Learning Fatigue in Singapore
The people development landscape in Singapore is suffering from an abundance of generic and repetitive courses. But there are alternatives to tick box exercises.
Any graduate who has been through the public school system in Singapore will be no stranger to this checklist:
- Communication Skills Workshop? Checked!
- Self-awareness and Team awareness Workshop? Checked!
- Leadership Training Workshop? Checked!
- Interview Skills Workshop? Checked!
…the list goes on and yes, you can expect most to have their boxes checked.
Learning & Development (L&D) has always been a mainstay in Singapore’s educational landscape, and plays an integral part in the nation’s workforce development.
The initiatives for skills development by the Singapore government have been one of the main driving forces in shaping the L&D culture. With initiatives such as the Ministry of Education’s 21st-century Competencies Model  and SkillsFuture Singapore , there is no lack in training and learning opportunities for Singaporeans.
Between self-management, leadership, communication, and various personality profiling workshops (not even including trending topics such as digital transformation or the future of work), it is estimated that the average Singaporean student would have gone through at least 8 to 10 such trainings before they enter the workforce.
At the time of writing this article, the world is experiencing economic and societal disruption at an unprecedented rate, in part due to the impact and resulting chain reaction that the coronavirus is having on our lives. As a result, the Singapore government is increasing efforts to promote the digital transformation of our workforce  through additional support schemes and funding initiatives.
As leadership development facilitators ourselves, we are playing to a well-served market. This is not just our observation. Evidence comes from our participants themselves; Many of them lament the repetitiveness of the courses they take, as they are likely to have gone through similar ones before.
Studies show: Learning Fatigue is real
Is this abundance of training material and courses necessarily a good thing? Research has shown  that the knowledge retention and frequency of application from such training and activities do not align with their intended outcomes, and for the most part, workshops conducted may not reach their full potency and effect. There is evidence that learning and development programs are missing the mark when it comes to finding the right time to conduct training sessions or appropriate content that aligns with employees’ needs. 
On top of that, participants may be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of training options and resources that are thrown their way, and very often, go through the motions of simply participating. The end result is that they become good at paying lip-service to the content but struggle with real experiences and the application of what they have learned.
We observed this to be a trend that has been growing in recent years, and is a clear sign of overtraining, more often known as learning fatigue.
Over-training has a detrimental effect on learners  and can lead to:
- Increased rates of stress in learners,
- A significant waste of time and money dedicated to learning resources that are not being properly developed, managed, or consumed,
- And apathetic employees with decreased engagement levels.
Where does it go wrong?
So why have so many programs become tick box exercises? Let’s identify the stakeholders within the landscape. They comprise of organizations, practitioners and participants.
Organizations - Government Agencies, Organizations and Institutions that are directing the learning and development initiatives
Practitioners - External service providers that are engaged by organizations or in-house training teams who provide training for a targeted audience
Participants - Learners who are participating in the training provided
There is a self-reinforcing effect at play between these three parties. It starts with Organizations having to fulfill their Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and bigger picture objectives. While the purpose is clear, decisions made are often complicated by limited resources - time, budget and the “expected” learning outcomes. The end results might be, at times, generic content pushed to the masses instead of highly curated and bespoke learning experiences.
Today’s sophisticated content audiences spot this a mile away. They are media and content savvy and many content providers and practitioners are not keeping up. One-size-fits-all content demotivates participants and the high frequency of learning sessions leaves little to no time for reflection, practice, and introspection.
Targeted, bite-sized and relevant content is key
Creating experiences that target their audience through their format and content is crucial: Different demographics have different needs.
Content doesn’t need to be just relevant but urgent, otherwise it puts the strain on creating relevance on the learner instead of the provider. We notice a lack of bespoke L&D initiatives offered within companies with many of them following a one-size-fits-all approach and clearly motivated by KPIs rather than a participant-centric approach.
In our experience, a good proportion of employees in up-skilling programs are already familiar with the particular skill. There are two coping mechanisms. Some will help their fellow peers, but with no way to opt out, many spend the time painfully aware that they are wasting precious hours to learn something they already know.
We Know Learners Are Bored
From our conversations with practitioners and experts at networking sessions, many share the sentiments that professionals in Singapore are no longer hungry to learn, and have become complacent in their thinking that they have “seen it all”, or taking L&D initiatives as just another series of courses they have to go through. They feel that people think of training programs and workshops as a day off work, to take a break from their hectic schedules, hang out with colleagues, and a time to catch up with overdue administrative tasks.
There is pressure for practitioners to think of new and different ways to engage with the learners and many of us wonder if their skillset should shift from being an educator to that of an entertainer.
We are constantly being challenged to make the first 5-10 minutes impactful and impressionable so that we don’t lose our participants for the rest of the session. We know many will make a decision whether to take the training seriously within the first few minutes of meeting us.
This pressure is felt from all audiences, from mature professionals to children as young as Primary 4 students! “What? DISC again? MBTI again? Sorting my personal values ONCE again? How many times must I do it in my life? Oh The Leadership Challenge - You mean MICEE? Yeah, I have done this leadership training so many times.”
These were very common responses we would get when we entered a classroom with upper secondary school students, first year polytechnic or university students. It was the same when we worked with working professionals from Singapore, both young and old.
Unlike students, professionals do not vent their frustrations openly, but they would diplomatically ask, what time the training will end or whether it might be possible to skip certain parts. We can’t blame them: How often should one do a personality profiling assessment?
L&D providers need to take this seriously. These are very legitimate concerns, and the frustrations are valid. When we engage with Organizations, we ask for information on the participants’ background and the kind of training they have already done. This also means declining an opportunity if there is no flexibility to customize and tailor the learning to the needs of participants. Nobody likes low evaluation scores, not least the organization who pays for it.
Wasted opportunities for real impact
It is a delicate balance between meeting participants’ intentions and how we could translate that to their actual growth. One perfect example was ‘The Leadership Challenge’ framework developed by Koznes and Posner . The model was developed for Corporate Leaders, and subsequently modified for University Students’ Leaders, but it has somehow made its way to Singapore Schools (including primary schools) very rapidly and prominently. Many students in Singapore would be able to “chant it” as though they have lived it all their lives. It has become an issue for us, personally, when we realised the real intent of the model was overly modified or misused among student leaders, and it has affected their perceptions of this actually very effective leadership model.
Now, imagine the implications when these young leaders eventually become corporate leaders and how they perceive learning and development.
If L&D doesn’t show impact, it won’t get the investment and credibility to advance and innovate learning and development and help companies grow.
The plan to combat learning fatigue
Well then, the next logical question will be: What next? These are the conversations we are having with…
- Shift away from the need to solely fulfilling KPIs - they are important, but learners’ needs are equally as important too.
- Conduct learning needs surveys, and get participants’ involvement in decision-making.
- For a larger organisation, work closely with different business units and separately identify their needs.
- Deliberately set aside budget for more comprehensive L&D initiatives (grants may be a great way to get started, but be aware most are restrictive and may not meet specific organisational needs).
- We need to be less content driven and allow for more reflection and introspection.
- Baby-step action commitments for the participants to hold them accountable and a personal connection are key.
- Being “participant-centric” is about mutual sharing and giving them the space to think and to contribute. Learning is not a one-way street. It needs to stay an adventure for everyone involved.
- More than ever, practitioners need to come together as a community to share ideas, resources and best practices!
- Personal conviction is necessary for sustained learning, do not solely rely on trainers
- Apply what we learn to all aspects in our lives and not just focusing on the learning journey in our current work or the set learning objectives
- Think about the alignment of your personal goals/values with the training materials
- Have a positive and open mindset before entering each learning space but challenge your organization and trainers too
- Give honest feedback to both the organization and the facilitators/trainers
Honing the Learning Space
Although the government’s efforts in promoting and developing L&D in the island nation is noteworthy, we must remember that it will require the combined effort of all parties involved to be able to redefine and contribute to the growth and future of this sector. A collaborative approach between the stakeholders would go a long way in cultivating the narrative of a sustainable and impactful L&D landscape in the country. We know this well from what we teach others, but let’s not forget to listen to our clients too.
We would count our facilitation impactful and effective when we read feedback such as “The workshop didn’t feel long at all, and I wish it could be longer. This is the best I have ever attended, and I can see how I could apply what we shared today. I am surprised how this is different for all the usual workshops I have attended.”
At WDHB, we believe in combining experiential learning with an out-of-office experience to offer truly unique learning journeys for our learners, allowing them to gain insight from industry experts and luminaries, and to spark meaningful conversations with one another.
As global L&D practitioners, we constantly reassess and realign our efforts with the above mission to bring about a deeper understanding of what we do and consider how we can contribute to the greater efforts in the region through our offerings.
The next time you’re thinking about how to co-create an effective learning space and engage your learners, consider doing away with the textbook learning approach. Instead, motivate them to problem solve independently, by providing them the necessary tools and skillsets in order for them to succeed. This may very well be the first crucial step in combating learning fatigue, and towards building a more receptive and effective workforce development landscape.
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