The learning organisation: An interview with Robert Hillard of Deloitte Consulting

Within its workplace strategy, this leading international consulting firm is blending workplace technologies, knowledge curation and the design of its activity based working (ABW) facilities in sustaining its lead as a top learning organisation.

Robert Hillard is managing partner of Deloitte Consulting, a division Deloitte Australia, itself part of the 200,000-strong global management consulting and accounting group Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu.

Deloitte Consulting comprises about 1400 people distributed nationally across Australia in Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra, Adelaide and Perth.

My conversation with Hillard embraced many of the issues and applications of technologies to organisational learning in the modern workplace. Rather than going to the detail of technology choices and applications, this piece has been edited to illustrate the breadth of choices exercised by a company positioned at the leading edge in its professional knowledge-management practices.

Perhaps most interesting to me in our conversation is that Hillard was formerly the technology practice lead at Deloitte Consulting before stepping up to manage the broader work of leading its entire consulting practice. To my eyes, this makes his view of technological choices to be made in organisational learning, and the rationale for making them, possibly better informed than most.

In support of its learning operation, Deloitte Consulting uses a hybrid mix of ABW office spaces, augmented by advanced communication and workplace social technologies, and learning policies and practices appropriate to a business whose continued relevance by Hillard’s own estimation is sustained only by the quality of its unique intellectual property.

It is a thoroughly contemporary organisation, but without its investment in building that unique body of knowledge, Hillard says, “Our people would work out pretty quickly that they might as well go out and sell their hours directly and remove the middleman.”

Knowledge, then, and the ability to perpetuate learning by providing the tools and facilities that support its creation is the glue that holds the whole consulting proposition together in a learning economy.

Knowledge challenges

Unsurprisingly, the challenges of sharing knowledge effectively in an organisation operating at such a scale internationally are pronounced, and the nature of its communication is driven, Hillard says, by, “three stakeholder groups.”

“One is our traditional employee, another is our clients and the third is the people we partner with, and those can be organisations, or they can be individuals working on an open-talent model.

“In all three cases, depending on the use case, we need virtual teams to be able to form absolutely seamlessly with our communications tools, collaboration tools and our knowledge tools.

“We use a well-known [enterprise social networking] tool for internal communication. We also use a series of knowledge-based tools for a variety of forms of collaboration, from classic publish-and-subscribe to collaborative development and rapid messaging.

The choice of tools

But the choice of technologies is not a given and not straightforward, and that is the way Hillard himself prefers it.

“From my perspective, I sit on the global consulting executive, and one of the challenges we have is how much we mandate from the centre and how much we allow and encourage the teams to develop techniques, and then adopt them.

“There is no need in 2015 to be using proprietary tools. We bring them into an intranet, and it is pretty tightly coupled with our external environment, because a lot of the time the natural collaboration does not neatly fit within our organisational confines.

“For example, we have a number of tools we use in the wiki space, and Confluence is one. We continue to debate internally the mechanisms by which we want teams to work in wikis, as opposed to publish-and-subscribe.

As to whether the tools chosen aid in building engagement and enhancing organisational culture, Hillard says, “Absolutely, particularly the social tools. It’s great to see some of the chatter that happens on there, the banter, as people make humorous comments and build up ideas and also try to work out who knows something about something.

“But, my preference is to be as much as possible encouraging innovation and building out and really focusing on that publish and subscribe side of it so that content that is really well formed is then propagated and maintained.

“It’s great to have the best methods, but you’ve also got adoption as a goal. If it’s done well, people are passionate about it. What I have found is that it is really important that you have curation, particularly to ensure that methods and techniques are consistent.

“Knowledge is a major investment. We spend a lot of money on knowledge distribution, but if you look at what we do in the market, [but] if we don’t focus on building our intellectual property, then all we are doing is selling the hours of smart people, and frankly we are then just competing against a whole bunch of other smart people.

“On one side, we have training and development, which is a very, very structured program for our people. Some people learn very well from classroom training rather than experientially, while other people learn predominantly from doing things and then just need the classroom to provide the framework to get the rigour around it.

“The other side is what we call our IP factory and the IP factory is designed to extract knowledge from people and then put it into a form that can be regurgitated and learnt from by others, and to try to make that a dynamic process rather than periodic publishing.

We have been very structured in our tools approach [and] were actually very early adopters of an innovation platform, which is designed to collect ideas, put them through a structured process and then allocate budget to the ideas.

Creating the knowledge environment

But to what degree do the workspaces themselves contribute to learning in such a modern organisation? Are there things about Deloitte’s facilities that prove blocks to sharing?

“In this mix, the tools are enormously helpful, but [especially so] because we are a virtual workplace, and as much as the physical workplace is important, you can only ever go so far because our people are constantly travelling, even if they are on client sites, so you don’t get everybody in the office to be able to work together.”

Thus, in equipping its workplace with the right hardware, Hillard says as much as possible has been done to remove those blocks to collaborative learning by making available tools to suit purposes.

“Everything is IP [internet protocol]-based, our voice is IP-based. The final thing is getting rid of the traditional telephone altogether, but certainly all of our collaboration uses the speakers on our laptops, with the intent then that you can easily share video and whiteboard contents on the fly, which is really important.

“The nature of professional services means that so many of our people are out on client sites and so many people are working virtually that there are different reasons why people come together physically in the office.

“As a national practice, we think it’s very important to have project [members] working together. We do this particularly with client work. When we have it on our premises, we try to use informal video so that you just have video links open all the time where people can walk up to it, so that it keeps them from having to make a phone call and [giving them the ability to say] let’s keep this going, I can see the screen’s free.

“And that informal walking past a screen [and being able to use it spontaneously] is important if you want virtual teams working together.

“But the reality is is that as much as possible when you have project teams working together, it is good for them to be co-located and able to hear each other, and to have access to spaces where they can talk openly and collaborate, and to spaces where they can collaborate and work quietly.”

I offer the observation suggested by one of my previous interviews that through the close integration of Google’s software, in particular its cloud-delivered Apps office suite and the hardware of its Chromebooks, Google is inviting others to become more like Google itself, all the more important when working with free-flowing spaces and open collaboration.

Hillard pauses for barely a second before saying, “Yes, exactly, exactly.”

But in contrast with those working at the outer edges of ABW, such as Google, Hillard believes ABW is not the one-fit solution for everyone, saying, “Spaces work really well when they work naturally with the ways in which people collaborate, and activity based working is significant, and would probably represent about 50 per cent of our working environment approach.

“But, the challenge is [that ABW] doesn’t necessarily suit a lot of the roles that people play here, especially some of the functional roles for those people who have a longer term need to be in a particular place, rather than being located on an activity basis.”

About this post

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See also:

How To Use Social Technologies To Enhance Your Workplace Design Briefing
Relocation: New thinking on workplace design briefing

Posted at The Urban Developer:
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About Shiro Architects

Workplace strategy is where building design, modern technology and new ways of working come together to deliver the future of work. Through dedicated research, we aim to understand how to create workplace-design briefings that satisfy the evolving needs of occupants, owners, investors and developers of commercial office space. For organisations looking to use relocation to kick-start change in the ways their teams think and learn, we champion the use of sense-making workplace social technologies applied to this purpose.

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