Report from the frontline of IBE #1

Report from the frontline of IBE #1

by Paul Emmerson


This is the first in a series of occasional articles. My idea is to report briefly on International Business English (IBE) following a situation where I have been exposed to it via my students.

In this first report, I write about my experience last month teaching a group of Swedish trade unionists, all from different companies and industry sectors, whose common feature was that they were all the ‘employee representative’ on the Board of their respective companies. Note that they were not full-time union reps – they were just regular employees, mostly middle management.

The students were mostly from international companies, and many of the Board meetings they attended were actually meetings of the Swedish subsidiary, with most Board members coming from the parent company abroad.

By the end of the course I had seen all sixteen students several times. One of my sessions was called ‘issues discussed on the Board’, and I got a very broad perspective on this subject and heard a very wide range of language used to describe it. I made extensive notes, from which this short report is drawn. The students’ level was Advanced (C1 and C2).

Language report

Here are some lexical items used by students as though they were commonplace in their work situations (not just Board meetings). I only include them if I heard them several times by different students in different groups.

  • KPIs (= key performance indicators)
  • Remuneration (= salary, particularly in the context of senior management)
  • MTPs (= mid-term plans)
  • Headcount (= number of employees)
  • Layoffs; and the much-used euphemism reducing headcount. Note that the British English terms ‘redundancies’ and ‘make someone redundant’ were completely unknown by all the students, and I suggest that they are not part of IBE
  • CAPEX (= capital expenditure)
  • CSR (= corporate social responsibility)
  • SKU (= stock keeping unit); this is the technical term for ‘part number’ or ‘product number’ – for example if a model comes in different colours, sizes etc then the SKU identifies the unique product
  • whistleblower function (which many of these companies had outsourced to third parties to protect the identity of whistleblowers)
  • Annual Performance Review (more common than phrases including the word ‘appraisal’)
  • an 80% solution (a product/service that is not top-of-the-line but is good enough and reasonably priced)
  • Discussing IT: legacy systems; to buy an off the shelf system that is then configured to meet the company’s needs; to develop something in-house
  • Discussing HR: to attract and retain high-potential employees
  • Discussing e-learning: blended learning (yes, it’s not just us ELT’ers who use this term)

Content report: issues discussed at the Board metings

The students mentioned these issues as being typical of Board meeting discussions:

  • Four reports: the Sales Report (volume by product line, why particular lines are increasing/decreasing, where should marketing effort be concentrated, etc); the Operations Report (production, sourcing, internal operations, etc), the Financial Report (key figures from the P&L and the BS, and how to improve cashflow); the New Projects report.
  • Legal matters.
  • Monitoring KPIs. Most common were profit per sold item, customer satisfaction levels, headcount. Also very important were two balance sheet KPIs: the solvency ratio (after tax net profit in relation to total liabilities) and the debt/equity ratio (total liabilities in relation to shareholders’ equity). These ratios help to decide the credit rating of the company, and hence the rate the bank will charge for loans. But note that exactly how to achieve improvements in all these KPIs was left to the senior management team and was not a Board issue.
  • Strategy, including the frequent use of SWOT analyses.
  • Identifying new markets, and dealing with problems of working in unfamiliar markets where the company already has a presence (such as Russia/Eurasia).
  • Identifying targets for merger or acquisition, and then dealing with the consequences afterwards. Issues here were whether or not to specialize production of certain items in certain countries, and cutting overlapping product lines. But note that cutting overlapping staff roles was seen as an issue for the senior management team, not the Board.
  • Big-picture planning for future growth or recession in the economy.
  • Reorganization and rationalization, including opportunities to reduce headcount.
  • Approving or rejecting CAPEX projects.
  • Refinancing by issuing new bonds.
  • Remuneration of senior management team.
  • Talent management, including diversity issues. At Board level the only real concern in terms of talent management was succession planning for the senior management team.
  • CSR and perception of company in the media, including social media.
  • Health and Safety. This covers working conditions in general, and is discussed on the Board as KPIs such as injuries. The KPIs of sickness levels and absenteeism were used as a measure of staff motivation. A key issue was how these things get reported, ie whether they are counted correctly.
  • Priorities in R&D.

A final observation of relevance to intercultural awareness in the BE classroom

While students were discussing company culture, I mentioned on a couple of occasions my understanding that Swedish company culture was generally egalitarian and that leadership styles were generally participatory. I did this hoping to provoke some discussion of how they as managers cope in an international context working with other managers with different styles. My comments were met with howls of disagreement – no, they said, these days it’s not true. They could see no real difference in management style between themselves and, say, Americans or Germans. They claimed that modern Swedish CEOs are authoritarian and top-down, and that strong leaders are in fashion and admired.

After this they weren’t particularly interested in discussing ‘working interculturally’ as a topic. They saw it as an area of business life that they just got on with and didn’t have many problems with.

Paul Emmerson

January 2011

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One Comment


Very interesting Paul! Especially the last part about cross-cultural topics. I remember a few years ago wondering to myself if it wouldn’t be long before a more homogenous business style of management and culture around the world would make these lessons less value for money on short courses.

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