Is the Skills Debate Academic?

Is the Skills Debate Academic?

Employers are always on the lookout for prospective hires with skills for the job at hand, and have potential to grow into larger roles.

Unfortunately information is asymmetric, and it’s not easy to know ex ante who in our applicant pool are adequately-skilled, and who are insufficiently so. Some hires will fit well and do the job. Others won’t. That’s the risk we take.

Here’s something I’m starting to think about… isn’t hiring similar to investing?

It is hard to consistently generate alpha in markets. In fact, investment disclaimers tell us that ‘past history is not indicative of future performance’. Yet we do the very opposite for hiring!

Pedigree is not a precursor of performance.

I am starting to wonder if for hiring, instead of attempting to pick ‘alphas’, we can consider building a team of ‘betas’ that are coachable.

Hirers never truly know. There are no sure-wins. In professional football, not even ‘proven winners’ like Jose Mourinho could do the job at Tottenham Hotspur, while then-unproven upstarts like Mauricio Pochettino outperformed and brought 4 years of Champions League to North London.

Is Skills-based Hiring a myth?

LinkedIn recently announced “Skills Path“, a pilot skills-based hiring programme, supported by Singapore’s National Jobs Council.

The topic of skills-based hiring is not new and comes up every few years. In fact, I co-wrote an opinion piece on this topic 3 years ago:

LinkedIn’s announcement checks all the boxes. Unfortunately it doesn’t move the needle. There is a grand total of 8 companies under the programme offering a mere 6 job roles: customer service, data analyst, project manager, recruiter, supply chain coordinator and sales development.

To be fair, this initiative is a pilot. I fully support starting small, tracking the data, and if it looks like it works, scaling up only then.

As what I co-wrote above (and the LinkedIn initiative postures), the hope is for hirers to look past academic qualifications as a non-negotiable filtering tool for prospective candidates.

Otherwise, no matter what is said and done, incentives will drive behaviour, and every rational student will pursue the degree, because non-graduates continue to be disadvantaged at the hiring gate, and for career advancement.

incentives drive behaviour

Should we NOT try to pick winners?

Hiring well is crucial for every organisation. It’s also exceedingly-hard to do well, for reasons discussed above.

Which is why there’s so much money being spent on good hiring solutions, and much innovation in this space. The Singapore HRTech Market Map (brought to you by & Adrian Tan) lists the different companies providing solutions for your organisation’s Talent Acquisition needs.

I wonder if we could take a different approach, and look further down the employee journey. I’m referring to the Talent Development area, where ArcLab has some track record (irony intended).

Since it’s so hard to bet on winners when hiring, could we adopt a more “portfolio” approach, especially if we are a large organisation. This means not optimising for the perfect ‘alpha’ candidate, since he/she does not exist. Rather, we do a few things to attract the ‘beta’ candidates:

  • Properly profile job requirements & packages. No ‘padding’, no ‘undercutting’
  • Set a minimum bar for the candidate. Everyone who meets this gets an interview (virtual or otherwise), which is more to assess team fit. Involve the team in the interview and give everyone an equal vote.
  • Suss out open-mindedness and ‘train-ability’. Look for evidences of picking up new skills and applying them.
  • Where possible, consider a work trial for demonstration of competency, softer skills and fit with potential colleagues.

Hiring a team of ‘betas’ means we don’t go all out to find Ivy League graduates. It means we put in place an exceptional learning & development programme, because we know that investing in our workforce gives our organisation the best chance of success.

Since people are the lifeblood of our organisations, we should put our money where our most important assets are, and invest in them, through training them to be the best professional that they can be.

The best part of this approach is, by hiring coachable people who have not yet been ‘proven winners’, we hire humble people, who are not afraid to admit they don’t know. They are then able to learn what’s needed to do their job so the organisation (and they) succeed. And when business requirements change, they change accordingly.

That means continuous, bite-sized training. Because no longer do we study for the first 10-20 years of our life and work for the rest. We study for a basic minimum, and keep learning as we work.

I submit to you that this is one good way for an organisation to succeed.

We’re building that sort of organisation at ArcLab, and helping many companies build theirs.

Can we help your organisation build yours?


Here’s the biggest asset that’s missing from your 2020 investment portfolio

Here’s the biggest asset that’s missing from your 2020 investment portfolio

No, it isn’t Tesla or Bitcoin…

Photo by Author

The topic on investing never fails to excite my friends. After all, for young working adults like ourselves, the enticing prospects of capital growth and financial freedom are often far too hard to resist.

In our rare handful of catch-ups this year, they would spend hours discussing the most coveted investment assets in today’s tumultuous market (Tesla and Bitcoin duh) and what their ‘ideal’ portfolio would comprise of to achieve that mythical return on investment (ROI) that even Benjamin Graham would drool over.

At the height of our conversations, I would often interrupt by asking if they have ever considered themselves to be part of their ‘ideal’ portfolio. Sadly, this question never really got through to them and it was often dismissed as just another elliptical rhetoric of mine which they have probably grown all too familiar with.

But I know it was far from that. It was, truly, a question of paramount importance to each and every single one of us; one that is worthy to be mulled over and over again at every juncture of our lives. Yet, why is it that we hardly devote much thought into it? Do we not see ourselves as an asset too?

“The best investment you can make is an investment in yourself”

— Warren Buffet

To be clear, investment herein is not just limited to a monetary context. It applies equally to us dedicating time and energy into ourselves — whether is it signing up for an online course to learn a new skill or even simply just picking up a self-help book at your local library. But of course, by the classic sense of the term and as the practical beings that we are, we will only do so when we expect a positive return to our efforts.

So, tell me, how does enrolling into that $299 week-long data-analytics course going to benefit my career in sales? Will I become the next Jack Ma by simply watching this 10-minutes YouTube video on entrepreneurship? Heck, am I even going to expect a pay raise just by spending a day reading this Digital Marketing for Dummies book that I grabbed off the library shelf?

“Formal education will make you a living; self-education will make you a fortune” 

— Jim Rohn

Surely, it is hard to deny these thoughts. It is hard to convince ourselves to continue learning beyond our formal education especially since we have been indoctrinated to believe that an undergraduate degree is all we need to get dem monies rolling in. It is hard for us, especially in this age of pragmatism and immediate gratification, to see value in a rudimentary course or a meagre 30-page self-help book. Yet, at the same time, it is hard to explain the strange irony of why we can so readily see ‘value’ and place confidence in that one stock that has been raved about all over by the financial analysts and gurus out there who likely have zero interest in our state of wealth and well-being.

Sometimes, it takes a ‘Black Swan’ event like the Covid-19 pandemic to throw us into a necessary state of flux — and, through it, emerge with a new found epiphany. As this unprecedented year draws to a close, I thought it would be a good time for all of us to look back, reflect, and rethink how we approach the concept of self-investment.

You are the best hedge against economic adversities

When the Covid-19 calamity struck in March this year, who would have thought that it would ignite the worst economic crisis since the 1929 Great Depression. Countries worldwide headed into lockdown, markets tumbled at record breaking pace, and major industries became obsolete overnight. Millions loss their livelihood and were left helpless in the devastating trails of the global crisis. My family was not spared either.

The S&P 500 Index Chart during the stock market crash in March 2020. Screenshot from TradingView

I recalled beginning my job hunt as a fresh psychology graduate right around the time when the economy was withering and employment rates were plunging. What made matters worst was an earlier accident which had left me with significant mobility issues for a hefty period of time — and that further narrowed my job choices in an already debilitated labor market.

To sustain myself, I began to put my skills to work; skills in digital design and video editing that I had picked up from government-funded courses a few years back. I took on gigs that involved designing marketing posters and business cards, basic video effects, and video subtitling. With the surge in number of retail investors jumping in to capitalize on the prevailing market volatility, I also saw scope in the demand for customized trading chart signals/indicators — and that spurred me to begin learning coding by watching hours after hours of free YouTube tutorial videos (God bless YouTube!). To be frank, the money that I earned from these gigs was modest. Nevertheless, they were sufficient to get me through those trying months.

My mum? She gained quite a following herself by selling fabric face masks which she personally hand-sewed. Credit is certainly due, in part, to our late grandmother, for she was the one who imparted the precious craft of sewing to her. As for my sister and her fiancé? Well, let us just say that the couple baking classes that they attended were not entirely for fun and recreation after all. During those months when they had to take unpaid leave off their retail work, they started their own home baking business which continues to be in operation till this day!

“The beautiful thing about learning is nobody can take it away from you”

— B. B. King

The point here is this. Some day in the near future, our beloved stocks may come crashing down on us again, the jobs that we hold so dearly could be taken away overnight, and the flourishing economy that we once knew could be upended in a blink of an eye. But the one thing that stays, through all ups and downs, are the skills and knowledge we have within us. Yes, perhaps we can never really tell when they will be put to work for us, but when that day comes, you can be sure that they are your best bet to get you through.

You are part of the disruptive future

Even before the advent of Covid-19, we often hear of the saying about how 85% of jobs that will exist in 2030 have yet been invented today. Admittingly, I was amongst the greatest skeptic of this statement when I first heard it from my professor back in university — I mean, I could still see our drivers, food vendors, aviation crew, retail and tourism staffs going about just fine. How different can things get? Mind you, these were jobs that already existed decades ago and they have been a significant part of every nation’s GDP. But guess what happened?

By virtue of hindsight, I thought I could refine the above statement into one that better epitomizes the predicament of our existing labor landscape; one that has a greater bearing to what we have witnessed throughout Covid-19:

85% of skills required in the jobs of 2030 have yet been acquired by us today.

Just take a look at what happened to the millions of poor workers who are ill-equipped to survive the market debacle? What happened to those vendors and businesses who persistently resisted change to their operation models? Little, if not none, were able to withstand the relentless transformations of reality in those short months. But what about those who were able to adapt and embrace agility? They emerge, worn, but ever equipped to overcome future adversities that come their way.

What was once a bustling nightclub in Singapore has been transformed into a fitness studio — with safe distancing measures in place of course! Photo by Khalid Baba on The Straits Times

The truth is, jobs and businesses do not just disappear. They continuously evolve and are reinvented to stand the test of time. When they do, the job roles and skill-sets that are required of us get redefined too in order to fit the present realities. What we know today may not be what is needed tomorrow.

If we are able to realize this and begin taking ownership of our future — to actively discern and equip ourselves with what tomorrow’s demands will be — rest assured that you will continue to thrive even in the most dire economy. However, should we fail to do so and remain comfortable resting on our laurels, we will become obsolete and eliminated in no time.

Positive returns take time

Patience is a dying commodity these days. Two seconds is all the time we will wait for websites to load and same-day delivery options are fast becoming the de facto criteria of what we look for in online retailers. There is nothing inherently wrong in this as humans are hard-wired to demand immediate pay-offs, and today’s technology, for good or for worst, has indeed afforded us this luxury to.

“Patience can produce uncommon profits”

— Philip L. Carret

That said, not all things in life can be delivered to our doorsteps the next day. Do you remember how long it took to complete our formal education and to graduate from university? At least where I live (Singapore), that takes a minimum of 12 to 13 years. What about the time it takes to achieve meaningful and fulfilling relationships with our clients, peers, or even our loved ones? Well, I believe many would concede that they are still in the process of doing so — and this is, perhaps, a process that could even take us a lifetime.

How about in terms of our savings and investments? Have we ever been told that our deposits and investments would multiply by ten or twentyfold in a short few months or days even? I am pretty sure very few of us would buy into that. Instead, we would, realistically, expect our funds to generate handsome profits for us over a long-term horizon through the power of accumulation and compounding.

Like a seedling that takes years to grow and thrive, knowledge and skills require time to develop and accrue. Photo by Austin D on Unsplash

The very same logic applies to self-investment. Indeed, we may not be able to observe immediate, tangible returns from the one book that we read or that short rudimentary course that we have attended. Nevertheless, always bear in mind that every minute you spend learning something new is a minute contributed to the growing wealth of knowledge and the repertoire of skill-sets that you possess. Like the money that we conscientiously commit to our savings and investments, it is only a matter of time for their value to be realized and accrued. We ought to place faith in this.

The fundamentals are favorable

In the realms of finance, fundamentals entail the cogent economic and financial factors that govern the valuation of a particular security. Information from the evaluation of these factors is generally used to inform our investment decisions. A company, for instance, with favorable fundamentals can be described as one with outstanding financial performances backed by positive economic sentiments — and for most investors, these all add up to be a good and worthy investment opportunity.

If you ask me, I would say that the fundamentals for investing in ourselves have already been favorable for a long time coming. Technology has enabled information and knowledge to be made available right at the tip of our fingertips. Want an answer? Search it up on Google. Want to pick up a new skill? YouTube and Vimeo are great places to begin with. The biggest catch? All of these come at almost no costs to us at all!

Learning has never been made easier with the rise of online learning platforms and educational resources. Photo by Foxy Burrow on ShutterStock

In recent years, we have also observed the proliferation of online learning platforms such as CourseraUdemyUdacityedX, and Skillshare which offer a plethora of educational and development courses put together by professionals from all around the globe. Fees for these courses are relatively affordable and many of them also offer certificates that complement and add value to your personal portfolio. Moreover, signing up for your desired course or workshop takes just a few clicks! That is how convenient it is to begin your journey of learning.

For years, nations worldwide have placed a high premium on lifelong learning. In fact, during the World Economic Forum held earlier in January this year, global authorities have highlighted once again the imperative need for a “global reskilling revolution” — and in the short few months that followed, we have seen how Covid-19 has been nothing short of a catalyst that substantially accelerated the adoption of this notion.

In addition to the rise of online learning platforms and educational technologies, there has also been a multitude of government initiatives to support organizations’ commitment toward employee development and to provide individuals with a wide range of high quality learning opportunities. Educational and training courses are heavily funded, employers are incentivized to upskill their workers, and educational infrastructures continue to expand rapidly — all these in the name of building a resilient and future-ready workforce. The coming years will never be a more ideal time for you to begin establishing a better version of yourself.

The fundamentals are aligned. Are you ready to invest in this greatest asset?

At the time of writing this piece, I am five months into my new role as a learning designer at ArcLab, an EdTech solutions provider that empowers organisations to create effective mobile training for employees. I have been privileged to be handed the opportunity to work with a host of companies from F & B, retail & hospitality, manufacturing, and construction industries — supporting them in digitizing their training materials as well as developing meaningful learning modules and experiences for their workers.

In this time of economic pandemonium, plagued by soaring retrenchment rates, it is exceptionally heart-warming to see these organisations continue to channel faith into upskilling and nurturing their human capital for a post-Covid-19 era.

If you too identify with the ethos of personal development, and you too, subscribe to the notion that human capital is the most valuable asset to your organisation, then let us journey alongside you to digitalize and futureproof your workforce today!


Creating Effective Training — The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Creating Effective Training — The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

“Question: What’s effective training?” | “women’s gray cardigan” by rawpixel on Unsplash

In a previous blog post, we shared with readers how learning needs to be ENGAGING, EFFICIENT and EFFECTIVE. For workplace L&D in particular, today’s managers and trainers face:

  1. Increased Mobility — Our teams are more mobile and distributed. So it’s hard to get everyone in the same training room. Especially true for multi-branch / multi-geographical organisations.
  2. Reduced Attention Spans — The infamous study that us humans can concentrate for less than 8 seconds, ranking us below goldfish…

Organisations can no longer ‘pre-dump’ our teams with reams of training binders; it will get lost amongst everything else that they need to get up to speed on and daily work responsibilities!

L&D managers are convinced that the best way to train teams is by:

  1. Putting training content online to supplement (NOT replace) face-to-face training. This should be mobile-optimised to be delivered directly to employees’ smart devices.
  2. Making sure training engages the learner for more effective content absorption. Even better if the training is contextual and just-in-time.

That’s where Nano Learning comes in.

What’s Nano Learning? Bite-sized, self-contained training content that is rich-media focused and peppered with knowledge checks to make sure learning has taken place.

Think of Nano Learning as ‘power bars’ that are consumed just before a key task or activity. The learning is contextual, just-in-time, and application-focused. Employees learn what’s needed, do quick assessments to confirm learning, and put their learning into action through the task. The practical application reinforces the learner, and gets the ‘muscle memory’ going.

So how do we create effective Nano Learning? Do we simply take our existing Powerpoint training decks and chop them up into 15-minute modules?

The Bad

Bad Nano Learning:

Here’s one learning module:

Did this work for you? Did you get the point of the module? Or were there too many “focus points” that you got lost in the information overload? Were you able to test yourself that you learnt what you were being asked to

The module is indeed short, but we need to do more than keep our Nano Learning modules short.

More than that, we need to keep them focused, and to-the-point. Ideally we should only teach ONE learning point per module. There’s no focus if we ATTEMPT to cover too many things.

The Good

Now try this Nano Learning module:

Good Nano Learning:

This 2nd module is short, just like the previous one. But there are several important differences:

(i) This module is to-the-point.

(ii) There are knowledge checks to make sure the learner stopped him/herself and reinforced the learning.

(iii) There is also good use of infographics, contextually-appropriate pictures and a very short, to-the-point video on how Nano Learning can be created.

In general, the rich media appeals to our learners’ right brains, creating emotional connections that imprint on memories more strongly.

In short, it is effective.

How do we create effective training?

LESS is often MORE: Resist the temptation to load in more and more information. This leads to loss-of-focus, and your effort is wasted.

SHOW; don’t TELL: Spend time sourcing or crafting visually clear media resources, be it infographics that display data or information, or demo videos.

The old adage “A picture is worth a thousand words” never goes wrong, as the learner doesn’t need to imagine what wordy descriptions actually mean.

KNOWLEDGE CHECKS: We learn best by testing ourselves continuously. Nano Learning modules that have regular Assessment (be it simple MCQ or Open-ended screens) do this effectively. The learner reinforces his/her learning, and there’s good data for L&D managers.

Create Effective Training now!

We trust these short tips helps you the L&D manager and trainer to create more effective training through Nano Learning — to supplement your workplace learning programmes.

Remember, crafting effective training requires more than mindlessly chopping up 100-slide Powerpoints into 15-minute bits.

Put thought into the pedagogical approach we suggested, and let’s all create better training for our teams.

Creating effective training for your teams, self-service, with ArcLab Pro is always free. Start now.

For more help or are resource-constrained, get in touch with us for ArcLab Enterprise, where our Instructional Designers can work with you to help craft your content into effective training. Reach out now.


The Grades Matter

The Grades Matter

There is chatter about how grades don’t matter; that perhaps we should move away from awarding marks and grades to our learners. This has been raised in Singapore where we are based, and some other economies.

Critics point to Finland’s much-lauded education system, where the focus centres on learning how to learn, rather than marks and grades. Students in Finland go through a comprehensive academic programme that encourages curiosity, lateral thinking and life skills. A culture of lifelong learning continues throughout adult life, as the individual graduates into the workplace.

Yet ignoring grades misses the point, as GRADES DO MATTER.

But perhaps not in the way that we use them now.

Grades are FEEDBACK

Grades give feedback to the learner and feedback to the educator.

As a Learner: When I do badly on a test or assessment, it is feedback to me that I did not understand the material well enough. I should go through the material again, maybe seek help from my teacher or trainer. Perhaps I should work harder. Maybe I should give up and look for something else that I am better in.

As an Educator: If the entire cohort does badly for a test, it is feedback to me that perhaps I should relook at the parts that everyone did poorly for. Maybe I should think about covering certain concepts again, think of a different way to explain this part of the material that many in the class/course did not seem to understand.

It’s no different from sports, where week-in, week-out, athletes and teams compete for a good ‘grade’, which is to beat the opponent. Better sides (like Tottenham Hotspur 😊) win in style, though there’s no bonus grade for exciting play.

Olympic champ Joseph Schooling got an excellent ‘grade’ at the 2016 Olympics. He did poorly in 2017 before working hard to improve his 2018 ‘grade’ at the Asian Games, inspiring kids like the author’s daughter (pictured) in the process | Photo: James

Singaporean son Joseph Schooling won the 100m Butterfly gold medal at the 2016 Olympics. He worked hard for his excellent ‘grade’. He turned in the hours, honed his talent through good honest hard work, and swam faster than everyone else.

Joseph’s 2017 ‘grades’ weren’t stellar, with a poor NCAA showing and finishing only 3rd at the World Championships in his pet 100m fly. By Joseph’s own admission, he had put in less than half his pre-Olympic training. It showed in his ‘grade’.

But the poor ‘grade’ was feedback to Joseph, who went back to training hard. The results showed, as he routed the field (which included world-class Chinese, Japanese and Korean swimmers) to win 2 Asian Game gold medals in 2018. His work is not yet done, as he hunkers down for the next World Championships and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Joseph Schooling responded to his 2017 ‘bad grades’, worked hard, and got back to the top step of the podium.

A world without grades?

Now imagine a sporting world with no gold medals. No silver, no bronze. Participation certificates at the Olympics; every athlete returns with the same certificate.

Imagine if the English Premier League doesn’t keep score, and there are no winners and losers. That FIFA gives every World Cup team the same medal. Just for showing up.

Hardly the real world, is it?

The real world doesn’t give us participation prizes just for showing up. The real world gives us grades — constant feedback, whether we like it or not.

CEOs are graded by their ability to strategise, execute and deliver performance. Politicians by their ability to serve the citizenry. Fund managers by their ability to earn above-market returns. Carpenters by the quality of their furniture. Software engineers by the ability to ship working code. Movie Directors by the reception of their movies. Startups by their ability to turn product into business. Each and every one of us by our ability to do our job.

We cannot escape the reality that performance matters. The ‘grades’ we get through the metrics we define and are defined for us, are the feedback to us to keep doing what is working, and to change tack when something’s not turning out so well.

Those who respond to this feedback well, would hopefully turn in better performance (and ‘grades’) at the next opportunity. They should be rewarded more than the ones who did not respond to the feedback.

So it is facetious to tell our children that grades do not matter. Because in so doing, we are not preparing them for life.


The issue with grades right now is how we view them, and how we use them.

Grades DO matter, but grades are not THE ONLY THING that matters.

Singaporeans gripe about the Primary School Leaving Examination (“PSLE”). Currently, each student taking the PSLE is awarded a numerical T-score. This score determines the Secondary school that the student is eligible to enter, as admission is primarily based on the scores of those applying. So the PSLE grade is a first-cut filtering tool.

Singapore’s Ministry of Education recently tweaked the PSLE ever so slightly, where from 2021 onwards, students are not awarded a numerical score but instead are given a grade banding.

It’s a start, but doesn’t go far enough. Now students aren’t sieved down to the individual point, but to the individual grade band.

The primary issue for me and many who think Singapore can do better, is the PSLE is still perceived as a single high-stakes examination.

Do well at the PSLE, enter a top secondary school, and your academic journey (and perhaps career) is laid out for you. Do poorly at the PSLE, and you’re routed to technical education, and the road ahead becomes bumpier than the other kid (though “there are still many paths to success”).

It may or may not be true, but sometimes perception shapes reality. And parents have to bear a large part of this responsibility.

What is worse is this warped mindset sometimes carries over to the workplace and shapes hiring practices. And the fixation on grades carries on…

Which is wrong. Good grades should not give a free pass to the learner that one is set for life, nor should bad grades condemn one to failure forever.

For what if I was just a late bloomer? And what if I was always good at something else?

How do we do better?

  1. Grading right.

Albert Einstein said, “If you judge a fish by how well it climbs a tree, it will spend its whole life feeling stupid”.

If we take grades for what they are, which is feedback, then the challenge for education policy-makers is how to design grading systems that are appropriate for learners-in-question.

There’s good progress being made already, as education systems are becoming more flexible, with different tracks of learning for different types of learners. But more needs to be done.

This is true for academic learning, as well as learning in the workplace. At work, HR practitioners and line managers need to define the right metrics to ‘grade’ staff. Ultimately it needs to translate to business goals (which staff help organisations to achieve).

In the workplace learning arena where ArcLab operates, we encourage organisations to break training content down into modular pieces, or Nano Learning.

This allows staff to learn in bite-sizes, on-demand. The ‘grades’ given at the end of each learning module is specific to the single learning objective that HR, L&D and line managers have defined together. The employee (and the organisation) knows straightaway whether he/she ‘gets’ the material or not, and how to apply it towards his/her job role.

The ‘grade’ has become what it’s meant to be — feedback.

2. Giving room to fail. Really.

Just as Baseball players get 3 swings before striking out, Racket players get 2 chances at a serve, we can shape our learning systems to give our learners room to fail.

If at first you don’t succeed, Try Again | Photo: ArcLab

There is a common saying in the military — we sweat more during training, so that we bleed less during war.

Learning should be a ‘low-stakes’ environment to make mistakes.

That’s why every Nano Learning module we empower organisations to create has a “Try Again” button.

In so doing, someone who hasn’t grasped the material, or hasn’t mastered it to his/her standards, always has the option to re-visit it.

Repeated tries are also a proxy indicator to the organisation about the individual’s effort and endeavour, that this individual doesn’t give up.

I have only skimmed the surface of ‘The Grades Matter’, where the current downsides negatively affects both academic students and workplace learners.

Grades DO matter — as FEEDBACK to the learner and the teacher/trainer. Feedback on what has been learnt and done well, and what hasn’t.

If we adopt this “Grades-as-Feedback” mindset, we can not only work together to define grading systems that can more appropriately measure learning, and also help those that don’t do well try again.

This needs everyone to play our part: Educators, Parents, Employers, Government and Individuals.

For one bad grade should never doom one to a lifetime of failure.

That — we at ArcLab will never accept.


The story of a Teacher

The story of a Teacher

I first met Mr Liang when I was in Primary 5 (6th grade by K-12 standards). It has been *a few* years since, so my memory of Mr Liang has faded with time. But I remember a few things:

Mr Liang, or 梁老师 as we addressed him half the time, was our form teacher and taught us Chinese and Mathematics. This was an atypical combination since in Singapore, Math was taught in English.

So we had this stern-looking man who walked into class every day, and taught us in 2 different languages.

That was amazing because as I understood it, Mr Liang went to a Chinese-medium school. So the Math concepts and terminology he learnt in school was entirely in Chinese. Yet here he was, decades later, imparting knowledge to us in English (decent, by the way).

I also remember how much ‘off-curriculum’ material he introduced to us, with such passion.

All while his ‘KPI’ in Singapore’s exam-focussed system, must still have been to get us past the exams… so it would have been perfectly rational to have “kept to the syllabus”.

In the 2 years Mr Liang spent with our class, among other things, he transported us to ancient China, and through his eyes we saw the Great Wall being constructed, the unification of the Warring States, the advancement of Chinese society.

We flew with him to witness the beginnings of the universe, as he put the magic into science — introducing us to Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time”, Charles Darwin’s “Origin of the Species”.

We stood with him at the top of the Mayan / Incan monuments, seeing images of large animals carved into corn-fields, and wondering if they were made by extra-terrestrials.

He also got us to learn, among other things: 唐诗三百首 (300 Tang poems), regaled us with stories of the Arabic origin of the numeral system, sparked our imagination with theories of time-travel, Leonardo Da Vinci’s inventions… and many others too numerous to list here.

We were all of 11 years old.

In a pre-internet, pre-Google, pre-Youtube, pre-iPhone world, Mr Liang opened our eyes to a brave new world, way bigger than the classroom.

Pre-dating social media, smartphones & digital cameras, this is my only picture of 梁老师 Mr Liang. I have no idea what he was holding in his hand. Was it a precursor of a smartphone? | Photo: James

I have had many teachers in my life, and each left an impact.

But I’ll always remember — this teacher of mine, who with his stories, his passion for knowledge, instilled the love of learning, to read and be intellectually curious, to keep finding out more about the world around us, and working to make things better.

“老梁” (as he was affectionately known) taught us to always 跑在时间前面, to run ahead of time, so that our surroundings and those around us would not make us irrelevant. That we should always work hard, think different, do better, rise higher.

Words that would not be out-of-place today, as our lives, jobs and workplaces are getting disrupted by technology at an ever-increasing pace. In a way, Mr Liang lived it himself, as a Chinese-educated student who later mastered English, at a level that was more-than-competent.

Mr Liang walked the talk. He led the way.

Today, increasing amounts of the content we learn in class are at the tip of our fingers. They are a Google search, a Siri question away.

Yet our teachers, our educators— they continue to be invaluable to our lives. Second only to parents, our teachers are the shapers of our lives and our children’s lives from the earliest years.

The best educators inspire us, guide us, nurture us. They impart more than just content and knowledge. They help us make meaning, join the dots, draw our own dots, our own lines, create our own knowledge.

They teach us that most important skill — HOW TO LEARN.

So how can we better support our educators, in the classroom, in the workplace? For there are many Mr Liangs among them. There are various angles, and I’d write more in a future post.

I’ve long-forgotten the academic subject matter that Mr Liang taught us (though not his specialty “mee goreng” for when we strayed off-course), but his love of the pursuit of knowledge has stayed with me all these years.

I hope that in some small way I have put this love of learning into what I do, through my academic years, my previous career in public service and financial markets, and now our work to empower organisations to create better training.

It would be great to see Mr Liang again. But even if I don’t have this privilege, I will always be grateful for having once been his student.

Happy Teacher’s Day to all our educators.


Size Matters

Size Matters

Interactive Nano* Learning is small but POWERFUL learning.

(*Nano: 1 billionth (1/1000,000,000) a.k.a. bite-sized, digestible, very small)

NanoLearning: small but POWERFUL learning | Photo by Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash

In this Age of Digital Disruption, organisations need to keep employees’ knowledge and skills current.

For all of us, continuous retraining and upskilling is no longer optional. Not doing so puts us all at risk of our jobs being made obsolete and us being made redundant.

Two key factors have major implications for the way we conduct training in the workplace today, or educate our children in school for that matter.

  1. Knowledge gets outdated much more quickly today.
  2. Our attention spans now average 8 seconds (FYI the average goldfish’s is 9 seconds).

It is ineffective to have 3-hour lectures, where a trainer stands in front of the class and lectures without break, or learners doing anything ‘interactive’.

This is especially true for millennial learners, who no longer have deep fixated attention spans. Instead, millennials “multi-task”, where attention is divided amongst many concurrent activities (aside: our brains don’t actually focus on many different things at the SAME time, but rather, SWITCH between different areas of focus — more on this in a future piece).

It’s also questionable if one-way content delivery in training settings adds much value since there’s already so much knowledge and content that is readily-accessible on the web by learners. In fact, the proliferation of web and digital media also makes it harder to get learners’ attention.

When the ‘competition’ is the latest superhero movie or hit mobile game, the teaching & training profession has its work cut out, to design and deliver knowledge in a manner that at least captures learners’ attention (for those 8 seconds anyway), and more importantly, effect the learning.

There is a better way:

We’re talking about NANO learning: bite-sized, digestible, on-demand learning.

Effective learning.

2 quick points:

  1. Learning in short bursts is not new. For example, the Israeli army, on recommendation by Daniel Kahneman (of “Prospect Theory” fame in collaboration with Amos Tversky), converted the training of tank drivers from a series of 2-hour sessions to 30-minute bursts, during the 1970s Yom Kippur War. This helped tank drivers get educated more quickly and effectively, and reduced war fatalities.
  2. We’re not advocating that trainers and educators do nothing more beyond break down 3-hour lectures into 5 minute chunks — lock, stock and barrel. Nano Learning is more than simply putting a shrink ray gun on a classroom lesson and nothing else.

Nano Learning is a PEDAGOGICAL FRAMEWORK where we work through the entire content base and think hard how to package it into bite-sized, interactive modules that best help the learner understand and absorb the content and learning points.

We’ll talk more about the science and pedagogical aspects in a subsequent post, but first let’s think about how we can operationalise Interactive Nano Learning for our organisations.

How do we start?

So, what does an organisation’s Learning & Development team need to do, to put this in practice?

  1. Start Small (pun intended) — Rather than propose an institution-wide overhaul, start by securing the support of a small group of stakeholders, and use it to get corporate leaders’ buy-in.
  2. Involve the TRAINER — Interactive Nano Learning never REPLACES the trainer & the educator, and we should work with in-house (or external) trainers to repackage learning content into a series of bite-sizes. Remember that the human brain works well with packs of threes, so that might be a good number to reach for, to keep training digestible, and show a progression path.
  3. Reach the LEARNER — The average person today touches his/her phone more than 2600 times per day. So embrace technology that can help to deliver your training content TO YOUR LEARNER. Hence, a digital platform might be your best bet.

Ultimately, it is all about letting our data guide us. Does this new form of nano learning help deliver content in a better way?

Hence, it’s important that we set very specific milestones and desired end-outcomes, so that we can measure effectiveness, which will help us secure buy-in to extend the framework to more parts of our organisations.

A good way to start may simply be to take 1 specific training module, like a new-employee onboarding programme, and break it down into a bite-sized format.

This Nano Learning format can be sent to the new hire ahead of them joining your company, and contain key information that they need to know: Start date, who to report to, dress code (if any), things to bring/prepare for etc.

Then when your new employee shows up on Day 1, they at least have some knowledge in their minds, and helps ease them into the new environment.

Talent is the most important resource that every organisation has.

It takes time, effort and costs to search, interview, recruit and hire every new team member. If employees leave because they feel they are not being trained properly, the re-hiring for the role hurts the cost by explicitly adding to firm hiring costs, and implicitly by dampening morale (and increasing workloads) of team-mates who stay.

So it’s in every organisation’s interest to train employees properly all throughout their journey with the firm.

Interactive Nano Learning can be a big help in making this training bite-sized and on-demand, better delivering the requisite content and skills to members of your team.

Don’t take our word for it. Try it for yourself…

p/s: We’re excited to let you know that WE HAVE LAUNCHED ARCLAB PRO!

ArcLab Pro is a Software-as-a-Service web tool and platform that empowers organisations to build Interactive Nano Learning modules that can be easily distributed to teams to help them onboard and upskill.

ArcLab Pro provides easy-use templates, learner analytics, everything you need to effectively train your team with Interactive Nano Learning. There’s no software to download or install, no lock-in periods, no minimum number of learners.

Simply sign up, and start creating and investing in your team TODAY!


INTERACTIVE nano learning

INTERACTIVE nano learning

“Tell me & I forget. Teach me & I may remember. INVOLVE me & I learn.” — Benjamin Franklin

How fun to build AND learn | “A little boy playing with different colored legos” by Caleb Woods on Unsplash

Singapore’s Budget 2018 Speech (where the Finance Minister announced the future increase of Goods & Services Tax to 9%) had a small section on “Support for Financial Planning”. Within it was a move to “pilot a new financial education curriculum” at Singapore’s Polytechnics and Institutes of Technical Education.

Financial Education (#FinEd) was the origins of Oikonopolis, a SimCity-esque learning game that taught teenagers Economics and Personal Finance – created by my first startup, Innervative, in 2013. We made mistakes (being business newbies) in the running of Innervative, but Oikonopolis’ product cycle and startup journey was a great learning experience.

I co-founded ArcLab in 2018, drawing on lessons from the Oikonopolis product journey to build a full-fledged EduTech business. ArcLab adopted 3 key principles as we designed and developed our learning product:

1. Learning must be ENGAGING

We need our learners to be engaged in the experience that the product delivers. Otherwise there is no opportunity for any content to be conveyed, meaning there is no learning. A recent IPSOS study revealed that 90% of US employees emphasised the importance of engagement in learning.

2. Learning must be EFFICIENT

With the average human attention span these days under 8 seconds, the learning process in our product can’t be draggy. If not, we lose our learners to distractions like binge-watching movies, or the latest kitten Youtube video.

(More on efficient learning in my next piece: “Size Matters”).

3. Learning must be EFFECTIVE

Most. Critical. Aspect.

The key metrics of learning products are not the number of downloads or active users.

Instead, the most important metric whether learners have learnt what they’re meant to, by design (or even not by design). Otherwise, nothing else matters.

What’s the most effective way to help me learn? | Photo by pan xiaozhen on Unsplash

Effective Learning

How do we measure a product’s learning effectiveness? Simply put, it’s to assess whether the learner meets learning outcomes.

Take the field of game-based learning.

One of games’ key benefits is the ability to engage its players; many of us recall childhoods where countless hours were spent playing video games.

For years, educators have tried to leverage the power of games to help students learn.

Will coating the broccoli with chocolate make a difference? | Photo by FOODISM360 on Unsplash

Game-based learning has often been thrown into disrepute by what is termed “chocolate-coated broccoli”.

E.g., some “edu-games” (a misnomer) might make learners do math problem sums to unlock a game “entertainment level”.

Ultimately, learners are still doing problem sums (“eating broccoli”), and the game is totally redundant in the learning process.

Such games do nothing to promote learning through game mechanics. The game has no need to exist.

I advise all educators to avoid adopting such “chocolate-coated broccoli” games unless the educator’s intent is solely to promote “engagement”.

A digital worksheet does nothing to improve learning, if the original pedagogy wasn’t effective in the first place.

We find that the key to making learning effective, is getting students involved in actually doing something interesting that is related to the topic. This should be built into the design mechanics of the learning product — so the learning is intrinsic through participating in the activity.


The learner’s interaction with the learning tool (as opposed to passively listening to a lecture or watching a Youtube “educational” video) — becomes an important part of the pedagogy — for the learner to internalise the lesson or concept taught.

Slice Fractions | UluLab

Take Math: A good example is the learning game “Slice Fractions” (by UluLab), which brings learners through a prehistoric game world. Through clever use of slicing lava and ice (SLICE Fractions, geddit? =), the learning game introduces them to the relatively abstract and cerebral concept of parts of a whole, aka fractions. A truly effective learning game. See the results for yourself!

Arctopia: Bryan Gets FinEd | Innervative

Or Financial Literacy: Arctopia: Bryan Gets FinEd (FINancial EDucation) by Innervative lets the learner make financial decisions while throwing them life’s curve balls. It makes the learning realistic and the lessons immediately contextually applicable to the learner. Yay for financial goal-setting; nay to impulse buying!

These are just 2 examples where well designed pedagogy is applied into an interactive product, and successfully takes the learner through the journey and helps them internalise the learning.

I also need to stress the importance of the EDUCATOR, who takes on the role of facilitator and helps the learners make meaning of what they have just experienced.

These learning games (and more) are available on TeacherGaming Desk, EduTech visionaries from Finland, whom Innervative was pleased to collaborate (and whose founders I have become friends) with. #SinFin =)

“INVOLVE me & I learn”

We encourage all educators and workplace trainers to think about how best to involve your learners as they go through the learning process, and how to make them learn interactively.

Ultimately, this interactivity concretises the learning for them, helping them to learn better and makes your job easier too.

This is true whether you are an academic teacher, or a workplace educator.

We’ll end with a short story of how Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy, learns. Salman believes in “mastery learning”, spending hours to:

(i) observe the subject (and master) in practice,

(ii) read about the subject,

(iii) talk to other experts,

(iv) solve problems on the subject and work on projects

(iv) think and ponder more questions and solutions,

(v) consult experts again.

He repeats these until he “gets it”, and internalises the concept.

This is interactive learning at its core: Act -> Learn -> Think -> Apply

That’s how we (and you) make learning effective.

Stayed tuned for my next piece on “interactive NANO learning”.

p/s: We’re excited to let you know that WE HAVE LAUNCHED ARCLAB PRO!

ArcLab Pro is a Software-as-a-Service web tool and platform that empowers organisations to build Interactive Nano Learning modules that can be easily distributed to teams to help them onboard and upskill.

ArcLab Pro provides easy-use templates, learner analytics, everything you need to effectively train your team with Nano Learning. There’s no software to download or install, no lock-in periods, no minimum number of learners. Simply sign up, and start building and investing in your team TODAY!