Shifting Realities – The Era of Digital Training and Development
By the Hong Kong Institute of Human Resource Management
  • As companies recover from COVID-19, the HKIHRM 2020/21 Training and Development Needs Survey shows that while training budgets have declined, the use of digital training and development platforms have thrived.

  • In a post-COVID environment, it is even more important for Learning and Development professionals to embrace new training technologies.

Significant events have routinely influenced employee training and development – COVID-19 is no different. To identify the impact the public health situation has had on employee training, the Hong Kong Institute of Human Resource Management (HKIHRM) conducted the HKIHRM 2020/21 Training and Development Needs Survey between March and April 2021. Covering a total of 128 companies across 18 business and industry sectors employing 65,400 full-time employees, the survey sought to provide insights and perspectives underpinning training and development areas throughout the past year.

The findings showed close to 80% among the responding organisations reported that their delivery of employee training was at least somewhat disrupted by COVID-19, while almost 70% reported that all levels of employee training had been affected as a result. Another finding revealed the use of digital learning attained the highest levels documented for the past decade, while the average number of annual training hours per employee and the training budget against total annual base salary in 2020 were at the lowest recorded levels for the past 10 years. The survey showed major training areas for employees at different staff levels in various industries, new learning contents in response to COVID-19, as well as training practices and business drivers of employee training and development in 2021.

Digital learning breeds challenges

Among the surveyed organisations, the adoption of digital learning technology registered a surge from 73% in 2019 to 95% in 2020, reaching the highest level on record in a decade. However, the deployment of digital tools had led to numerous challenges. The top three challenges identified when using digital tools to deliver training were – less interaction between trainer and staff (61%), staff not tech savvy enough (45%), and distractions (40%). Due to challenges presented by digital tools, more than one-third of the companies surveyed showed they had already resumed training in a physical setting, with 23% saying that they would do so in the second half of 2021. In response to COVID-19, 62% of the 127 companies that responded to the survey introduced new learning contents. The top three content areas included health and safety during COVID-19 (55%), supporting employees’ mental health (53%), and policies on working from home/remote office (40%).

Major training areas for employees

Among the companies that supplied data, the average annual training hours per employee dropped from 14.1 in 2019 to 12.9 in 2020, the lowest recorded level in the past decade. Simultaneously, the training budget as a percentage of total annual base salary dropped from 3.0% in 2019 to 2.5% in 2020. The actual spending on training as a percentage of total annual base salary was 1.3% for 2020. However, the actual spending allocated for digital learning was 12% higher than the original budget.

Training and development drivers for the future

Looking ahead, the top three training practices aligned with achieving business objectives were – on-the-job training (77%), in-house training and development programmes (73%), and external conferences, workshops, and events (62%). The top three commercial factors stated by the responding organisations which orientated with workforce training and development were – building leadership strengths and pipeline development through talent management (51%), enhancing leadership and people management competencies (50%), and digital transformation (38%).

Turning hurdles into opportunities

Summarising the impact of COVID-19 as reflected in the survey findings, Dr. Chester Tsang, Executive Council Member of the HKIHRM and Cochairperson of the Learning and Development Committee, believes that as organisations shifted their resources to handle the public health crisis and ensure business continuity, much of the training that was originally planned for the classroom is now being delivered online. He commented, “From a positive perspective, the public health crisis has provided learning and development (L&D) practitioners, where applicable, with a catalyst to coordinate online learning with their organisation’s digital transformation journey.” Simultaneously, the shift to digital and online learning highlighted various limitations, including budget cuts, manpower resources constraints, and a lack of digital learning IT infrastructure. “For many organisations, especially SMEs, setting up IT infrastructure and digital learning requires a lot of investment,” he noted. Despite disruptive COVID-19 challenges, such as the need for social distancing, L&D practitioners had demonstrated agility by offering training programmes delivered in different online modes and formats. The most obvious change was redesigning classroom learning to fit a variety of virtual and blendedlearning training options. Dr. Tsang said, “Virtual classes with interactive web-based tools to enhance interactions between instructors and class participants, and seminars and workshops retooled and presented as webinars, are the most common mode of delivery used by both SMEs and more sizable organisations.” 

With digital learning no longer an option but a necessity, beyond simply moving L&D programmes to a virtual environment, Dr. Tsang advised L&D practitioners should adapt to suit the different delivery methods. He advocated tailoring digital learning programmes to provide bespoke offerings to specific employee groups and individuals, rather than a “lift and shift” approach to moving content online. “This presents opportunities for L&D practitioners to create a blend of live virtual experiences and online learning content, or blended online learning,” he said.

Against a backdrop of technological change and economic downturn, Dr. Barry Ip, Vice President of the HKIHRM and Co-chairperson of the Learning and Development Committee, said L&D practitioners had stepped up to provide employees with learning resources on physical and mental wellbeing, resilience, and adaptation to change. “Helping employees at all levels to manage stress is definitely a priority,” Dr. Ip noted. Training to help employees cope with stress, personal changes, and uncertainties topped the C-suite’s agenda in the survey findings. “If people are suffering from stress and anxiety, it is impossible for them to lead others. It is people that make other people happy,” he said While managers, including the C-suite, should be provided with training to support their team members through mental and physical health issues, employees should also be provided with the support, knowledge, and training to help themselves. For example, Dr. Ip pinpointed how L&D practitioners had been partnering with medical experts to provide employees with detailed information relating to COVID-19 vaccination options, so that individuals could make informed choices.

As L&D practitioners look for ways to provide training and development in alignment with shifts in businesses needs and objectives, the Institute's Learning and Development Committee Co-chairpersons concurred that they could turn to leading universities around the world which offer programmes without charge. The Co-chairpersons also pointed out that L&D practitioners can gain valuable information and insights by joining relevant seminars and webcasts. Dr. Tsang suggested that while managers are occupied with business uncertainties and dealing with the rapidfire changes organisations are facing, L&D practitioners should be proactive in helping their organisations to collectively move past the crisis and adjust to the new normal. 

Highlights of the HKIHRM Training & Development Needs Webinar 2021

Themed “Reinventing L&D amid COVID-19”, the HKIHRM Training & Development Needs Webinar 2021 moderator Dr. Chester Tsang was joined by panellists Mimi Fu, Executive Director, Human Resources, Ocean Park; Tony Wo, Learning, Culture, Diversity & Inclusion Director, AXA Hong Kong and Macau; and Owen Yeung, Head of Learning & Organization Development, Quality HealthCare Medical Services Limited. Through a presentation on highlights of the Survey and a panel discussion on reinventing L&D amid COVID-19, panel members shared best L&D practices they had deployed in response to COVID-19, and how they had utilised digital learning platforms and creative learning tools so that employees could benefit from access to training any time, especially when working at home.

In her presentation, Vicky Chiu, Business Innovation & Innovator Development Lead, Chow Tai Fook Jewellery Group, explained how the company had accelerated its use of technology platforms to enable social learning and self-initiated customer engagement training. Florence Chan, Assistant Superintendent, Tung Wah Group of Hospitals (TWGHs) Jockey Club Rehabilitation Complex, outlined how TWGHs’ commitment to empower individuals to unleash their potential is the basis for building a sustainable and inclusive workplace of people with different abilities. Ivan Chan, Senior Manager, Learning & Development, MSIG Insurance (Hong Kong) Limited, shared his insights on a changing landscape for people development. The webcast also featured a presentation by Bala Swaminathan, Global Lead – Talent Management and Talent Acquisition, Cigna International Markets, who shared his thoughts on navigating new L&D opportunities under the new normal. With rapid changes in the world of work requiring employers and employees to innovate, Amie Fok, Training Manager, McDonald’s Hong Kong, focused her presentation on people development anytime and anywhere. As the impact of COVID-19 continues to raise the importance of digital transformation, Felix Lee, Head of Corporate Supplies & Administration, The Hong Kong and China Gas Company Limited, stressed the importance of inspiration, innovation, and implementation.

Wrapping up the webcast with a keynote presentation, Low Peck Kem, Chief Human Resources Offi cer & Advisor (Workforce Development), Singapore Public Service Division, Prime Minister’s Offi ce, provided insights on the Singapore Public Service’s efforts to ready the public service and its workforce for the future of work. Low emphasised how employee reskilling should be a top priority to ensure that individuals have the relevant skills and competencies to retain their competitive edge. She added that it is vital to creatively redesign work to be future ready, for businesses to be sustainable.