The Rise of The Global Employee: how learner needs are changing

Image from iStockphoto

Image from iStockphoto

Last year, India-based website The Economic Times reported on a poll conducted by Ipsos on behalf of the Canadian Employment Relocation Council, which claimed that half of employees globally were open to the idea of working abroad. According to the poll, “the workers most likely to take up the opportunity are young, single men on low incomes and education levels and, at the other end of the spectrum, senior executives and decision makers”. For anyone who’s been working in Business English training, this will come as no surprise: we’ve been teaching those senior executives, their colleagues, and their teams for years.

The Global Employee

We live in the era of The Global Employee: the worker who uses the networks that exist within his/her (often multinational) company to move around the world, working in different offices, experiencing different working cultures and ways of doing things, and gaining valuable experience as they go. For some people, this is very much a choice: economic factors (read: higher salaries or lower cost of living in the target country) can prove an attractive enticement to employees who have the skills and experience to work outside of their native countries. For others, though, this move is forced upon them: the relocation of a plant or division, the acquisition of a company by an outside investor, an internal restructuring. Any and all of these things can leave an employee facing the next stage of their career in a country that isn’t their own.

And this isn’t just about individual employees, of course. Think about all the possible variations on this scenario: a Japanese project manager is parachuted in to run a team of German engineers based in Munich because of her specialist knowledge about the process they’re working on. In all likelihood, the new team will find a common language in English, not German or Japanese. Suddenly this team of German engineers finds itself working more in English, despite never leaving Munich. The impact of one Global Employee, like a pebble thrown into a lake, can have a ripple effect.

English: chicken or egg?

Is the rise of English as the lingua franca of international business communication a symptom of The Global Employee phenomena? Or the reason behind it? On the one hand, due to the young age that English-language teaching now starts in many countries, a generation of non-native speakers are beginning their careers with a level of English that their older bosses could only ever have dreamed of; that in itself opens up a world of early-career opportunities that didn’t exist before. On the other hand, the international nature of business has made good English a prerequisite for career success, leading to the boom in the Business English language-learning industry (especially online). It’s hard to tell whether English is the chicken or the egg here, but it’s certainly a key factor.

The new workplace skills

But the skills The Global Employee needs to thrive aren’t just limited to a good command of English. When working in a different country, or in your own country but as part of an international team, a good level of English is pretty much a given; it’s effective communication skills that can really set individual team members apart.

And what might those communication skills look like? Well, for one, they’re very much situated within the workplace context. Not many business people, even at lower levels, want to learn how to order a pizza in English, for example, or say “The book is on the table”. But whereas once we might have talked about something as simple as ‘writing emails’, we now need to look at a vast range of written communication scenarios that an employee might face. Whereas once we talked about ‘meetings’ or ‘negotiations’, we need to start thinking about soft skills (persuasion, diplomacy, relationship building, etc.), which are vital to The Global Employee’s success.

This is an area that we’ve recently been looking at in great depth at Reallyenglish. We’re interested in the elements that make someone a successful communicator in the workplace, in what the learning needs and objectives of The Global Employee might be. A good knowledge of grammar and syntax is vital, of course, along with a wide range of vocabulary and phrases, and the ability to pronounce correctly and use intonation to convey meaning. Those things are all part of the package. But what else? What about an understanding of pragmatics — the way in which the context of communication contributes to its meaning? What about intercultural competence — the ability to know what’s appropriate and effective when dealing with people of other cultures? How important are elements like those, and how do we go about teaching them? As we learn more about this, we’ll share what we discover.

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