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Singapore renews its focus on engagement

As human resource development's influence grows, so does human capital development.

Singaporean business leaders understand the connection between development, engagement and success.

SINGAPORE is a magnet for global talent, and its business community is exceptionally receptive to advanced business ideas, no matter where they originate. That's unusual in Asia, which tends towards hierarchical, traditional management structures. Still, it hasn't been until fairly recently - the last 10 years or so - that Singapore's business culture has broadly incorporated workplace engagement.

Employee engagement refers to workers' enthusiasm for their jobs and their emotional attachment to their company, and it must be measured and supported to be sustained. For a decade, engagement was a known development tool, but business leaders only began emphasising engagement in the past few years.

Before that, leaders didn't do much with the metrics they received or applied them too randomly to be effective. Gallup's State of the Global Workplace report bears this new emphasis on engagement out: only 9 per cent of Singaporeans were engaged in 2011-2012, compared with 23 per cent in 2014-2016.

This is a little surprising because Singapore typically places great value on human development. The government even funds a worker development programme called SkillsFuture to promote "a mindset of continually striving towards greater excellence through knowledge, application and experience".

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The programme is open to any Singaporean over the age of 25, and participants are given credit towards enrolling in courses online.

The emergence of engagement as a best business practice may be due to the changing nature of HR. To be blunt, HR now has the power to make employee engagement standard - at least in big companies - in a way it never could before.

While all organisations require HR to perform the transactional functions of basic human resource management (HRM), Singapore's bigger, more progressive companies are empowering a human resource development (HRD) function within HRM. And HRD teams are often the engine of employee engagement initiatives: HRD is accountable for performance, and employee engagement is proven to increase it.


That means three transformative business practices are converging in Singapore: human development as a business value, a powerful HRD function and employee engagement. However, they will only accomplish what they intend to if Singapore's business leadership does four things:

1. Optimise HRD. Employee engagement needs attention and effort, and HRD can drive both. To be effective, HRD requires both authority over and accountability for workplace engagement and development. HRD needs the freedom to perform so that everyone else can, too.

2. Train and support managers to create engaging workplaces. Gallup research shows that 70 per cent of the variance in engagement across work teams is attributable to managers. Managers are the delivery mechanism of engagement, and they need development training to effectively manage people and cultivate engagement.

3.Small and medium-size companies (SMEs) should emulate the bigger ones. Right now, 70 per cent of Singapore's workforce is employed by an SME. Most SMEs have an HRM function, but no HRD within it. A focus on development may overwhelm the capacities of HRM in small companies, but it's an initiative that can be outsourced - and should be. No exceptions.

For Singapore to capitalise on an engaged workforce and a broader culture of engagement, company size can't be a deterrent to human development programmes.

4. Leadership takes action on the engagement data that HRD provides. Engagement and development programmes will improve performance only insofar as leaders apply the data collected - metrics don't change culture, leaders do.

Leadership can speed up the process if they include a strengths focus in their development plans: Managers who focus on strengths see a 9 per cent to 15 per cent increase in their workers' engagement, according to Gallup studies. This is vitally important for SMEs, which account for 99 per cent of Singapore's enterprises and almost half of Singapore's GDP. As most SMEs lack a powerful HRD function, leadership must drive development initiatives themselves.


Singapore will have to overcome a few obstacles to achieve those four aims, the most prominent being that Singapore is susceptible to business fads. Organisational leaders will have to embrace engagement as a day-to-day practice, or it might become a passing trend.

HRD's best bet is to make the business case for development, which will depend on applying the right analytics to organisational growth. SMEs may need to outsource this function, but all companies must develop better ongoing internal analytics capabilities to quantify the value of investing in development. Still, Singapore has some serious competitive advantages. For one, Singapore likes to be first and best, and engagement is a best practice among the most successful companies globally.

Further, Singaporean businesses are facing real recruitment challenges. The labour market is on an upswing and the attrition rate is at a five-year high and climbing. Gallup data sheds light on why: 54 per cent now say that the economy in their city or area is getting better, up from 36 per cent in 2016; 37 per cent say now is a good time to find a good job, up from 34 per cent in 2016; and 84 per cent say that if you work hard you can get ahead, as did only 76 per cent in 2015. In a small country, ideas circulate fast - and so can workers. Engaged companies are the ones people want to work for, and it takes very little time for a company's good reputation to spread.

But perhaps the biggest advantage Singapore has is that it values employee development and it prizes high performance.

Singapore recognises that human capital is the most significant resource it has - a fact that other nations have been slow to see, to their detriment - and as Gallup data demonstrates, the highest performing workers are the engaged ones.

Though a newly empowered HRD function was needed to drive engagement on a daily basis, Singaporean business leaders understand the connection between development, engagement and success.

And no wonder: engagement drives business success - and business is the business of Singapore.

  • The writer is a business development senior consultant at Gallup.