In an era defined by rapid technological advancements and an ever-evolving professional landscape, the quest for knowledge and skills has become more essential than ever before. Learning is not merely a means of personal growth but a fundamental pillar of adaptability and progress in an increasingly competitive world.
As the global economy continues to undergo transformation, the importance of continuous learning and upskilling has taken centre stage in the last decade, and even more so during the pandemic, with individuals and professionals actively seeking opportunities to expand their expertise and stay ahead of the curve.
The traditional model of education has seen a significant shift, as many are acknowledging that formal education alone is insufficient to keep pace with the demands of modern industries. People from all walks of life, regardless of their age or professional background, are hungry for personal and career development that aligns with their individual goals and aspirations.
One promising and dynamic response to this growing thirst for learning is the emergence of masterclass platforms, which have created an accessible and versatile space for experts and enthusiasts alike to share their wisdom and experiences, enabling people to learn directly from industry leaders and experts. The founders of such platforms have recognised the need for a new approach to education — one that is tailored, engaging and practically relevant to the rapidly changing needs of the modern world.
Sheng Wong, director of DIRI, has taken it upon himself to shape the future of education and personal growth through the “self-paced edutainment streaming platform made for the everyday Malaysian”. He is committed to providing the best learning experience conducted by local celebrity mentors and Malaysian heroes.
“I always wanted to get into the education space, and my journey with DIRI was inspired by that desire and the challenges I faced while running my own digital marketing agency,” the 34-year-old ruminates.
Frustrated by the lack of tailor-made training modules for his team, Wong identified a gap in the market, especially in the field of digital marketing where off-the-shelf courses often fell short of the unique demands of his agency. In 2018, he decided to take matters into his own hands and began teaching digital marketing himself. “The training that we had to do was quite customised, and we realised outsourcing wasn’t a viable option any more. It had to be conducted in-house.”
Over time, he transitioned from using a concept-driven approach to incorporating real-life experiences into his teaching. What truly motivated him was the story of one of his staff members, a self-taught designer with no degree who has now advanced to a leadership role at a multinational corporation. This success, coupled with his start-up mindset, ignited the spark that led to the creation of his innovative masterclass platform, filling a critical void in the educational landscape.
“It’s things like this that kind of drove me towards wanting to do that more and my start-up mentality also kicked in, motivating me to find market gaps and figure out solutions. One thing led to another and that idea just steamrolled into what DIRI is,” he says.
The idea was developed during the pandemic because everyone was stuck at home and among the things they could do was upskill themselves. The options out there were limited but Wong was a big podcast fan and there was enough material to feed his needs. “I’m a visual learner and have always gravitated towards videos. And since podcasts are naturally unstructured, I would make my own notes and draw diagrams and mind maps to distil the key points.”
Masterclass is already in existence but what makes the experience consuming it somewhat revolutionary is the realisation that, in a small way, the renowned figures who conduct the classes are accessible. However, the problem is its content tends to resonate with a small percentage of the Malaysian population.
“For many, the stories presented may not strike a chord, the method of delivery may not align with their learning style and the backgrounds of the instructors may not be relatable to their own experiences. This is where DIRI steps in to play a crucial role. By presenting more relatable accounts, we aim to impart valuable life lessons with greater impact.”
To prepare the modules, Wong looked at the talent development area. While there are courses available for many technical skills such as digital marketing, he identified a gap in soft skills education. The challenge was finding experts who could offer valuable insights but often lacked the incentive to create the courses as they are not teachers by profession.
“Our approach involved conducting market research, aligning our content with HR (human resources) needs for holistic employee development and seeking input from professionals in the field. As a start-up with limited resources, we reached out to HR professionals on LinkedIn and engaged in conversations to pinpoint the missing pieces in the learning landscape.”
As DIRI’s model revolves around the art of storytelling, Wong’s conviction lies in the idea that individuals who have achieved a certain level of success have compelling narratives. This called for a need to harness the star power of well-known figures to break through the unfamiliarity. He explains, “When we sought our first mentor, it had to be someone of substantial prominence to grab the corporate world’s attention. We initially compiled a list and gradually filtered it down to the accomplished individuals we have on board today.”
In the course of informal market research surveys with friends and family members working in HR as well as fellow entrepreneurs, Wong garnered a list of promising individuals who were seen as experts with valuable insights on particular subjects. It complemented the potential collaborators they already had in mind.
Subsequently, they organised meetings with the shortlisted potential candidates to discuss ideas and topics, assessing the depth and feasibility of these concepts. When the parties found mutual agreement, they began developing courses by elaborating on the chosen topics.
Currently, there are about 14 mentors (including Tan Sri Abdul Wahid Omar, Datuk Nicol Ann David, Tan Sri Tony Fernandes and Lim Fang Heng) whose content has been recorded. Wong mentions that they will continually generate fresh courses. In addition, they are working with five more individuals on course development while actively reaching out to potential new contributors.
Tan Sri Nazir Razak, former CEO and chairman of CIMB Group Holdings Bhd, was an obvious choice, according to Wong, and he shares his insights into his motivation for joining DIRI and his commitment to giving back through sharing personal experiences. “The team at DIRI convinced me that it was a good platform to help others. At this stage of my career, there’s a lot of giving back that I can do. I give talks and coach CEOs but wasn’t familiar with masterclass. After some convincing, I went on to record my entire course,” he offers.
Nazir just wants people to learn from what he did right and wrong because he went through 30 years of good and bad experiences. That’s why he wrote his book What’s in a Name and readily shares his cancer journey to inspire others.
His masterclass, “Achieving Success in the Corporate World”, covers a broad range of lessons, including his own experience as CEO, working well with others as well as scaling and building diversity in leadership. “It’s a lot about how I dealt with challenges and how the phrase ‘It’s lonely at the top’ rings true. I wish I had this help when I was heading CIMB. At that time, there was very little coaching,” Nazir says.
“I did quite well in my own SWOT analysis. And it was about doubling down on the strengths and mitigating the weaknesses. And one of the things that I needed was grey hair around me because I was very young when I became CEO. I was only 32. So, I needed all the people around me to calm me down when I got angry, and ask me to take my time when I was rushing. These are the weaknesses of the young.”
Options was given a sneak peek into his masterclass and from the get-go, it is honest, from the heart and refreshing. “I always feel when I enter a room, I don’t have the chance to make a first impression” were his exact words in the video. He delves into the early setbacks he encountered in his career, specifically the moment he was turned down for a position at CIMB and how he responded upon learning the true reason behind that rejection. The content is not only engaging but also profoundly captivating, leaving you hooked and eager to uncover more of the wisdom he imparts.
During his tenure as CEO, Nazir looked up to the chairman of CIMB, Tan Sri Md Nor Yusof, as a corporate mentor. He also read lots of leadership books, got to know people in similar positions and created a network of friends the likes of Tan Sri Azman Mokhtar, Abdul Wahid and Tan Sri Mohamed Azman Yahya as a way of leveraging off of each other.
To succeed in the workplace, he emphasises the vital role of teamwork and honing the right skill sets in your team. “This is why I talk a lot about diversity and its importance. Malaysians are so lucky to grow up in this environment but many don’t recognise and make full use of it. I’ve had leaders who hired staff who looked the same, spoke the same lingo and came from the same background. I used to get upset and tell them their future and growth would be limited.”
Additionally, he stresses the value of hiring individuals with higher qualifications and surrounding oneself with smarter peers for personal growth.
Nazir is semi-retired and remains busy with his Asean private equity fund Ikhlas Capital and involvement in funding and growing companies across the region as well as a new-found interest in golf, which represents his pursuit of balance in life after a career of dedicated leadership.
Tan Sri Mazlan Othman, Malaysia’s first astrophysicist, initially questioned her suitability when she was approached by DIRI but was eventually convinced the platform held the ideal opportunity for her to convey the message of “Inspiring Innovation at Work” based on her unique perspective, which stems from her trailblazing experiences in the field of astrophysics. Her masterclass is peppered with her story, marked by ups and downs, and emphasises the importance of innovation and taking risks.
“While being a trailblazer inherently leads to innovation and the creation of novel ideas, it’s worth noting that this path can be lonely. Despite the challenges, I was fortunate to have a strong support network throughout my career. Whether I was pioneering innovations in satellite technology with engineers or exploring the realms of art and science at the National Planetarium with artists and various collaborators, I firmly believe these achievements were the result of collective efforts. I couldn’t have done them on my own.”
Her masterclass is designed for individuals who harbour aspirations to accomplish something greater and effect some kind of change but find themselves confronted by obstacles, which can manifest in significant as well as subtle forms. Whether you occupy a junior executive role or hold a position in senior management, the insights offered are applicable to a wide range of individuals.
“Our primary goal here is to develop courses rooted in storytelling as our fundamental learning model. The quality of the story, its relatability and depth directly impact how effectively it conveys lessons on a higher level. We have few Malaysians who excel in innovation, making Mazlan the ideal mentor,” Wong pipes in.
There is a celestial object that played a significant role in her life, sparking her interest in astronomy and science communication. “I’m an astronomer and that makes me a professional physicist. A lot of them vehemently object to astrology, the idea that celestial bodies can influence your life. I always use Halley’s Comet as the starting point of my conversations.”
Having been inspired by the study on the comet since young, Mazlan was lucky to be among the few to have caught sight of it in 1986 during an early morning run while training for a marathon and she often uses that to convince the public what a beautiful subject astronomy is. And thanks to her, there has been increased public interest in the field. “Whether you’re trying to convince somebody of your idea or you are caught in a challenging situation, look for your Halley’s Comet, your guiding light,” she says.
Teaching is not new to Mazlan. She was a lecturer before being put in charge of the Planetarium Division of the Prime Minister’s Department, overseeing the development of the National Planetarium in Kuala Lumpur, in 1990. “I loved lecturing. Being with young people, taking them out and seeing them excited about objects in the skies was very rewarding.”
Mazlan remains busy with projects involving art-science and tropical science, and making the latter more attractive to the younger generation. She aims to revitalise the field and address crucial issues facing the tropical belt, while exploring innovative concepts such as growing bamboo in space through a collaboration with China.
Why the name DIRI? Wong says it’s all about self as the meaning in Bahasa Malaysia suggests. “If you want to lead, you first have to learn how to lead yourself. The other meaning is stand, so you stand for yourself. It’s all about self-leadership.”
From a talent development perspective, the role of online learning in employee training is set to grow significantly, with platforms like LinkedIn likely dominating the landscape. However, the distinctive value DIRI offers lies in cultivating everlasting, soft skills.
“Imagine you’re inspired by a story and have completed an entire course. Our approach ensures that afterwards, you’ll have the clarity to search for specific content on platforms such as LinkedIn and Coursera. This is possible because you have gained precise understanding of a mentor’s background and what you’re seeking. Often, we don’t know what we don’t know. Hence why mentorship is important,” Wong stresses.
“Our courses aim to inspire and guide learners towards a deeper understanding of what they need, enabling them to navigate other learning platforms with purpose. By sharing the experiences of accomplished mentors, we bridge the gap between inspiration and actionable knowledge, encouraging a habit of continuous learning.”
According to Wong, each course has a very clear lesson structure. His team has incorporated a lot of instructional design techniques to make sure there is an action map to give somebody who doesn’t really know what they are doing a clearer idea of what the topic is about. Employers can use DIRI’s immersive courses to retrain and upskill employees. All courses are subscription-based and fully HRDC (Human Resource Development Corporation) claimable.
This article first appeared on Nov 6, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.