Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Book Review: 'Business Advantage' by Handford, Koester, Lisboa, Pitt

Business Advantage
Intermediate & Upper Intermediate Coursebooks
Michael Handford, Almut Koester, Martin Lisboa, Angela Pitt
Cambridge University Press 2011 / 2012
ISBN 9780521132206 / 9780521132176

Publisher's Website
From the blurb: "Business Advantage is based on a unique syllabus that combines current business theory, business in practice and business skills - all presented using authentic, expert input. The course contains specific business-related outcomes making the material highly relevant and engaging." 

Every time one of the big publishers releases a major new course I'm always intrigued to see what they've come up with this time.

Here we have a definite biggie - Cambridge University Press - bringing out a brand new business English course called Business Advantage at the intermediate (B1) and upper-intermediate (B2) levels to start with. An advanced level C1-C2 volume is on its way. You can tell it's for business from the number of times they mention the word in just one part of their back cover blurb, quoted above, can't you?!

It's almost always the huge publishers who bring these things out these days, given the vast amount of resources required to create a new English course worthy of the name. Oxford University Press, Macmillan Education, Pearson Longman, Heinle... the usual suspects. But what makes a new coursebook series successful? It seems to me there are two main reasons.

The first is that it's new. As simple as that. Teachers, and students too for that matter, get bored with the same approach and layout, and presentations can feel stale after using them for a few times and the desire for something fresh sets in. Publishers love having new coursebooks to push and reactions to them are usually interested at least if not downright positive.

The second reason for a new English course's success is more of a conditional one. A new coursebook is an opportunity to try out new approaches, page layouts and course structures, as well as introduce innovative elements such as student's DVDs or interactive on-line content.

So how does Cambridge's new offering, Business Advantage measure up? Taking into account both of the above points, including a genuinely fresh angle, attractive layout as usual (if fairly dense), and a clearly delineated unit structure, Business Advantage goes straight onto the short list of books any Director of Studies should be considering today to refresh their teaching syllabus.

Let's take a closer look. Each course book is divided into 14 units which are further subdivided into seven categories common to both levels: Business Environment; Managing People; Managing Cultures; Managing Operations; Marketing; Accounting and Finance; Strategies and Decision-making.

The units from each category follow a logical progression and development across the two levels. The intermediate book has units on Motivation and Human Resources in the Managing People section, and the upper-intermediate level units deals with Rewarding Performance and Fostering Creativity. The Marketing section covers Marketing Strategy and Customer Relationship Management at intermediate and E-marketing and Branding at upper. A nice coherent approach so far. But what about the units themselves?

Each unit, as hinted at in the blurb above, is divided into three sections: Theory, Practice (based around a real-world case study), and Skills. For each of these there are clearly identified areas of focus, key language, reading and listening input and speaking and writing output.

An example from the skills part of The Learning Organisation unit from the intermediate book would be: Focus - taking an active part in negotiations; Language - giving an opinion, agreeing and disagreeing; Input - an external meeting between a vehicle manufacturer and their supplier; Output - negotiate a deal.

So much for the structure, which is clear and satisfying. What about the approach. For me this is one of the things which makes Business Advantage a definite contender for a language school's new business English course main support.

What Cambridge have done, in fact, is decide to market this as teaching business through English, as opposed to the more common English-through-business approach, and this is the first time I've seen it attempted, and achieved, so explicitly.

The difference is perhaps subtle, but vital, especially for the image of the course in today's increasingly sophisticated business world. Few managers and other professionals these days can deal with the idea of 'going back to school' like little kids, kicking their short-clad legs under the desk as some teacher tries to teach them the present perfect, unsuccessfully, for the umpteenth time.

Business professionals need to feel they are coming at English from their camp, from the world of high-powered deals and tricky problem solving, building on what they know - their business skills - and incorporating just one more business skill - English - into their armoury. Or, failing that, if they are new to the professional world, it is much more satisfying to be learning business skills as English slips in through the back door as it were.

That seems to be the approach Cambridge have chosen here. The Theory sections are about business theory, not linguistics; supply chain management, not subordinate clauses. The Practice sections come to the language through and after the case studies with Dell, Unilever, IKEA, Cisco Systems... have been thoroughly introduced, not before them. And the Skills sections are once again back to business competences: taking part in meetings and negotiations, proposing solutions, presenting facts and figures, international team building, over and before (but including) the language needed to perform these functions effectively.

Personally, I'm keen to try these courses out on real-world victims and see how they cope; I think the results will be encouraging if I know some of my clients well.

But is this all enough to really make Business Advantage stand out from the crowd, which includes some other very worthy competitors from the other 'biggies' already mentioned. Let's quickly look at what else the course has to offer.

For a start, I haven't mentioned that each of the seven sections at each level has a special two-page writing unit to deal with key business skills such as writing proposals, responding to complaints, describing graphs and formal versus informal e-mails.

Then there are the student's DVDs. Each student's book includes this series of seven case studies on the seven section topics, but not the same ones as the case studies in the book units themselves. The areas covered are very varied, including business angels, wind farms, electronics, banking and brand names and plenty more. I didn't notice much difference in the comprehension difficulty between the two levels' DVDs, but then all the interviewees were speaking naturally and fairly clearly, so I suppose they decided not to grade them particularly for this purpose.

A short commentary from a business school student adds to the variety of English and ideas on offer for each DVD case study. These are intended for student self-study along with special worksheets on the website but could just as easily be exploited in class if necessary. I found the video scripts on the website too, along with some additional activities and bilingual word lists from the course currently available in French, German, Italian, Polish and Russian.

At the back of the student's book they get all the audio scripts from the units as well as the answers in a clear nod to the self-study market. They don't get the listenings themselves, however, and would have to buy these separately if they wanted the full home-study package. I had access to the upper-intermediate class audio CDs, by the way, and found their level to be quite appropriate and the spoken English highly, if not 'perfectly' natural but fine for the purpose with a good variety of accents into the bargain.

Finally, we come to the part I've been most looking forward to (of course I look forward to reviewing course books, are you crazy..?) - the Classware component.

This, and I quote, 'allows you to access and manipulate all the core content from the Student's Book, including video, audio, images and text, from a single electronic platform'.

In other words, it's good to go with interactive whiteboards or just computers and a projector and you can make notes, zoom, hide stuff, save things and even combine your own materials with the published content.

Sounds good. And it is, great fun. I thoroughly enjoyed playing around with the Classware component and envisage using it with both classes and one-to-one students as an exciting new element for them to experience. It did take a bit of messing around with the two CDs they supplied but after it was up and running it was pretty intuitive (I didn't read or need any instructions, which is lucky, because there weren't any...).

The bits I enjoyed most were starting the listenings instantly and toggling the audio scripts on and off, and, in particular, adding my own pictures, page jumps, web links and useful notes to the pages to be brought up with a click - brilliant!

You can save them all as 'sessions' and open them up as and when necessary. You could have different sessions for different classes using the same book, with their own personalised notes added as you go through the lessons. I could go on, but the advantages of this techology are multiple and the possibilities endless.

To sum up, then, I find Business Advantage an excellent new course, thoroughly up-to-date, with an inventively authentic business-focused approach. Cambridge describe it as 'the course for university and in-company learners, equipping them with the language they need to succeed in a business environment', and I'd say that's currently just about right. Well worth checking out.


Sab Will is, or has been, a freelance teacher, teacher trainer, director of studies, ELT writer, fanatical blogger, Facebook freak and website weirdo. He is also a well-known street photographer, abstract artist, poet and Paris city chronicler. The 'well-known' bit only applies to those who know him well, however.
Hotch Potch English: 'The ELT Resources Review Blog' ~ Book Review: "Business Advantage"
© 2012 Sab Will / Hotch Potch English

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