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The most in-demand skills of the future – and how to teach them

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With an increased focus on upskilling in recent years, Jerene Ang speaks to HR leaders from across Asia to analyse how they are teaching the competencies in the highest demand and, in the process, overcoming various learning challenges.

Concern among CEOs about skills has more than doubled in 20 years (from 31% concerned in 1998 to 77% in 2017). This worry over skills availability is highest for CEOs in Asia Pacific (82%) and Africa (80%), revealed PwC’s 20th annual survey of CEOs worldwide. As a result, human capital is a top-three business priority for CEOs from China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and India.

What that means for L&D professionals who are creating tomorrow’s curriculums is a much more intense focus on developing soft skills than we’ve ever seen. In fact, soft skills such as emotional intelligence, conflict management and storytelling have moved way up the learning ladder to become the foundational skills for future leaders. As such, we speak to HR leaders from across Asia to explore what skills and competencies are in highest demand in the region, how organisations are teaching them, and in the process, overcoming learning challenges.

Hitting the right note: Identifying future skills

When it comes to identifying in-demand skills, it is crucial for HR to work closely with business leaders. This was the approach Malaysia’s oldest local bank, RHB Banking Group, took when pinpointing the skills its employees needed to be future-ready.

Khairiah binti Adam, Head, Change Management and Digital Enablement, Group Digital Transformation, RHB Banking Group, says: “At the high level, we categorise the skills into three groups – human/soft skills, business/technical skills, and digital skills.”

A few of the human/soft skills the bank found relevant for the future included innovation and creativity, critical thinking, emotional intelligence, as well as decision-making. To hone these skills in staff, Khairiah reveals the bank has prepared a range of programmes that are delivered by its internal and external sources.

The relevant business/technical skills depend largely on the employees’ job functions. Khairiah notes that for this, the bank focuses more on enhancing staff’s technical forte in their respective areas. At the same time, RHB looks into the other key areas they support the organisation in.

The next generation of leaders must be visionary coalition-builders; quick learners and fast implementers; as well as be comfortable with change, volatility and ambiguity.
– Khairiah binti Adam, Head, Change Management and Digital Enablement, Group Digital Transformation, RHB Banking Group

As for digital skills, at the foundation level, employees should at least be well-versed in design thinking and understanding the customer journey, analytics, being agile, and lean management.

“The next generation of leaders must be visionary coalition-builders; quick learners and fast implementers; as well as be comfortable with change, volatility and ambiguity. They also must have an intimate knowledge of the changing customer needs; have the agility to switch to a new business and working model; and produce rapid results in all areas.”

Similarly, global banking and financial services organisation, HSBC, prioritises skills such as learning agility, flexibility, adaptability, culture intelligence, leading change, emotional intelligence, and authenticity in its leaders and managers.

Brandon Coate, Head of Human Resources at HSBC Singapore, adds: “As part of our talent development, we place value on their understanding of the application of technology in the workplace, data science and analytics in decision-making, and agile and entrepreneurial thinking.”

Hard skills or soft skills: Which are more important?

Coming to the age-old debate of hard skills versus soft skills, Khairiah says: “There is no one size fits all. It’s always an overlap, a partnership complementing each other. The fact is, it’s a laborious effort to marry the two.”

At RHB, the first step to striking a balance involves looking at the skills needed by the organisation and for the employees to perform their tasks, amid current and future business demands.

Then, the bank customises and prioritises the skills depending on functional areas, and in alignment with the business.

“Sometimes it can be a hybrid version. In certain situations one type of skill might be of a higher priority than the other,” she adds.

For example, for software engineers, hard skills such as Java, JavaScript, and React, will carry a higher weight (55:45). Whereas for communication specialists, soft skills may be more important.

At a junior level, emphasis will be on hard skills as the roles are typically more operational and tactical. As one progresses in their career, the emphasis will be on soft skills
– Brandon Coate, Head of Human Resources at HSBC Singapore

In her opinion, the key is the amount of effort the organisation places in mentoring, providing training, and an avenue for staff to practise and be developed.

Alignment with stakeholders from an early stage is also important. “As employers, it should be clear that a combination of hard skills and soft skills is what we are looking for,” she elaborates.

“A department may want a candidate to have expertise in certain hard skills required by the position, but if that person is unable to work well with others, then no matter how talented they are, there are going to be impediments.”

Personally, she has a soft spot for soft skills as she believes they are valuable regardless of where you are and what you do in the organisation since human interaction is everywhere.

For HSBC Singapore, this split between hard and soft skills varies per employee levels.

Coate says: “At a junior level, emphasis will be on hard skills as the roles are typically more operational and tactical. As one progresses in their career, the emphasis will be on soft skills as senior roles involve leadership skills focused on collaboration, influencing, networking and creative thinking.”

An assortment of learning instruments

Having established the variety of in-demand skills of the future, we speak to three organisations to showcase the assortment of learning instruments that can be used to impart and hone these skills.

Case study: HSBC Singapore

At HSBC, various resources are made available to all staff to enable them to pick up the necessary skills. These range from classroom learning, as well as digital courses and resources, to on-the-job training and brown bag sessions (lunchtime talks).

“For example, we have HSBC University, which is an e-learning site and library of digital content and articles that covers everything from banking, technical knowledge, leadership and business,” Coate says.

“We also provide on-the-job training. Our colleagues can participate in the Institute of Banking and Finance’s Professional Conversion Programme, as well as receive functional training conducted at the department level.

“When it comes to training and teaching, we take a blended approach aimed at providing the best possible learning outcomes depending on the objective of the programme, level and target group of learners.”

Case study: VFS Global

Similarly, global outsourcing and technology services specialist for governments and diplomatic missions, VFS Global uses a range of tools and programmes to nurture competencies that are closely mapped to business goals.

Bernard Martyris, Chief of Human Resources at VFS Global, reveals: “We use a ‘building blocks’ approach towards leadership development. This means that at every stage of the employee life cycle in the organisation, the employee is offered development centres and development programmes to go through. Through the development centres, personalised inputs are given to all employees on their strengths and improvement areas. Whereas the development programmes provide opportunities for them to learn those skills in theory and in practice.”

Apart from the development centres and development programmes, in line with its larger strategy, the organisation uses a range of tools and programmes aimed at modernising and customising its training solutions.

We use a ‘building blocks’ approach towards leadership development. This means that at every stage of the employee life cycle in the organisation, the employee is offered development centres and development programmes to go through.
– Bernard Martyris, Chief of Human Resources, VFS Global

This includes video-based learning – done through a newly launched internal video portal for employees around the world, VideoTube; and InstaLearn – a programme offered on the desk to employees.

VFS Global also has an initiative called Expresso (coffee over the Training Express) which comprises short 90-minute instructor-led sessions conducted in its hubs featuring renowned local speakers on various subjects ranging from managing virtual teams to leadership styles, and even self-defence and photography.

The organisation also makes use of technology-driven certification programmes as well as has tie-ups with top educational institutes to help employees take on programmes and qualifications for their self-development.

Martyris says: “In addition to the above, we have also invested in a high-tech training centre called The Learning Galaxy in Mumbai, India – which is our training headquarters.”

He notes that as a PCMM Level 5-rated organisation, VFS Global is able to quantify its L&D efforts to show direct linkage to business goals and objectives.

Case study: Digi Telecommunications

Over at mobile connectivity and internet services provider, Digi Telecommunications, to unlock the potential of employees and empower them to take charge of their career development, leadership and expert training programmes are provided to staff.

Elisabeth Stene, Digi’s Chief Human Resource Officer, says: “With the support of our parent company, Telenor Group, aspiring leaders are given the opportunity to work in other business units under the Telenor Group and share their expertise as well as hone their professional skills.”

Selected leaders also join the Telenor Strategy Execution Programme to learn key leadership strategies such as how to organise and develop employees, how to foster cross-functional collaboration, and which best leadership style to adopt, she adds.

Digi’s culture of “innovation 360” also means that innovation is actively nurtured and supported among employees.

“Employees are encouraged to explore and experience through platforms such as hackathons, intrapreneur programmes and botathons. We introduced Maker Lab, a dedicated space in Digi’s headquarters, for hands-on learning and experimentation with a focus on STEM,” she says.

With the support of our parent company, Telenor Group, aspiring leaders are given the opportunity to work in other business units under the Telenor Group and share their expertise as well as hone their professional skills.
– Elisabeth Stene, Digi’s Chief Human Resource Officer

Last year, the telco also developed an in-house programme called “What’s Your Next”. The fun and engaging half-day course was designed to help every employee appreciate Digi’s strategy and purpose, and was facilitated by its leadership team.

“Approximately 1,800 employees nationwide (permanent and contract) went through these sessions where they experienced a deep dive into Digi’s strategy pillars and how they could play a role in driving the company’s growth forward,” she says.

Digi also has multiple engagement platforms such as the annual digital day to allow digizens to learn and discover new technology and trends. The day-long event features talks and panel discussions by thought leaders and speakers across the world, as well as exhibitions for digizens to personally experience the newest innovations.

Challenges and how to overcome them

As organisations find ways to impart future-relevant skills to their workforce, the journey isn’t all smooth sailing. Roadblocks faced along the way include finding the right training providers, the willingness of employees to be trained, as well as time and budget constraints.

At Digi, Stene says: “It has been a challenge for us to find the right training providers to partner for our learning and development needs. Experts in the market on topics such as network virtualisation, 5G, machine learning, deep learning, etc., are scarce, and if available, typically come at a very high cost.”

To solve this problem, Digi is leveraging on partnerships Telenor has developed with global providers such as Udacity, Apis Training, Linux Academy, Red Hat, and many more.

“These partnerships provide us with digital learning platforms which are accessible anytime, anywhere, giving Digizens the convenience to manage their own learning journeys.”

Another organisation leveraging on digital learning platforms is The Continent Hotel, Bangkok, by Compass Hospitality.

Kochakorn Panwatcharakom, the hotel’s Human Resources Manager, says: “In the hospitality industry, time is the biggest constraint. It is a very personal industry and guests value face-to-face service so whenever we pull staff out for training it makes a huge difference to our colleagues.

“It is for this reason that we decided to eschew traditional, classroom-based learning in favour of mobile training, as our employees can now learn at a time and place of their choosing – many learn English in their lunch break, on the way to work or even before bed.”

Apart from solving the challenge of time constraints, this also helps the organisation measure and track an employee’s progress on training almost in real-time. This, in turn, helps HR and L&D to provide assistance to those who need it or to identify stronger employees.

We decided to eschew traditional, classroom-based learning in favour of mobile training, as our employees can now learn at a time and place of their choosing.
– Kochakorn Panwatcharakom, Human Resources Manager, The Continent Hotel, Bangkok, by Compass Hospitality

Since these digital, self-learning platforms all require employees to take the initiative, this brings us to the challenge of their willingness to learn.

Michael Lee, General Manager, Human Resources and Administration at MKH, says: “One of the key challenges of having a sustainable successful organisation is how to develop our employees’ capabilities, knowledge and skills. Another challenge is the willingness of employees to be trained. Most employees are aware that their knowledge and skills will very soon be taken over by artificial intelligence and machine learning, but how many are volunteering to upskill their capabilities to meet the challenges ahead?”

To raise the importance of upskilling on the employees’ list of priorities, MKH has made it compulsory for all staff – from drivers to senior management – to incorporate training into their yearly KPIs.

“Senior employees are encouraged to personally train their subordinates on knowledge or skills or even behaviours that will enhance their performance. Through this manner of training it is hoped senior employees will also demonstrate and develop the necessary key skills and attitudes themselves.”

Most employees are aware that their knowledge and skills will very soon be taken over by artificial intelligence and machine learning, but how many are volunteering to upskill their capabilities to meet the challenges ahead?
– Michael Lee, General Manager, Human Resources and Administration at MKH

Apart from motivating employees to take upskilling seriously, another challenge is the mindset of senior management.

To overcome this, Peter Law, Senior General Manager and Head of People Development and Recognition at Mah Sing Group, says that continuous education and influencing is needed.

“The importance of L&D is often driven by HR, but in reality, it is only effective when it is driven from the top to have an impact across the organisation,” he explains.

This challenge can be overcome by linking L&D to business results, he says, adding that the focus is not about running L&D activities, but to collaborate with stakeholders in driving and achieving the results.

“To ensure our business model is sustainable, we also adopt design thinking in mapping out our customer experience and employee experience. We strongly believe employee experience equals customer experience equals sustainable return-on-investment,” he adds.

Apart from being able to influence senior management to drive the importance of L&D, being able to justify its returns and ensure a sustainable business model can also help HR and L&D leaders get their training budgets approved.

The importance of L&D is often driven by HR, but in reality, it is only effective when it is driven from the top to have an impact across the organisation.
– Peter Law, Senior General Manager and Head of People Development and Recognition, Mah Sing Group

There are many aspects to consider when equipping staff with the most in-demand skills. Apart from identifying the skills – which vary from organisation to organisation – and putting in place relevant programmes; what’s most important is to ensure the L&D agenda is driven from the top, training is incorporated into KPIs, and to leverage on digital platforms to allow staff to learn at a time and place of their choosing.


This feature appeared in the June-July (Singapore) and Q2 (Malaysia) edition of Human Resources magazine. Read it in the special Learning & Development edition out now!

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