NOT blame the teachers.
I can't think of another way to put it but many Thai training managers are appallingly clueless when it comes to language training. Perhaps we shouldn't expect them to be an authority on it though. Perhaps we should be saying "put your English language training in the hands of the provider" But it doesn't work like that. Because of past experience, the average company has lost all trust in the language provider and lost all confidence in the provider's capability. They've been bitten too many times. That doesn't stop the average training manager asking the same questions. My two favorites are "How many teachers do you have?" and "How can we guarantee that the students will progress"
"How many teachers do you have?" Every single training manager asks that question. What kind of answer are they hoping to hear? 20? 50? 500? I wonder to myself, is there some direct correlation between the number of teachers you have and your ability to deliver the product? Because I just can't see it. What about if institute A has ten teachers and all of them have full-time schedules and enjoy coming to work. What about if institute B has 150 teachers, and there isn't enough work to go around and the teacher's room is a breeding ground for disillusionment and contempt. Wouldn't you rather choose institute B? No, size really does matter to your average training manager.
"How can I guarantee that students will make progress?" It's always a difficult question to answer because the company never wants to hear the correct answer - ‘we guarantee that the teacher will play their part but there is a responsibility to the students to attend class, do homework. Participate in the lesson, etc, etc' Oh my god - the dreaded word - responsibility.
I actually once said to a training manager, "Your employees study for three months a year whenever you get the training budget and then for the other nine months of the year they expose themselves to little or no English whatsoever. And you're asking me why they never show any improvement" That's always been one of my problems - I'm too honest.
I wonder how the low-end language providers answer the two difficult questions above. By low-end I'm referring to those who sell their souls to the devil in order to win contracts (the price is probably around 700 baht an hour). They lie. There can be no other way. Yes Mr Training Manager - we have over 50 teachers and we guarantee your students will progress. I'm not going to name names (although I certainly could) but these low-end providers have ruined / are ruining the corporate training business. They don't care about their client. They're just in it for the money. I've seen their pre-testing analysis, their progress reports, their textbooks, their final exams, the whole service they deliver to their clients. There aren't words to describe how I feel about it.
I'm going to end by flying the flag here for the good old Bangkok teacher. They put up with a lot. Oh sure there are plenty of unprofessional drunks out there with no affinity for their job but by and large many of the complaints about Bangkok corporate teachers are made by low-end language providers and clueless multi-nationals looking for a convenient scapegoat.
Let me divulge a recent email I had from a very nice Thai lady asking for a bit of advice. She had set up a language school and like a lot of other misguided souls, had decided to attack the corporate market. She did the marketing and got a few contracts. Then came the hard part - recruiting and keeping teachers. To cut a long story short, she's having all kinds of problems finding a teacher to do three hours on a Saturday morning at 400 baht an hour. Teachers have quit on her, dropping students in the lurch and making the client lose face. My explanation and advice are both simple - it's the nature of the beast.
The teacher has to make a commitment to teach three hours on a Saturday morning to earn 1200 baht. So for a start, Friday night out is cancelled. Then, there is let's say an hour of unpaid preparation time involved. We're also approaching the rainy season. Perhaps a sudden downpour results in the teacher needing to take a taxi to the company (no transportation money was provided with the contract) With the cost of maybe a little breakfast en route and the bus fare home, the teacher is left with barely a thousand baht in his pocket for giving up half of Saturday. Do I need to go any further?
There is really no such thing as a full-time corporate teacher. It's the icing on the cake, an extra bit of pocket money. Corporate teaching supplements your day job. When you key in the fact that teachers need to prepare student reports (often two per course), make up exams, travel from one side of the city to the other and arrive looking like a drowned rat, is it surprising that corporate teachers are difficult to find and even the 500 baht an hour benchmark figure is beginning to look like simply not enough.
So what about the future for corporate language training and more so the providers themselves? The decline in companies offering language training to their staff is surely set to continue. As for the providers - those who are fooling everyone into thinking they are a professional outfit, should frankly get out now and find something else to do. They are ruining it for the legitimate institutes who do care about their clients and who do a half decent job. As you may guess, I feel passionately about this topic. I've taught hundreds of hours of corporate lessons, and the fact that many of my students (some of them from eight years ago) still keep in touch, fills me with some sense of pride. But I can't just stand back and see this aspect of English language training become ruined by those just out to make a quick buck.