So let’s imagine the scenario. You’re just been notified of your next student. Seems to be a very nice guy. Works as a software expert with strong track record in SAP. Just joined an international IT project which, as luck would have it, has the task of rolling out SAP into three subsidiary organisations. English level has been diagnosed at B1/B2 level – good old intermediate. Guy feels confident about his IT language but not confident with his English and unsure about terms for project management. So, question is, how do you go about teaching him? Is there a logical syllabus for this quite typical international project worker profile. Short answer ... I think there is and I would like to share my ideas with you.
The guy is going to need some vocabulary
Projects are driven by a high level vision and more specific objectives. Participants need to be able to understand and talk about both of these project aspects, even if they are not project leader. This means being able to speak about the envisioned future state – explain its rationale within the context of the company’s strategy, and explain the organisational objectives and benefits, particularly to those stakeholders working in local organisations who might not immediately identify with what is likely to be seen as a very headquarter-driven initiative. Introducing and practising key terms and collocations to speak about objectives – goal, target, aim, to reach, to achieve, to reduce, to increase, efficiency, productivity etc. – is an excellent starting point.
Next area of useful terminology is going to be around the project organisation, tasks and roles. There are actually a number of quite specific terms to be taught – stakeholder, sponsor, steering committee, project management office, work package, sub-project etc. The usual terms such as responsible for, in charge of, is headed by and report to could be complemented by more project-based expressions such as the main deliverable of this workstream is … etc. Don’t forget to look at terms like interfaces and dependencies and the like as the workflows of the different parts of projects are often intertwined in complex ways and represent an important part of project planning.
The next big area of vocabulary is around planning, scheduling and timing. There are obvious terms to be clear about such as plan, schedule, timetable, agenda, milestone, sub-milestone and deadline. It is also critical that project professionals are able to describe the status of schedules – what has been done (already), what not yet, what still needs to be done and what will be done and by when. Lots of work here on tenses and prepositions ... but in a really pragmatic context which makes sense to students.
You’ll probably need to look at a little finance language connected to budgets. Each project will have a business case which will allocate costs and resources to parts of the project work, alongside estimated or projected savings. As you can see, it’s a rich area of vocabulary. Don’t forget to spend some time looking at terms to describe risks, challenges or problems ... and associated solutions or mitigation measures. Project managers often use quite specialised templates to manage this component of their projects. Forget course books at this point. Familiarise yourself with the actual project templates used by your student in order that you are equipping them with the right language tools for their job.
Final area of vocabulary? You guessed it! Communication – the heart of any successful project. Anything and everything associated with email, meetings, telephoning, negotiating and socialising is likely to be useful.
Good, the guy is getting lots of vocabulary. He’s also going to need some skills support. And I think there are some specific areas which you should start with. Firstly, socialising, rapport building, relationship management … whatever you term it, the guy is going to have to connect to other people in the team and start the process of trust building.
In terms of project communication, it’s likely one of the core tasks will be reporting on progress, presenting updates, discussing what has been done, and what hasn’t, and why. And then there’ll be discussion of what needs to happen next and what resources are required. I work mainly with simulations in my classroom, building realistic scenarios through discussion with my students so that they get to practise what they will actually be doing.
Negotiation skills will also be an important part of the training here as projects inevitably involve competition for resources, disputes over levels of quality and data to be provided, and your guy will need the skills to make his case and defend his position.
And what about culture?
Working in international projects means working with diversity – whether it be at the level of personality or culture. In projects, there are some key issues which students need to consider and even discuss within their project teams:
1. What is leadership?
People have very different approaches to leadership across cultures – from very directive to very facilitating approaches.
2. What is a team?
It cannot be assumed that everyone will answer this question in the same way. For some, a team is a collection of individuals working on their own roles. For others, this is not teamwork, which demands cross-role collaboration and support.
3. What is good communication?
Direct or indirect? Lots of it or minimal on a need-to-know basis. Decisions made by leaders or by the whole team? People answer these questions differently and can get upset when others don’t follow their rules! Sensitise people to diversity. Confront them with their assumptions and get them to think more flexibly about ways of working with people with diverse values, attitudes and behaviours.
So, in a nutshell, that’s my internal mental template for working with international project staff. The focus stretches and contracts in line with the specific needs, talents and blind spots of each student but it provides a useful roadmap for my own teaching practice. Hope it helps to support you too!
BOB DIGNEN is a director of York Associates. He specialises in intercultural skills programmes and international team seminars which he delivers to clients in Germany, Switzerland, Iceland and Sweden. He is accredited to use The International Profiler (an intercultural profiling tool) and is also an advanced practitioner of TMP (Team Management Profile – an international team profiling tool).
As an author, he worked on English365 for Cambridge University Press and has written 50 Ways to Improve your International Presentation Skills. He is also co-author of Developing People Internationally, a multimedia international team training resource.