Transforming digital services for the IT team at University of Auckland

Science Centre at the City Campus of the University of Auckland

Cultural shifts don’t happen overnight and need sustained focus, attention, and the help of technology.

In 2018 Richard Elliott head of IT transformation – digital services at the University of Auckland, New Zealand — was recruited because the institution knew the IT function needed to change.

In an interview with CIO Tech Asia Elliott, said the workforce wasn’t as engaged as it needed to be, and the group wasn’t structured and aligned appropriately to provide a broad range of academic and business customers with stellar services.

“When I joined a significant amount of thinking, planning and work had already been done around where the University needed to evolve and develop — in terms of its physical literacy and its digital strategy,” he said. “[The] University realised that in order to transform there was a requirement for some core transformational — shifts within the actual ICT, capability, and themes that was partly facilitated by a relatively significant restructuring effort.”

Through a process of external benchmarking and internal customer dialogue, the function’s leadership understood the need to respond more proactively to technological advances, rapidly pivot to changes in demand and establish the growth mindset necessary to stay ahead of the curve. While a new organisational structure and adoption of new processes, tools and techniques were needed, the most critical change that was identified called for a change in mindset.

“We have a wide diverse technology team,” said Elliott. “It has a kind of direct hierarchical structure as well as some matrix client management elements to it as well. As you can imagine, this also includes world class research. IT covers all the bases from traditional corporate IT type setup; some general sort of service desk; and fleet management — standard DRP code tools; and systems support.

According to Elliott the team is also responsible for “high powered compute” support, as well as dealing with some “pretty big challenges”.

“One of the things that we always talk about is providing devices, or services that can be used in really quite unique, challenging environments,” he said. This can be usage of technology in lab environments, or particularly challenging external environments as well. For example, one of our researchers needed a laptop so that she could take into the sort of the chest cavity of a dissected whale.”
Elliott said that’s the “full spectrum of user requirements” that the IT team have to deal with.

With the active support of Jason Mangan chief technology officer at UoA, who also understood the need to place people and capability at the heart of the transformation, and education technology company Skillsoft, Elliott set out to change the culture of the IT function.

As a statement of intent, the group was renamed to “Connect,” where new values were identified and agreed upon – promoting curiosity, generosity, and the empowerment of both oneself and others.

However, Elliott said cultural shifts don’t happen overnight and need sustained focus and attention.

He set about compiling a range of external research supporting the links between success with agile methodologies and a growth mindset.

Importantly he painted a rich picture and vision for this cultural change.

“I had to show stakeholders where we needed to take the organisation and presenting data isn’t enough,” he said. “I needed to engage them and build enthusiasm and understanding that making maximum use of our people’s skills and knowledge needed more than just a fresh organisation chart and adoption of some ‘textbook’ best practices.

If you achieve the right mindset shift and equip your people with the right tools, it’s incredible what can be achieved.”

He placed a heavy emphasis on the need for a roster of IT professionals who had a fundamental knowledge of the tech space. Elliott also  addressed any skills gaps and pivot quickly to stay ahead of the ever–changing tech space.

While skills are important, the culture and attitude of the entire staff were equally critical, he said. Just as the employees needed to be able to pivot and adapt, leadership needed to change how they supported professional development and deviate from traditional command/control styles of leadership. Richard’s passion greatly influenced the stakeholders’ buy-in.

“Since Connect is a part of the University, any new methodology on how to work needed the buy-in from a broad range of stakeholders,” he said. “Within a world-class educational institution like the University of Auckland, a robust and data-driven approach was necessary.”

Elliott said Connect’s IT professionals are increasingly adopting a mindset focused on growth, fostering a culture of learning and talent agility, and resulting in more engaged and productive teams.

“The group tackles objectives with leaner scrum-based squads and utilises cross-functional delivery to create more value, more quickly to their customers,” he said. “We’re working as part of the wheel, where we’ve structured around customer facing value streams using the candidate principle of product ownership across all of our huge array of different applications and services.”

The transformation journey that was started in 2018 is now able to show increasing value from big investments made around technology like public cloud.

“One of the major priorities for the rest of this year will be to broaden and deepen our capability around cloud,” he said. “We went from a small centre of excellence team — initially held by both cloud vendor, professional services, and some great support from local consultancy organisations. But we always knew that to get a tipping point around client, we must have a hybridised and hyper converged strategy around our network — on-premise versus cloud infrastructure.”

According to Elliott over the next six to nine months the team will also look to increase the number of training, and experiences around Cloud and DevOps engineers.

“In terms of understanding needs – it won’t just be organising ourselves better in terms of the organisation chart; and the reporting line,” he said. “We really want a true understanding in terms of if we were going to the new operating model for delivering more value, quickly to our very diverse set of stakeholders.”

Having a “real rich picture” and a type of category/inventory of skills picture has helped UoA “phenomenally” in terms of understanding different scenarios and different features, said Elliott.

“We knew there was growing concern around the pandemic — we obviously had locked down in New Zealand instigated by the government,” he said. “We also knew earlier there were some restrictions around movement, particularly of our Chinese students. This would affect their ability to return to New Zealand to take up their studies after a long holiday.”

Elliott said the IT team were able to “immediately put in place a solution” which would allow for remote working for those continuing students.

“We managed to do that very quickly,” he said. “We already had capability and application strategy. And now know a model for learning and teaching which supports remote-based delivery using an application.

We also knew enough about using secure VPN and ultimately used AWS and Alibaba to provide a solution which allowed a significant number of Chinese students to continue to study in China without having to return to campus.”

As Elliott looks forward to continuing the path of transformation at UoA, he said it has helped that these days there are so many different sources of potential good ways to tackle issues.

“The revolution around agile new ways of working on the one hand can be radically transformative,” he said. “You really get to understand what it is that you’re wanting to achieve, and you have to take a very honest approach to where you’re starting from;  what you which you want to try and improve; and how you identify measurable improvement.”

“What I have seen and not just in New Zealand, is a tendency to want to just take shortcuts,” he said. “The key to transforming is usually in the mindset — in terms of following the process — is also very much around ensuring that you’ve got good baselines; both quality and velocity and some traction.”

Elliott said being “honest with yourself and with your teams” to make sure when looking back on what has been achieved, you can “genuinely demonstrate” a of shift key value indicators.

Elliott said these are things he’s learned in his career. His background in non-tradition technology transformation in the banking and finance sector in the UK taught him about working in large infrastructure organisations.

“When you kind of work with engineers, whether they’re software engineers or, infrastructure type engineers you get a sense of how they think,” he said. “The key piece of learning for me is building up a growth mindset and sort of lean into continuous learning and development.

Sometimes you have to scale down and work with less finances and smaller teams, but you still have to maintain the vision around what you want to achieve.”

UoA achieved the following outcomes, with Skillsoft across a group of more than 300 IT professionals;

  • every role has a detailed ‘ideal’ skills profile
  • every team member and leader has a validated skill profile with which to identify, prioritise and action plan skills development
  • all learning catalogue items are now mapped to the SFIA skills framework to create a turn-key process which provides an inventory of ‘skills to hand’ and ‘skills needed.’
  • all team members have access to Percipio to support their action plans and development objectives.




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