Formally or informally, Business English teachers carry out needs analysis all the time. It might take the form of a questionnaire at the beginning of a course or it can emerge out of a simple social comment at the beginning of a lesson such as: “So, what are you doing at work this week?” Typically, the student happens to mention that he has something going on which requires English which he hadn’t bothered to tell you and so you put all your other lesson plans on hold while you prepare him/her for that.
Whatever your approach to needs analysis, there are three simple questions which you need the answers to. I learned them on a particularly beneficial training course early in my career. You might well already ask them, though word them differently.
Question 1: WHO do you communicate with?
If you can find out from the student the type of people they communicate with then you know the level of formality required. It also affects the listening and pronunciation practice. For example, a student who communicates with US speakers needs appropriate listening and so on.
Question 2: WHAT do you communicate about?
Find out the subject matter, the student’s area of business, and what type of subjects s/he is interested in at a social level.
Question 3: HOW do you communicate?
This tells you if the student talks about his/her subject matter by phone, at meetings, in the bar etc.
However, the who, what, how questions aren’t just limited to needs analysis. You can also apply them to assessing if a business English lesson aim is measurable and achievable. For example, if you had a lesson aim which was: “To teach the past simple”, there is an inherent problem. It doesn’t answer the WHO, WHAT, HOW questions. If on the other hand your aim was: “To enable the student to present his/her company history to a group of potential clients” then working on the past simple might be useful but your lesson aim has much more of a real focus.
Try it for yourself in your next needs analysis or assess your lesson aims by asking WHO, WHAT, HOW. Find out if it works for you…