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Research Briefing

The Digital Workplace Transforming Business: The Case of Deloitte Australia

Deloitte Australia uses four design levers—symbols, space, systems, and social—to fundamentally change the workplace for the digital economy.
By Kristine Dery, Ina M. Sebastian, and Jeanne W. Ross

The Digital Workplace refers to "the physical and cultural arrangements that simplify working life in complex, dynamic, and often unstructured business environments." The case of Deloitte Australia illustrates how four design levers— symbols, space, systems, and social—are being used to fundamentally change the workplace to prepare for the digital economy. Two management levers, sustaining leadership and systemic learning, shift the company from an analogue workplace with digital attributes to a reshaped and dynamic digital workplace.

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Many companies have commenced digital workplace initiatives by introducing an enterprise social network like Yammer, eliminating offices and assigned desks, or enabling more flexible and mobile ways of working. Are they really instituting digital workplaces or are they simply adding bells and whistles to analogue workplaces? 

We believe that the Digital Workplace is about a fundamentally different way of working that entails distinctive behavioral norms. In an analogue workplace, power and hierarchy, processes and rules matter most in getting work done. That makes perfect sense in an environment that is relatively stable and slow-moving. However, the digital economy has transformed most industries into turbulent, rapidly changing environments that require not just innovativeness but also agility to navigate successfully. When we try to deliver more complex digital products and services from analogue workplaces, it is like asking our people to run in sand. We make work really hard.

To transform their workplaces companies focused on four design levers: symbols, space, systems, and social: and two management levers: sustaining leadership and systemic learning.

In the digital workplace, we set the business outcomes but not the course. So influence eclipses structural power, networks replace hierarchies, and decisions about how, where, and by whom (or what) work is done become much more fluid and dynamic. The workplace ceases to be a paint-by-numbers set of pre-defined spaces, technologies, and processes; it transforms into a pallet of options that enable a more collaborative and tailored approach to getting things done. 

The Digital Workplace, therefore, refers to the physical and cultural arrangements that simplify working life in complex, dynamic, and often unstructured business environments

This briefing first summarizes findings from interviews with executives from organizations that are implementing digital workplaces,[foot]Interviews were conducted in 2014–2015 with sixty-three executives at twenty seven large global organizations that are implementing digital workplaces.[/foot] and includes results from a poll of globally based respondents.[foot]Results are from a 2014 pre-study MIT CISR web site poll with respondents (n=276) from companies based globally.[/foot] We then focus on Deloitte Australia and examine how it designed its digital workplace as an integral part of its highly successful digital strategy. 

The “S” Factors 

The changes required to deliver the digital workplace are not easy to implement. Most companies in the pre-study poll reported just patchy take-ups and pilots, or project teams and groups simply drawing on cloud-based technologies with the hope to establish new communication norms. In our research, to transform their workplaces companies focused on four design levers: symbols, space, systems, and social; and two management levers that enable the transformation: sustaining leadership and systemic learning (see figure 1). 

Figure 1: Digital Workplace Design
Figure 1: Digital Workplace Design 

The design levers are broadly defined as follows: 

  • Symbols simplify the message around the vision and reinforce the strategic value of workplace changes 
  • Space simplifies the environment for a more fluid approach to work 
  • Systems simplify processes that stand in the way of getting things done 
  • Social media simplify collaboration and coordination to make it easier to share knowledge, build relationships, and explore ideas 

The effectiveness of these four design levers depends on the application of two interacting management levers: 

  • Sustaining leadership keeps the strategic role of the digital workplace high on the corporate agenda and removes speed humps to make working life easier. Allocation of resources— to fuel the initiatives required to support 

    and respond to feedback systems—is a critical focus of leadership in the digital workplace. 

  • Systemic learning refers to the feedback required to continuously adjust the four design levers. Instead of the more stochastic process of review and modification in analogue workplaces, digital workplaces focus on real-time data, discussion, debate, and experimentation to achieve the desired outcomes. This dynamic fine-tuning requires a dedicated management focus. 

Case Study: Deloitte Australia 

Transforming an A$330 million business that was “going south with [its] reputation in the gutter"[foot]Nadia Cameron, “CMO Interview: A new brand of conversation: Deloitte's David Redhill,” CMO, 28 June 2013, cmo_interview_new_brand_conversation_deloitte_david_redhill/.[/foot] to an A$1.3 billion market leader in ten years takes more than rethinking products and services. In 2006 the partners at Deloitte Australia set a new vision based on digital market leadership. 

We needed people who could develop new digital solutions for clients, be able to reimagine how we delivered our services in a digital world, and use digital capabilities to make better decisions.

David Redhill, Director of Marketing 

Deloitte Australia leaders wanted to unlock the innovative potential of their employees to reimagine the way the company did business. To do so, they needed to make it simple for all employees to engage in creating innovative solutions. 

We had to find ways of shining the spotlight into dark corners of our organisation to find those people who had much to say, but [who] found it hard to be heard … in a traditional hierarchical structure.

Jason Bender, Partner – Digital Transformation 

These efforts more than reversed the company’s downward slide. Among the top professional services firms in Australia, by 2015 Deloitte had climbed to #2 from a distant #4 in 2006; it continues to far outpace the firms now at #3 and #4. Revenues per employee increased by 21% between 2006 and 2015 as the capabilities of the digital workplace provided more opportunities to focus on value-added work. And since 2006, Deloitte Australia has won awards for diversity management—with an increase in female partners from 8 to 145 in ten years—as well as for workplace initiatives and digital innovation. 

The congruence of internal positioning was very important to selling digital services to clients.

John Meacock, Director of Strategy 

Space Neutralized to Enable Better Collaboration 

While the principles of design thinking changed the way Deloitte Australia used space, this is not a transformation story around a new design of physical work space. The company sought more sharing of expertise and time devoted to collaboration and idea generation; it was not physical space but rather cultural norms that inhibited corporate conversation and ideas. So the focus of the digital workplace transformation was on making it easier for employees to communicate more effectively regardless of location, hierarchy, or professional specialization. Office walls disappeared metaphorically and virtually, not physically, as people learned to work differently no matter their location using social tools such as Yammer, Facebook, and Twitter in order to build communities and teams around ideas. 

Social Media Driving Strategic Change 

Changing the cultural norms at Deloitte Australia focused on two key tasks: (1) developing digital proficiency across the organization, and (2)simplifying access to corporate conversations. At a time when most organizations had banned use of Facebook and other social media, Deloitte took a radical approach and made social media central to its strategic transformation. 

Yammer virtualized the bloodline of Deloitte Australia, making it easy for every layer of the hierarchy to initiate or engage with the corporate conversation. The CEO and the executive team initiated and joined Yammer discussions daily, stimulating new ideas, engaging with people across the organization to develop innovations, and listening to online discussions to glean insights into ways to improve workplace effectiveness. People connected in new ways as they focused their attention and skills around ideas rather than siloed services. The Innovation team deployed additional resources to monitor Yammer for places where ideas were pooling. Sourcing of ideas became much more transparent and new champions emerged, many of whom had previously been invisible. A reverse mentoring program paired junior employees with partners who needed support to engage with social media. 

Today almost all Deloitte Australia employees are actively engaged with Yammer in approximately 1400 special interest and project groups with focuses ranging from social activities to business project challenges. Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter are integral to the new way of working at the company, both internally and externally. All employees are expected to be fully engaged in social media and to be brand ambassadors in all their activity. Senior executives take turns weekly to tweet about Deloitte activities and views. Regular analysis of social media data at Deloitte is providing evidence that a strong association exists between collaboration, connectivity, and performance. 

Symbols Making Strategy Visible 

Symbols of change across Deloitte Australia were used to disrupt thinking and change conversations and to reinforce the new digital strategy daily. Works by new and emerging artists were exhibited on company walls, a Green Dot was added to the Deloitte logo, and social media tags such as @GreenDot and @AU_Deloittian were employed to symbolize that traditional ways of doing business should be challenged, questioned, and changed. Not only did these symbols get people talking about digital, they also symbolized a distinct cultural shift at Deloitte from a traditional, conservative organization to a “playful culture with serious intent."[foot]Juliet Bourke, “Interview with Giam Swiegers, outbound CEO of Deloitte Australia,” Deloitte Australia website, November 2014, [/foot]

Underpinning these symbols of innovation, Deloitte Australia established four pillars to shape debate and decision making: Data, Digital, Design, and Deloitte Access Analytics.

These pillars are central to all that we do. They frame all of our conversations at Deloitte and are embedded deeply in our language.

John Meacock, Director of Strategy 

Systems Digitizing Processes to Make Work Easier 

The priorities of IT leadership in the digital workplace at Deloitte Australia were twofold: (1) digitize as many organizational processes as possible, and (2) build connectivity to maximize collaboration and innovation. 

A BYOD, cloud-based mobile environment was designed to make working anywhere, anytime easier and faster. Deloitte Australia redefined internal processes, reassessed customer channels, and automated in order to accelerate delivery and reduce costs. Combining the new cloud -based workplace technologies with meaningful and accurate data access made working life easier and resulted in faster decision making. Harnessing workplace community innovation, an open platform within Deloitte Australia called SandyEdge has enabled staff to connect and to create and share ideas and products. Ideas with strong buy-in can be rapidly escalated, significantly accelerating the innovation process. 

Sustaining Leadership and Systemic Learning 

When Deloitte Australia began this journey over eight years ago, it firmly believed that a workplace transformation was critical to turning the organization around. A handful of enthusiasts and a committed cross-functional leadership team took on the task of guiding a traditional work force to reimagine how work could be done. A transformation lead by social media was a courageous and controversial move. Critical to this transformation were a leadership team that was firmly committed to workplace change and a digital future and a highly motivated innovation team. They reframed business rules, crowdsourced social media policies with the employees, and transformed processes with changes that required constant collaboration, informed decision making, and monitoring. It was this dynamic process of adjusting the levers of symbols, space, systems, and social that enabled Deloitte Australia to build the innovative, digital workplace that generated such a dramatic turnaround. 

Today the digital workplace continues to evolve, guided by a commitment to better understand issues through conversation and informed debate. Social media is still central to making that debate transparent and actionable. A cross-functional leadership team (Legal, Marketing, Strategy, and HR) continues to question and simplify business rules to remove speed humps and make working life easier. John Meacock describes the future digital workplace for Deloitte as one where straightforward processes will be automated, leaving the more complex problems to be resolved by people. 

You want to be in a situation where you are able to challenge things that have never been challenged before, whether business ideas or processes. Too often we see things being done because that’s the way they’ve always been done.

John Meacock, Director of Strategy 

Our research suggests that in the digital workplace, business rules will guide the automation of routine processes, and analytics will guide decisions on more complex needs. These kinds of changes, more than new office designs, will prepare companies for the digital economy. 

© 2015 MIT Sloan CISR, Dery, Sebastian, and Ross. CISR Research Briefings are published monthly to update MIT CISR patrons and sponsors on current research projects. 

About the Authors

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Kristine Dery, Research Scientist, MIT Sloan Center for Information Systems Research (CISR)

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Jeanne W. Ross, Director and Principal Research Scientist, MIT Sloan Center for Information Systems Research (CISR)


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