Online Business Writing: Mechanics and the Unwritten Rules

In Alberta, the demand for skilled professionals is predicted to exceed the supply within 2 to 5 years.  The Alliance of Sector Councils notes that Canada’s reliance on internationally trained workers is increasing; it is predicted that 100% of net labour force growth by the end of this decade will be sourced by immigrants.  We need to improve our ability to retain them. Current estimates indicate that Canada loses approximately 30% of its new and highly skilled immigrants because they are unable to integrate into the economy and in communities.

For many internationally educated professionals with documented credentials and experience in their country of origin, one of the barriers to obtaining employment as well as retention and promotion is their “soft skills” including their professional communication skills.  Successful communication competence for the Canadian workplace requires integrated knowledge and skills of both linguistic and socio-cultural language performance in order for internationally educated professionals to be perceived as competent by their Canadian and established immigrant colleagues and supervisors.  We believe that both aspects of communication competence can be taught using an interculturally sensitive approach to business communication language development. 

The English in the Workplace training program developed by the Colbourne Institute for Inclusive Leadership which includes several courses including Clear Speech, Business Writing (Mechanics and the UnWritten Rules), Conversation Management, Personal Management and the Language of Leadership are unique in how they are designed to combine curriculum and learning activities to simultaneously develop language and communication skills within the context of the workplace and to develop intercultural communication competence in practical ways that apply student’s learning directly to their day-to-day work environment. These courses address both the why and the how of using communication strategies that will support integration and success in Canadian workplaces for internationally educated professionals newly come to live and work in Canada. The courses are designed to support language development goals, e.g. clear, concise, well-organized written communication in emails or memos; to support language use and word choices that are appropriate for the context of communication, e.g. how to convey respect and retain relationship while disagreeing with a manager; and to develop practical intercultural communication skills, e.g. the ability to notice and compare similarities and differences in communication styles between their culture of origin and Canadian culture and the ability to tolerate ambiguity and suspend judgement of differences in order to communicate and work effectively together in ethnoculturally diverse teams and organizations.

Given a scarcity of online courses that offer business writing with consideration of cultural communication patterns, this project was successful in adapting a face-to-face training course into an online course format.  Additional work is needed to determine how to enhance the online course to better support newcomers within the transitional context of settlement.  

Lessons learned

Lessons learned included participant time management to complete online course activities, with differences in the amount of time and when the course was used between participants who completed the course and participants who did not complete the course. Participants most commonly accessed the course during week days (lunch hour and evenings); participants who completed the course successfully spent at least three hours each week in the online course environment. Learners with less developed language skills levels who successfully completed spent considerably more time in the online course.  

Computer literacy was a component for participant success, including challenges when some aspects of computer literacy were weaker (e.g. file management) and some learners’ attempt to avoid using the online learning environment, preferring to use more familiar tools such as email attachments for assignment submission. Learner agency was an issue; learners who successfully completed the course demonstrated their ability and desire to take responsibility for their own learning. Learners who did not complete all of the course requirements demonstrated behaviors indicative of their expectation for the instructor to resolve any issues they encountered while learning online.

Intercultural sensitivity assessments indicated a significant difference in orientation stage to cultural differences and similarities in one of the pilot cohorts, compared to the other two groups. Participation in the online course learning activities was more frequent for participants scoring in the Minimization stage, an orientation stage characterized by an emphasis on cultural similarities and an avoidance of cultural differences. For the cohort scoring in the Polarization stage, an orientation stage that is more likely to perceive cultural differences as a threat, with strong values and judgments attached to any perceived differences, participation in the online learning activities and overall time in the course was lower and the results of learner gains were lower as well. While more work is needed to clearly identify the influence of learner’s capacity to engage with differences as it relates to their learning goals, it is an indication that the cohort that scored primarily in Polarization may have had insufficient readiness to engage with the online Business Writing course content and may have been overly challenged by the adaptations required to learn successfully in an online learning environment.

Implications of the project results include a need to reconsider how much and what kind of instructor presence activities are supportive of learner engagement and success in an online course, including a higher demand on the instructor to clarify learner roles, instructor expectations and how learners engage with online course content and learning activities. The roles of teacher and student, instructor and learner, facilitator and participants are very culturally influenced and have a direct impact on the kinds of engagement one is likely to see in an online course. The differences in what learners are expected to do within an online course, developed using Canadian norms for learner and instructor roles need to be clarified and supported by the instructor across the course. In the online learning context, it is important to explicitly focus the instructor’s role on the task of facilitating how the learners are making sense of the content. Developing a bank of questions related to the “teachable moments” in the content could be helpful to support this aspect of the instructor’s role.

Further work on how instructors can bridge the cultural distance for learners adapting to unfamiliar roles in an online learning environment is needed. In the pilots, learners who demonstrated more responsibility to make sense of the content and to practice essential skills (e.g. digital literacy, written communication) were successful to achieve course outcomes. One implication of meeting diverse learner needs is to better prepare instructor facilitation resources and variations on learning activities that better align with learners who are less ready to take ownership of their own learning. One possible approach to help instructors bridge this cultural distance for online immigrant learners is to approach online course develop with a critical appraisal of the assumptions that underlie concept and learning activities in the course, particularly what the course develop assumes learners know in order to succeed with the online course content. Effective translation of a face-to-face course to an online format requires consistent focus on desired outcomes of the course to ensure that the appropriate tools available online can be used to achieve those outcomes. 

Project deliverables

Other project information
Project time frame December 2011 - April 2013
Project team
  • Jake Evans
  • Elizabeth Hanlis
  • eHanlis Inc.
  • Cheryl Whitelaw
  • Todd Odgers
Project sponsor Alberta Human Services
Key project activities
  • Development of a course map and technology framework to adapt a course to an online format using Blackboard Learning Management System.
  • Adaptation of an existing course, Business Writing: Mechanics and the Unwritten Rules using the course map and technology framework. 
  • Development of a research and evaluation framework to assess gains in business writing skills.
  • Offering of three pilot courses. Each pilot was offered over eight weeks with 21 hours of coursework. Participants completed two-to--four hours of self-study each week. 60 participants registered for the pilot courses. 85% of participants completed at least part of the course; 43% completed 100% of course requirements.
  • Dissemination of project results through the Key Contributors to Immigrant Integration and Workplace Productivity knowledge networking events (Edmonton and Calgary).
Target audience English as a Second Language instructors, internationally educated professionals, HR and workplace managers of multicultural teams.
Number of people involved in the project:

94 people including:

  • 3 project team members
  • 60 participants in online pilots
  • 31 participants in dissemination activities