Sofia Nordengren is a learning and development professional. She designs and delivers in-company training across Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia and Mainland China.
We meet over a protein shake (her) and a coffee (me) to talk about her role, the challenges in leading change management within organisations, and what the future holds for the training sector across the region.
HK Influencers is a series of interviews with local experts, covering a wide range of sectors. With our partner, Team Building Asia, we’re exploring the trends shaping Hong Kong and regional business.
A different breed
Sofia Nordengren knows her game. The Swedish Learning and Development Manager came to training from a legal research background.
“I was researching at Hong Kong University into anti-poverty law and anti-money laundering,” she tells me.
When asked to train a group of bankers in their consultancy she leapt at the chance, despite no formal training at that time.
“L&D professionals are a different breed, for sure. A breed of idealistic people.”
“I discovered that a big part of the work relates to my interests. It’s about management psychology, what makes people tick, how we learn, how to motivate people and get people engaged. These are areas I’m very passionate about.”
Sofia was offered a senior role, heading up the learning function. “My first year was trial and error,” she reflects. “I was quite new in the field, but I jumped into mid-management then senior management straight away,” she says.
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The cost of training
The cost of hiring a training service provider in Hong Kong is high – up to HK$50,000 per day. Sofia notices a shift in attitudes. “Companies realise that paying an in-house L&D team can be more cost-effective.”
“It’s become a little weird. If I interview a freelance trainer and they charge only HK$10,000, you wonder why they’re so cheap.”
Budgets don’t go as far in Asia. It can be cheaper to fly people over from, for example, the UK. But how can that be true?
One reason is that training providers run programmes for several companies during a visit, spreading the cost.
Another is that they have ready-prepared training materials. They only need to tweak the contents to fit local requirements, so it keeps development costs down.
But the risk is that foreign providers could lack credibility and prestige. “If you are British, American or Australian professionals here can think you don’t have the expertise they need. Or that you don’t understand the local market.”
“There’s a problem with acceptance when foreigners come over and don’t understand or adapt to the local business and learning culture.”
The cost of hiring a in-house staff is becoming more realistic but experienced professionals are in short supply and high demand.
“I see there’s a lack of good people in the field,” Sofia tells me.” Many people have a traditional approach. But companies these days are looking for something different. Especially people and companies with strong skills in technology and with a proven track record.”
For these reasons, companies expect a lot from external providers. They look for companies that can offer highly targeted events – large and small – and unique team building experiences. Managers see the value in gaining a deep understanding of their team dynamics, or individual performances within the team. Reputable companies with years of experience, like Team Building Asia, are in high demand across the region, working with major organisations such as Adidas, Google and many others
A generational balancing act
Trainers need to design compelling training. “It’s a balancing act,” Sofia explains. “Needs and expectations are so diverse.”
Generational differences are a particular challenge. “There’s a vast gap between generations. I work with young millennials, older millennials – like myself – and of course the older generations.”
Different ages it seems value different things. Although most in-company training is still face-to-face, the past decade has seen a gradual shift towards elearning solutions.
“Younger generations don’t want classroom training,” Sofia tells me. “Especially those who come from a traditional educational background.”
“As soon as you mention classroom training, they think of ‘lectures’. The relate it a spoon-feeding style of training, learning things by heart. They imagine it’s neither exciting nor creative.”
Getting management buy-in
Many people – especially older generations – reject elearning. It doesn’t provide the range of experiences and interactions they need. And it’s the more senior staff who control the budgets.
Sofia explains, “For many senior managers, elearning isn’t tangible in the same way as classroom training. Face-to-face is easier to quantify.”
“For my KPIs, it’s clearer to stakeholders when they know, for example, we held ten sessions and covered a specific amount of content. They want to see the written feedback from the sessions.”
“I spend so much of my day looking at my phone or my computer that for me I like to put my phone away and have an opportunity to have real interactions, and not sit in front of a screen. It is very enticing.”
“With elearning, you can track people logging on and off. But once they’re in, it can become abstract. How do you measure engagement online?”
“Until people experience quality elearning, it’s hard to get the initial buy-in. You need the budget to design good digital products. They can be expensive and time-consuming to produce,” Sofia explains.
Learning as a game
Despite the downsides, Sofia recognises that the future is about using technology to deliver consistent, scalable and cost-effective training.
As a professional, her role is to consider what features of elearning methodology most benefit employees. And to keep an eye on the latest research into the trends that will dominate in the coming years.
Gamification is one of those critical areas. It’s about designing training to include some of the motivating factors that people love about games.
There are a set of tools learning designers can use. For example, setting challenges, levelling up, winning social badges, leaderboards and unlocking hidden content. Gamification promises that it can the benefits of a game-like experience to in-company training.
When poorly done, the approach can trivialise subject matter training. But done well, it brings professional development alive: increasing engagement and helping staff achieve outcomes.
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What about webinars?
Another model of training is webinars, short for ‘web seminars’. These live or recorded videos with a presenter have become a standard format for large-scale training programmes. They have become a popular option for budget-conscious businesses.
But as Sofia points out, cost-effectiveness doesn’t always lead to higher rates of engagement or improved productivity.
“The current webinar experience isn’t engaging enough. Unless people are desperate for that knowledge, they won’t sit in. It has to be something concrete to their needs.”
“Busy people don’t have time to waste. They need to make every moment count. This means that learning and development programmes need to provide ‘just in time’ training, rather than ‘nice to know’.”
Another buzz term in recent years has been microlearning. Micro-learning describes the delivery of training, in short, bite-sized pieces.
“A big question for me is how I can make these snippets engaging for participants,” Sofia says. “Even if the training is short, people still need to dedicate the time to read and learn by themselves.”
“But microlearning is going to be very powerful in the future. There are a lot of possibilities.” she emphasises.
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The personal touch
Classroom-based training, enhanced with technology, continues to put value on personally coaching employees, talking them through things and supporting change through guidance and mentoring. It’s a hands-on role.
“These qualities don’t convert well into technology,” she explains. “Many professionals like personal interaction. Tech kind of takes that away.
And companies tend to hire people with the right personal characteristics, but not the technical skills to create new forms of training. “They’re more likely to hire someone who’s passionate. A person who is charismatic, who can motivate and inspire people. ”
“An organisation’s ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage.” Jack Welch
A broader scope of professional development
“In the coming years, the scene will look different,” Sofia predicts. “Trainers will need to find a clear niche, such as technology.”
But if you’re not tech savvy, what other niches need filling? One area where Sofia expects to see more significant attention is wellness.
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In a recent report, 74% agreed that knowing their employer cares about their health and wellbeing would make them more satisfied, loyal and motivated in work.
“In my work, I deliver mindfulness training. It’s where my interest lies”, Sofia explains. “We’re in the ‘attention economy’. We have to learn how to pay attention, and block out all the noise and endless digital distraction.”
Before the 40s, the average Joe didn’t go to the gym or exercise. They wouldn’t have understood the value because they got exercise in their day to day work.
“In the 40s, people started to do more desk work, and there was an increase in health issues – aches and pains. Gyms were partly a response to that.”
Sofia continues, ”Evidence shows that it’s equally important to train your brain because we’re in a crisis. Back then it was a physical crisis. Now it’s more of a mental crisis.”
“For businesspeople, there are two sides to the attention balance. One is how to get and hold the attention of clients, potential employees, and the like. The other is how to manage their attention in the face of overwhelming information and distractions.”
In the bigger scheme of things, mindfulness is part of a trend to care not only about people’s professional needs but also their wellbeing and personal satisfaction.
“People are quite open to it. You don’t always name it mindfulness. To prevent resistance, trainers place it in the broader context of stress management and work/life balance.”
How do people react? “I find it’s an easier sell to senior management than younger people,” Sofia says. “You’d think it would be the other way round. But younger people can be more resistant to these types of ‘softer’ training sessions.”
“Senior Managers see the value because they see the bigger picture. They know that what keeps you in the game for the long run is whether you’re resilient or not. It’s about whether you can handle all the information, not get overwhelmed and keep your head cool.”
Younger employees may no experience of the effects of stress and burn out. “Most don’t even know what burn out is,” she says.
Change before you have to
Internationally renowned CEO and thought leader, Jack Welch, recently wrote, “Great companies demonstrate a real commitment to continuous learning. No lip service. These companies invest in the development of their people through classes, training programs, and off-site experiences, all sending the message that the organisation is eager to facilitate a steady path to personal growth.”
As our conversation ends, I’m aware of how much learning and development has gained status in recent years. The days when HR departments only held a few social events, and compliance workshops are over.
Whatever the future holds, proactive and committed L&D professionals, like Sofia, are sure to be a fundamental part of how companies adapt and innovate.
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From our partner: Team Building Asia
Your people are your best asset. But to stay competitive you need more than just great people. The key to an organisation’s success is linked to the way its people work together. Gaining an understanding of your team dynamics, or individual performances within the team is integral in taking your business to the next level.
Whether it’s short ice-breaker games, half day activities, or full-day team building events, our wide selection of team building programmes will support the need of businesses big and small.