upskilling, reskilling, learning and development, employee engagement

There’s a lot on HR’s plate but for good reason – the focus on boosting workforce productivity and skills development is not only a business priority but a national imperative.

“The primary challenge we have is really how we get our workforce ready for how to scale up fast enough. It's probably not at the speed that we want it to be.”

“The shelf life of any skill is becoming very short. That means as an organisation, we have a constant need of evolving our learning programme, keeping the workforce engaged, and keeping our business relevant.”

“When we try to recruit people externally, very often the skill does not even exist in the market. That is why we have to scale up our in-house learning capabilities fairly rapidly.”

What’s common to these real-life inputs shared by senior L&D leaders? The clear and direct linkage of learning to solving a business – not HR – problem.

And this perhaps is one of the biggest shifts that the learning function has positively experienced in the past three years; without learning, several businesses could simply not have made it through. Think of all those sectors where having been benched owing to lack of demand, the staff and employers took it upon themselves to upskill in a completely new field, make themselves productive and relevant again, and several of them enjoyed their newfound vocation enough to stick around despite their original sector rebounding.

In a recent roundtable discussion, Singapore Institute of Management (SIM) and HRO had the opportunity to learn from 10 prolific HR and L&D leaders across various industries. We’ve put together some of the key takeaways from that conversation for your benefit.

 Current talent priorities

As a whole, most leaders at the table agree that the “shelf life of skills is becoming much shorter”. This poses a significant challenge, especially when trying to ensure your workforce is prepared for the economic rebound.

As one leader points out, “skills are now evolving rapidly, with many being rendered obsolete in the process.” Trying to identify the wave of skills that are becoming more relevant or obsolete may be like “looking into a crystal ball”.

The customer service role is often cited as an example, which requires the talent to operate at an elevated level of responsibility — particularly, being able to solve problems for customers on the spot. This transforms the role of a customer service executive from a task-based role requiring technical skills to a knowledge-based role requiring problem-solving skills.

To take another example, we look at frontliners who led us through the peak of the pandemic and helped pivot their businesses. Having to deploy emergency resources, teams certainly faced a lot of pressure in ensuring the frontliners were equipped not just with the right technical skills, but the people skills needed to navigate a crisis with compassion and empathy.

Evidently, with the rate at which skills are advancing, organisations are faced with the need to constantly evolve and adapt their learning programmes to keep up with the change.

Another important priority for HR leaders, from the L&D lens, is sustaining the employee experience. When trying to upskill, several leaders noted it was difficult to truly engage their employees.

This then raises the question: how are you keeping your employees engaged while sustaining interest towards learning in a hybrid environment?

As one leader believes, the key lies in making sure employees feel as if they are being upskilled in a way that matters rather than simply ensuring that employees are learning and growing. “Employees should recognise the culture leaders are trying to build. This helps them see the purpose, or the value, that they are being groomed for, and these skills stay with them for years to come.”

Along these lines, there was a general consensus at the table: in determining ‘learnability’, or the inclination of your talent to learn new skills constantly, it takes attitude over aptitude. As one leader shared, you can teach aptitude, but you cannot teach attitude.

As such, many employees may recognise the importance of L&D, but will ultimately brush off opportunities to upskill as one leader shares from personal experience, citing reasons such as being “too busy”, a lack of initiative, or inertia from the current role.

Of course, HR leaders aren’t leaving the accountability solely on the learners. They’re taking several steps to ensure learning is timely and relevant. One leader suggests to “make learning small”, not just in terms of bite-size content, but the actual scale of it. For example, we may consider leveraging smaller learning groups, while utilising methods such as mentoring.

Admittedly, while this may initially seem counter-intuitive and inefficient in an era where we are all focused on upskilling quickly, learning experts believe that providing more digestible, in-depth, and intimate learning may, in fact, prove to be more equally, if not more, effective. With the influx of accessible resources everywhere (thanks to YouTube and TikTok), employees already know they can find information easily. Instead, what they want from employers is access to experiences and best practices, the leaders affirms.

Roundtable participants further recognised how the phenomenon typically termed the ‘Great Resignation’ has impacted employee experience. When presented with time on hand during the worst of the pandemic to reflect on what matters to them in life, many employees are now clearly looking for organisations that align with their own priorities.

As such, leaders take this as a positive development and called this the era of the ‘Great Awakening’ instead – an opportunity for employers to re-evaluate their EVP, forcing years of corporate norms and habits to give way to flexibility in how we engage with employees. As an example, while some employees are prepared to return to work in the office, some may have already gotten used to remote working arrangements. It is important to consider: how do we provide different offerings for employees, be it flexibility or the way their performance is measured? Further, if we’re bringing them back into the office, can we give them a true reason or purpose for doing so, for example, the promise of stronger collaboration?

Ideas for high-impact skill development

The beauty of the conversation lies in solving problems together – as such, all roundtable attendees brainstormed on ways to make learning more effective.

According to one L&D leader, a lack of integration — be it across functions, learning systems, or in employees’ day-to-day work – can be a barrier to effective upskilling. More so, integration with the organisation’s larger talent ecosystem is equally important. Thus, whatever we do, we must ensure learning is linked to the strategic objectives of the organisation, and elevated to a boardroom conversation, instead of as a checklist of boxes to tick off in cases where “L&D directors are not part of the conversation when creating strategies”.

Another leader shares her experience with upskilling a multi-generational workforce. While employees across all generations have expressed a desire to upskill, the way they choose to learn certainly varies. “The younger generation may prefer social learning — this includes through mentors and opportunities to speak to senior leaders. On the other hand, the older generation may be used to a more top-down system where learning is system-driven rather than requiring them to approach senior leadership,” noted one speaker.

Bringing learning to your organisation in the context of the new rules of engagement, it is important to meet the learner at the stage they are at. What this means is, as a first step, leaders are encouraged to start with determining how the learning is relevant to the business and the function.

Several organisations, especially with smaller teams, rely on internal activities. Employees may learn more effectively if they are being shown the best example by top performers. The involvement of line managers plays a significant part too, especially in the co-creation of relevant programmes. One HR leader shares that getting buy-in from line managers can be made a lot easier when HR teams demonstrate they are “truly cognisant of the issues they face on the ground and how learning can help.”

The element of technology is unmissable in this picture. Providing resources such as online learning management systems is only the first step; however, it may not necessarily translate to daily application unless the technology makes learning more accessible, timely yet personalised.

The returns and impact of learning

Measuring the results of learning is often a divisive conversation, wherein some prefer to measure the trainees’ impact on productivity, the ability to take on more complex projects, or rely on feedback from team members in cases of leadership development. Others may be in a position to take a more black-and-white approach, where the nature of their industry can provide a direct correlation to the required changes in behaviours, for example, workplace safety and health (WSH).

One thing is clear though – every leader aspires to deliver business outcomes as a result of learning interventions. What they’re looking to deliver, for instance, is better capability to match the business’s future demands in a new market or new product amidst a landscape of talent shortage. They are looking for levers such as employee loyalty, happiness, and wellbeing, knowing that happier employees do, in fact, produce better results.

One HR leader has decided to move away from annual appraisal cycles. While the team still carries out performance ratings, the annual campaign has given way to more frequent check-ins. These check-ins and career conversations tie into employees’ development, which helps determine the appropriate learning outcomes.

Post learning programmes, the team also asks employees to provide feedback beyond a simple “satisfied” or “not satisfied” rating. Instead, learning leaders prefer to ask quite specifically what worked, what did not work, and whether employees were able to apply the knowledge learnt. Programmes continue to be tweaked along the way.

Another HR leader acknowledges that the measurement of effectiveness is a complex issue, especially since it is hard to determine the direct causal links. Some factors that the leader does look into include monitoring feedback, individual development plans, and attrition rates. Even so, it may not necessarily be an entirely accurate, clear-cut answer. However, one thing we must watch out for would be whether employees are voicing out the same issues over and over again.

In conclusion, all panellists agreed that businesses in ASEAN are facing unprecedented challenges of global volatility, digital transformation, and talent availability – but like any problem, it is better solved when brainstormed together with peers. The conversation ended with a firm resolution to progress the learning journey for themselves and their employees.


The roundtable, held on 30 June 2022, was moderated by HRO, and supported by Dr. Kevyn Yong, Chief Learning Officer, SIM, and the entire SIM team.

At the roundtable, Yong affirmed that it is the speed of change that introduces complexity to learning and development — not the time horizon.

Summarising the roundtable, he observed that, whichever industry it may be, the typical learning challenges faced are “same-same but different”. This means that while the challenges remain about skills and capabilities, attitude over aptitude, meaningful work over purpose; and engagement, the face of these dimensions vary per industry.

He also noted that digital learning solutions may pose as a struggle to some because these solutions are being driven by technology experts, not learning experts.

Human Resources Online and SIM would like to thank the following HR leaders for being a valuable part of this discussion:

  1. Leslie Lenus, Area Director of Talent & Culture, Novotel Singapore on Stevens
  2. Aileen Tan, Chief Human Resources Officer, AIA Singapore
  3. Dr. Kevyn Yong, Chief Learning Officer, SIM
  4. Pauline Chua, Director, Group Human Capital, Raffles Medical Group
  5. Rachna Sampayo, Vice President Human Resources, Asia Pacific & Japan, Oracle
  6. Neetha Nair, Head of Future Ready Workforce, Prudential Singapore
  7. Esther Liang, Senior Manager - People Development, Micron Technology
  8. Ombelle Zhang, Chief People Officer, Lazada
  9. Eleanor Ng, Vice President Human Resources and Organisation Development, Singapore Economic Development Board
  10. Nate Lovitt, Head of Learning and Development, APAC, Mintel
  11. Moderator: Aditi Sharma Kalra, Editor-in-Chief, Human Resources Online

Image / Roundtable screenshot (Pictured above from L–R)

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