Want to export? First learn the language

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The Independent Online
SIXTY-SIX PEOPLE have recently started a new programme at the University of Luton to become "company languages and export champions". The aim is to improve the export performance of Britain's smaller businesses.

Exports are central to the success of many small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs). Those that exported successfully saw an average rise in sales turnover of about 70 per cent between 1992 and 1997. This was four times the growth of less successful exporters according to the university's research. Moreover, the average profit rate for successful exporters was around 20 per cent.

To improve the export performance of SMEs, the university is promoting a new careers concept - that of the "company languages and export champion'. These will be senior people who will learn languages and cultural awareness. They will then guide their businesses into new export markets.

The university recently won a pounds 5.5 million grant from the European Union social fund to help identify, train and develop 120 such people for British companies employing fewer than 250 people. This Language and Culture for Business (LCB) programme was launched alongside new research at the university into the attitudes of SMEs to developing their export activities.

The most important reasons for exporting were diversification and higher profits. Other reasons were "push" marketing because of problems in domestic markets, and "pull" marketing to meet demand from overseas. Surprisingly, three-quarters of SMEs had undertaken no market research before exporting and only one in 100 had used full-scale market research. Moreover, nearly half had not developed an exporting plan and only 23 per cent had a formal strategy. The research also showed that a quarter of those interviewed reported language constraints as the main obstacle to international trade - ahead of exchange rate fluctuations, paperwork and obtaining payment.

LCB programme director, Dr Frank Burdett, says that part of the university's strategy is to target employment related issues and that it has particular strengths in languages and linguistics (with a teaching rating of "excellent" from the Higher Education funding council). He says the programme came about because "we knew from our knowledge of local businesses that there was a big gap between the desire to export and increase sales overseas and their ability to communicate with their customers".

People will join the programme in three or four blocks over the next two years. The first started last week, others in January and May and possibly next September.

The university has run a successful marketing campaign over the summer. Dr Burdett says: "We've got 300 companies interested, and the first 75 packs have gone out to delegates, 66 of whom start this month. So we are well on the way to achieving our target of 120 over the two-year period. We have obviously touched a nerve in the market place. There is a real awareness among companies that language and cultural understanding have a real impact on the bottom line." Central to the programme is language training. This is not the traditional school approach, but one that is relevant to business needs. "It's very much about what you need to communicate, and focuses on the specific vocabulary which you need to do business."

The main programme is part-time and combines distance learning with on campus activities and lasts for three 10-week blocks. This can lead to London Chamber of Commerce qualifications. However, the programme also includes shorter options for managers unable to get away from their jobs for more than a few days.

When a business expresses interest in the programme, an account manager visits the company to explore its needs, assess its existing language skills, and to describe the LCB programme in detail. "There are a number of ways forward. Some can be very simple. If people can only spare a day, we can put them on a one-day short course on business culture and language awareness. Obviously in a day you can only do so much, but at least that's a start for some companies. Then, depending on the level of language skills of the people you've got in the company, we can put people on beginners courses in French, German and Spanish. Ideally, if they've got people with at least a GCSE level of competence, they can come in on our elementary or intermediate courses which are much more related to business."

Delegates can visit the campus for afternoons or evenings with a tutor. They can use the state-of-the-art multimedia language laboratories. They can look at foreign newspapers or view foreign business news from the satellite receiver. There are also sessions specific to business. These include talks from guest speakers, role play, quizzes and so on.

The EU requires matching funding for its investment in the programme. However, the time given by delegates satisfies this requirement. Consequently the programme costs companies nothing.

For more information telephone 0845 603 3322.