The fourth issue of The Learning Economy newsletter is the first to include a feature interviewee, and Robert Hillard kindly accepted my request to participate. This is that interview.
Robert is chief strategy and innovation officer of accounting, finance and management consultancy Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, in Melbourne, Australia.
In this age, information doesn’t just provide a window on the business, increasingly it is the business, and as the author of Information-Driven Business (Wiley, 2012), Robert gets this, more than most. We spoke in early August 2019 for a free-ranging conversation, with a limited formal prior agenda.
In his role, Robert positions his firm to tackle the disruption of technology, new competitors, challenging economic conditions and changing regulatory priorities.
He was previously managing partner of Deloitte Consulting, more than doubling the size of the business during his tenure, and was, at the same time, a member of the Global Deloitte Consulting Executive.
I previously interviewed Robert in relation to the nature of the evolving workspace in my role as a director of Shiro Architects, researching “what lies beyond activity based working?” The text of that conversation is here.
I’ve also cited his work before in two previous issues of this newsletter, in Innovation is a collision of learning and The new division of labor: On our evolving relationship with technology
As he explains beneath, by background, he is not only a technologist but an information management specialist, and he has strong and instructively formed views about how knowledge is best formed and managed by leaders and teams across an organisation, using the most powerful tools ever invented for the task.
What follows is edited for brevity and clarity, with its topics broken up by my own subheadings.
Enjoy, and, as usual thanks for reading.
Our capacity for knowledge sharing may be new, but we must be wary of implicit bias
We now have knowledge sharing unprecedented in human history.
The need for my own memory, in my own head, has dramatically reduced because I have global resources.
But, what is interesting is that you can treat the global repository of knowledge we have access to either as a resource for knowledge extraction or as a resource for knowledge collaboration.
On the latter, what is interesting is in the research we’re doing, talking to everyone from millennials, right through to end of career people, almost nobody has formal training on how to maximise the collaboration by using these tools of virtual collaboration.
And therefore, if you say in the absence of formal training, people are doing it in different ways, and to a large extent, doing it somewhat inefficiently. There’s a lot of inefficiency baked into the ways things are done right now.
The knowledge repository is absolutely fabulous, but it has bias, and there is very poor understanding of how that bias works and what that bias is, which most of the time doesn’t matter.
When I want to know what the population of China is, it’s a relatively straightforward fact to find out.
If, however, what I want to do is find out about the social activities of a corporation, there are biases depending upon whether they are a controversial organisation or not, and who that information is by, how it has been edited and who’s likely to have had access to edit it.
We must be deliberate in our use of the internet for learning and knowledge
People don’t understand yet how SEO [search engine optimisation] enables you to perpetuate information that may be either completely wrong or at least have a particular slant to it.
And I think that that’s going to matter an awful lot more, particularly when information is power, and power starts to get even more hotly exercised.
I am talking about the internet as a learning tool, as a knowledge tool, and we actually need to move to the next level, the next generation. We actually have to be far more deliberate in our use of tools than we have been.
I think a better understanding of their strengths and how those tools work is really important. So, we should be creating far more formal syllabuses for people, particularly those coming into organisations.
If I look at policies and procedures organisations had in the 1970s and 80s, when you joined as a graduate or a new employee, the procedure you used to manage information in your job was really thoroughly coded. You were told where information got filed and you got told where to get information.
Now, we have put all of these tools into the hands of our people and we have provided them with almost no guidance. That means that when I go into an organisation, what I find is if there are 1000 people in it, there are 1,000 different ways of managing email.
There’s also 1,000 different ways of getting access to research, even where they’ve used formal subscriptions to the major services. They are inconsistently used, because we’ve lost that sense that there is a formal structure to it. When we try to find information in a crisis, we find it really hard to know where people have put it, or even to have certainty that information that should have been kept has been.
And again, I think that that’s something that we will come back to far more.
Meeting the expectations of the socially internet literate customer
One of the assumptions must be that your customers are engaging with each other in ways that they’ve never done before.
And I think customers are incredibly frustrated when they deal with an organisation that knows less about their own services and products than the customers do by engaging with each other. And that happens quite often.
Then, effectively, customers form self-help groups. It doesn’t matter whether or not it’s in energy, utilities, or in certain financial services sectors.
And customers develop a community perspective, and then they get on the call, or they walk into a branch. And they talk to the staff, and the staff actually know less than the combined wisdom of a customer.
And that certainly is frustrating. We we’ve seen that a lot, particularly in airlines worldwide.
But quite often, that wisdom of the crowds is really, really strong, so much so that the customers are actually instructing staff on their own policies. And so that’s something that clearly, as a minimum, organisations need their staff to be as engaged in, in the knowledge community, across the internet, as their customers are.
A good example from an unexpected source
Have you seen Telstra’s CrowdSupport service? You’ll see it’s described as “people like you, questions like yours.” And it is a gamified interface for actually leveraging that crowd capability to be able to answer common questions, because Telstra has so many [different varieties of mobile] handsets that people could be using. It’s fabulous, if you can actually get people, other users of those handsets to provide feedback on how to solve problems, for instance.
Now, what’s been interesting with that is to see the engagement that people have. People, actually are prepared to help other people. They’re enthusiastic about it. It’s gamified. So you get points.
But what’s been interesting is it’s been a great way of engaging Telstra staff, because a lot of Telstra staff are actually engaged on that platform.
And that comes to my point, which is that it is actually helping Telstra staff to have a better sense of what their customers want and what the customers are doing.
I think it’s an absolutely fabulous example of an organisation doing what it is doing the right way.
Across the workplace, Australia needs new learning
We just did the report, Building the Lucky Country on the future of work and skill.
We did an analysis, all based on Australian data, in which we looked at a number of data sources to try to understand how people’s skills were developing, what skills they were going to need, and what skills employers wanted.
What we observed was that Australians are showing every indication of wanting to stay with their employer for a long time, quite contrary to perceptions of current staff turnover.
But employers are identifying that employees are on average, nearly two skills short of the portfolio of skills they need to do their job. What’s more, employers are reporting that they really only want people who have held their skills for three to five years.
We think that employers aren’t doing enough to work with employees to ensure that people are 23 again. By that, I mean people that seem to hit their peak employability between ages 23 and 25, because on average, they’ve held their prime skills for three to five years.
In fact, you are able to reset to 23, you are able to be 23 again anytime in your life, and you saw this with the car industry, where as a country, we had a tremendous motivation to reskill workers.
It was the only time that in Australia we have offered a tax deduction for training for a job that you don’t already have. So, for you or I to get a tax deduction on training, we have to actually be able to demonstrate it in the job we’re doing today.
But, for the car industry, we said if you are an auto industry worker, you could have a tax deduction in order to make you more employable for the job you wanted tomorrow.
What we found was that the unemployment headlines were way overblown. People got new jobs, and at a far greater rate than anyone expected, so much so that many of the people who took early retirement are now regretting it, because they’ve seen their former colleagues get employment.
And that’s unfortunate, and where the headlines are wrong. But, why does it take an industry shutting down for us to intervene like that?
What we should be doing is making sure that all the stakeholders, the employer, the unions, and professional associations, and all of us as the people who do the work are motivated to treat our careers as part of lifelong learning, so that we are never getting ourselves out of that three-to-five-year window, because what happens after five years is quite depressing.
If you have from three to five years’ experience, in almost every skill, there is more demand than there is supply.
But, once you get beyond five years, it flips, and there is more supply than demand, so much so that if you have had a skill for nine or more years, there is eight times supply to the demand.
Clearly, so clearly getting a skill, and, say, you get a welding certificate, nine years later, you are in all sorts of trouble.
Keeping workforce skills current is everyone’s responsibility
So, how do you keep on refreshing and reset the clock?
Too many employers, when quizzed, when we talk to them about their learning roadmaps, when you put up the hypothetical of, you have an employee who comes to work each day and they do their job really, really well, they’re happy, and they are not asking for new learning, what do you do?
And the response is that you leave them alone. If they’re doing a great job, just let them keep going.
So, what you end up with is stranded assets – this person who is no longer in demand within their organisation, let alone outside. That’s tragic, and I think that’s dereliction of our responsibility to our people.
But, one of the things that we know is that people learn in different ways, and we get that. But we don’t do enough to actually help people to understand their own learning styles.
So, a lot of people work really well with guided experiential learning, and that’s where online resources are fabulous, and it ranges from using unstructured resources in a deliberate way. And that can be true, just by reading and experimenting and playing. And we need to do more of that.
Some people operate well if you give them structured training in an electronic form, so again, it’s the same idea, but now instead of saying go out and find, instead, we are curating for you and encouraging you to search, encouraging you to follow a particular curriculum, and giving you direction to some of the resources out there.
But other people actually really only learn well if they’re part of the group in a collaborative session. That doesn’t mean that they don’t use the same resources, but there’s also got to be other support out there to do it.
And I think understanding those styles and and the circumstances in which we learn in different styles is crucial.
Too many bosses is not too much leadership
So, I think what a lot of people don’t know is they have a sense that there’s a lot of information out there, but it’s overwhelming. And how do you apply it to do the things that you want to do to try it?
So, in Australia, for instance, as we know from our report, you’ll see there is an over-supply of managers but an under-supply of leaders. Why do we know that? It’s because we teach a lot of management skills quite early on in careers. We’ve got more people with management skills than we actually need managers.
But we teach leadership skills, quite formally, through the mid-part of people’s careers. And there’s been less take up of that.
Now, there are a lot of leadership resources online, and there is a lot of leadership support available. But we don’t formally communicate that to people. And we don’t have any way of measuring how well people are taking it up. So, we need a structure that is a whole lot more to the point and more deliberate in teaching people.
And then you go to a lot more of the structured problems that people who are formally qualified face in a career. This is where we want people to have certificates or some form of certification.
But we combine the certification process with the learning process, and, you know, if there is one thing we know about the internet, it has been all about unbundling. But education is probably the last bastion of unbundling.
We still say at the moment that whether it’s a degree or short course, the process of training and the process of certification are combined. So, isn’t it time that the internet unbundled those two?
The internet delivers new forms of leadership
I think that we are more able now to use the technology well to have situational leadership in a way that we didn’t in the past, and I think as a society, we are far more open to situational leadership.
Situational leadership means that if that if you separate the hierarchy, you can end up with a 25-year old taking the leadership on a program or a problem and leading a group which includes senior executives of the organisation.
But, the majority of the time you flip the other way. And they’re running under the leadership of those same executives. When you identify the best person for the job at the time, it gives you the ability to better identify who is able to [do that job].
The shift to non-routine and data-centric work
The other thing we’re seeing is a change in work which favours the use of these tools, which is a move from routine to non-routine. So, in the past, what the majority of people did each day was predefined and routine.
The year 2019 is the year, by our measure, that the majority of work in Australia was actually non-routine.
So, we’ve gone from the people approach of processing mortgages to automating the mortgage origination process, then having the people managing the exceptions, and then spending more time, ideally, with the customer, matching what their needs are to the product that they are signing up for.
That shift suits itself very well to an investigative approach and people taking leadership on a problem, because you know, rather than running around a process, you are then centred around the information.
And in fact, so much so, that if we look at organisations, historically, old-style organisations are process-driven organisations. They run a whole lot of processes and then they are governed by the data that comes out of those processes. And that data by the way, feeds into your learning resources, into the intranet and internet’s resources.
Increasingly, though, if you look at any organisation that is engineered from the ground up in the 21st century, they are far more data-centric, with people taking situational leadership, and product and services being driven through the data, and then using process to govern them.
So, it is flipping information and process on their head.
Across the workplace, we can now ask better questions
I think this actually goes back to the definition of what management consulting is all about.
The idea is that we are looking at, increasingly, a services based economy. A lot of what we need is advice in how to solve a problem in investigative support.
The problem is actually not finding the information.
So, for my own business, if I go back 20 years, a major part of the management consultant’s time was research to come up with the answer to a client’s question.
Now, the majority of the time, if not always, the client can do that themselves, but for the majority of this you’ve got [to have] privileged access. We have privileged assets that are unique that we can use to bring it, but the majority of information, as you say, is out there.
Where the greatest value is, in fact, is actually finding the right question to ask.
And almost invariably, any management question that comes up is using a question as a way of describing the symptoms of the problem, not actually defining the right question.
And you then need a number of passes to find the right question, which, as you know, when you’re doing any investigation on the internet or an intranet, getting the right search terms, takes you most of the way there.
Not every problem can be searched
By the way, one of the challenges we have is the difference between the data I can search and deep data that is the deep web. Now, the deep web is not to be confused with the dark web.
The deep web presents all those parts of the internet that are not searchable. And, within an organisation, just as much as there is on the internet, the majority of data deep in an organisation is not searchable.
So, a major part of the exercise that organisations have is, how do you make more searchable, more accessible, more of the information that you hold? How do you engineer your business to do that? Then, for the internet, how do you help people actually to understand how much data that is out there is actually searchable and findable, because you can find so much, it feels as if you can find anything, and it just simply isn’t true.
We tell our kids be careful about what you post, be careful what you put on social media because it will follow you forever. Actually, if you try to find something from five years ago, there’s a good chance you won’t be able to find it. It’s gone.
Now, it’s not gone from any record, but it’s moved from being visible on the web to needing digging in the deep web. And it’s it’s out of sight. It’s gone from the indexes.
Now, a major part of the problem we’ve got is that the algorithms that guide the search engines are amongst the most secret. They’re more secret than the Colonel’s secret herbs and spices or the recipe for Coke, because they are deemed actually to be the power of the search engines.
But we’re depending upon the algorithms to give us answers and to guide us to ask the right questions, because they are suggesting the question that we should be asking. But not understanding those algorithms is potentially a risk.
By background, not only am I a technologist, but I am an information-management specialist. So I spent my career thinking about working on problems to build big databases to be able to manage large amounts of data.
Ten years ago, I wrote a book called Information Driven Business, on how organisations could make the flip from being process-driven to being information-driven.
So, certainly not understanding the principle behind the algorithms puts anybody who wants to do any of these investigations at a significant disadvantage.
As the power of questioning information shifts, how do management consultants stay relevant?
The very nature of management consulting has been changing for a long time, and despite predictions that it would become less valuable, and a number of disruptive companies have appeared, ranging from internal consulting services to Expert 360, these are actually very useful and important organisations. But they haven’t displaced the management consulting organisation.
Effectively, I think every job, management consulting included, can be split into those that activities you do that are high-value and those you do that are low-value. And typically, you have had a higher quantity of a low-value activities and a lower quantity of the high-value activities, simply because there’s been so much routine work you’ve had to do.
In management consulting, a lot of that was the processing of numbers, the sourcing of data. And what’s exciting is a lot of that is disappearing and being replaced by the high-value activities.
The challenge is, you have to engineer your engagement around them.
One of the biggest questions that people have is, surely, what happens now? Without the low-value, high-quantity work, all clients want to do is pay for the single experts who will add to their question.
My response to that is, that’s not management consulting. That’s great, but it’s not management consulting. The problem is that you’re not getting the response to the right question. You’re asking a question, you’re getting a response, but how do you know it was the right question?
And, actually, there’s enormous value to the management consulting approach, which has a number of junior people supporting a senior person, and that senior person explaining and re-explaining the problem and getting challenged.
And there is some really good research about the medical industry, which shows that if you have a health problem that is well defined – a really good example is a hernia. If you have a hernia, it is unpleasant, and it requires surgical intervention. But unless you have a complication, you’re not going to die from it, and the procedures are very, very well defined.
So, if you get a hernia, and you’ve got private health insurance, go to a private hospital, get the surgeon of your choice, and a private room.
However, if you’ve got symptoms that are ambiguous, where they don’t fit neatly into any of the buckets of a standard major disease, you are better off to go to a public teaching hospital. There, you can see the same specialist, but when they have students and they’re explaining the problem to someone else, they will deliver a better health outcome than if they do it on their own, without having to explain to anybody else.
To teach is to learn
The process of teaching is as much an integral part of learning. That’s why the medical profession talks about the idea of watch one, do one, teach one. You watch it, then you do it. And then you teach somebody else. And it’s not until you’ve taught somebody else that you truly actually understand it, and more to the point, in that teaching, you actually challenge yourself as to whether you’ve got the best approach.
I remember as a pretty self-confident consultant at the turn of the century, I thought I pretty much knew what there was to know about information-management consulting. And I was pretty cocky about talking to my clients.
And I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to set up the information management master’s course for one of the universities. And I configured and worked on the course. And I taught the course for the first semester. And it was one of the most valuable exercises I did, because what I found was the students forced me to really explain how did I know what I know?
There’s some things that I knew were right. And I was sure that they were the right way of doing them. But I hadn’t really understood why I knew that was the case. And what I found was that then I brought that back to my consulting. And it challenged me to think deeply on behalf of my clients that whether a particular technical solution was actually solving the right problem for the client.
To learn best, you need politics and the competition of ideas
Or another way of describing it is when you talk to clients. When you talk to fellow executives within an organisation, typically there’s a power tussle, which means they’ll never let you go very far without challenging you. But they will tend to accept your advice once they get past that power tussle.
Students, on the other hand, and junior staff, when you’re teaching, tend to accept what you tell them without tussle, so you get the whole idea out fully formed, but then they demand evidence to back up what you’re saying.
You need both. You actually need the competition of ideas of executives, the competition of politics, politics being a very positive thing in organisations when exercised for the interest of the organisation. But you also need the learning organisation which is going back to the premise of this discussion.
How does pervasive internet social literacy change the organisational learning equation?
I actually don’t think it changes it. I think it just allows us to do more. I think that the executive community is still the executive community. Organisations are constrained by the resources that they can apply as constraints.
The politics of an organisation are about the tussle between executives to be able to argue the case for that limited capital to be applied to the thing they think it should be applied to, and the politics should bubble up about where the greatest opportunity is, if a competition of ideas is played on a level playing field.
But the social literacy, the information and the democratisation of information means that playing field is more level than it was not that many years ago.
Again, the democratisation of information means you are more likely to have somebody who does not have traditional situational power fighting as a near equal for a share of that capital to solve a problem.
There is a lot of political power to be gained in managing internet social literacy
I think internet literacy has the ability to enable more people to be engaged in social democracy and in the running of countries, and in the ability to be able to find policy solutions and to come up with better answers.
The problem we’ve known for some time is that the vast quantities of information and the way we share it tends to lead to selective channeling of information. So you end up with groups just becoming an echo chamber for the information that they care about, the information they want to hear on subjects, or aligning to the belief that they already have, and there’s no doubt that that’s been an unhealthy development.
That’s actually part of the reason why being really deliberate and understanding how being socially literate and socially data-literate means you actually understand where those changes are. And you step into uncomfortable places to be able to share information, rather than stay within your comfortable place, and you’ve got a social responsibility to do that.
Just as we want the tussle for capital within organisations, we want the tussle for the capital of ideas to be on a level playing field. And there’s a risk at the moment that it is not, because people are choosing to be comfortable within limited communities.
Learning Economy research: Would you invest in any organisation without a plan to get smarter?
[Important disclosure: I referred Robert to my own research of the lack of disclosures on organisational learning in the annual reports of Australia’s ASX-listed financial services companies.]
I think a more important perspective is we want investors and journalists to be asking the question [about listed companies’ learning undertakings]. I think there’s a lot more good things happening than are necessarily being reported.
I know, having been involved in the generation of annual reports for different organisations, they tend to put the information in there that investors are asking for. And there’s so much more going on in them.
But, what we have seen is that the community cares a lot about the disruption of new technology. And there have been too many cases where executives have talked about the need to transition and to exit certain types of staff and bring in new types of staff, as opposed to saying, how can we transition the skills, and how will we do that over a long period of time?
And I think that should be a priority, and that’s exactly where the questioning should be. Because we know that is actually a much more cost-effective approach. Losing corporate history has a cost, and you don’t want to lose that.
One Learning Economy goal is to build an index of ASX-listed companies’ declarations of organisational learning
[Disclosure: Again, this wasn’t on the initial agenda for our discussion, but I’ve included it here because Robert’s response was apparently so interested and supportive.]
I think that is an audacious goal and I love when people come up with audacious goals. So, please go for it. I think a lot of our people would be delighted to see that as something that is a priority, and getting people to respond.
I think it has to be cultural. I think it has to involve a number of players. At the moment, employees are not asking the question. They’re looking for a secure job, rather than looking for a job that will grow them, and I think we need that demand.
This should not be something where employers say learning is unpleasant, but you’ve got to take your medicine. That is not a great response.
There’s a risk if you grow an index, so that should be part of an answer, not sitting as an answer on its own. Yeah, I would love to see that as part of an answer.
I also think that people are capable of far more than they’ve ever been capable of in the past. So I think that any index needs to be about how are you going to take more of your people on more of the journey in the future.
And I think our labour organisations have a role to play in this as well. So, I think unions and also professional associations can be part of enabling their members to be part of the next generation. We spend far too much of our time worrying about protecting, and not enough time about speaking about growing.
Now, I’m not saying for a moment that we don’t want to protect jobs. But actually, one of the problems we have is that we have poor data.
I think we need better data to encourage people to say, well, where are the priorities? What are the skills of the future? And how do we enable more people to have those skills and involve them in that process?
How do we reduce the level of angst that people have? Am I doing this learning because I fear I am going to lose my job? Or, am I doing is learning because I’m excited by what it’s going to unlock for me?
Best of luck. I look forward to seeing something come out of this.