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La Trobe University: Using cloud and mobile-first to improve the university experience

By Sara Barker
Fri 28 Oct 2016
FYI, this story is more than a year old

La Trobe University is a public university nestled in the Melbourne suburbs, which takes a 'future ready' approach to its ICT and the student experience.

The company is the third largest university in Victoria, with 36,000 students and multiple campuses. With a $2.4 billion investment in its ICT services, the university is making sure that it keeps up to date and relevant for academics, researchers and future graduates.

La Trobe University's executive director and chief information officer Peter Nikoletatos says La Trobe is starting to disrupt its on-campus teaching model, where students used to attend university for traditional reasons. Now students are looking for the best skills to become more competitive in the marketplace.

"The future ready strategy is about starting to address those things. There are four strategic pillars. The most important one was about doing the basic things really well, because that's what the experience is for everyone, every single day," Nikoletatos says.

While attracting students may be easy, converting, retaining and graduating them is the hardest task. Providing the best student experience is part of this challenge, and Nikoletatos believes that you have to also get your brand right if you're going to compete in the online space.

Therein lies the power of technology and ICT. The University uses TechnologyOne as part of its IT systems, and is how it will improve its competitive advantage.

"At the moment, a lot of the IT focuses on implementation, so we do a lot of the hardware and back office activity. What we want to do is shift that away from back office and implementation to the applications."

"We want our staff to progressively work more closely with the academic side of the business and start working almost in a bimodal way on adding value to the business as usual," he says.

He says the university also wants to be disruptive in areas where it can be more competitive. The university focuses on five areas of research, and now ICT staff are being placed alongside those areas.

With such a large shift in its ICT vision, third parties are an integrated and fundamental part of the transformation.

"You bring them into the strategic discussion from day one. You tell them what your strategy is, and you ask them about what path you haven't thought about. It has to be a trusting relationship," Nikoletatos explains.

When it comes to how vendors approach the market, Nikoletatos says that powerpoints and presentations are great, but having demonstrations and having products that work in the mobile space are what really counts.

This is because the university is looking to not just have a mobile-first strategy, but preferably a mobile-only one.

"We know the form factor device, whether it's mobile phone or a Surface or an iPad or Samsung, that's where people are going to move towards," he says.

While this may suggest a move to cloud, this doesn't necessarily translate to all areas of the business.

"We have on-premise storage arrays for our researchers. They have very large instruments connected. For example disease immunology - they do a lot of work with disease management and have huge datasets on-premise. There is no logical reason to put that in the cloud."

With evolution in high-performance computing, the university may take more of a cloud perspective, but right now the focus is on commoditising the student experience and using mobile-first as its go to market strategy.

Although this still presents challenges, and staff buy-in is one of the biggest ones - especially when it comes to digital transformation.

"Taking your staff along on that journey. You're actually disrupting their comfort levels as well. If you take the basic foundation of 'I just want my job, I want to know what I'm doing, and I want to be predictable', you begin to disrupt that," he adds.

"I think it's about getting better at managing change, and there's no silver bullet here. It's endless engagement and communication upfront. Not everyone is going to believe you and you have to accept that. But stay true to your word. If you're going to do something and there's an outcome, be upfront about what that outcome looks like."

He says bringing teams in early into the purposes of any ICT programmes and explaining why you're doing it is the most transparent way to get people on board. While the university hasn't experienced much of this on the software side, he says this occurs more often when taking approaches such as taking data centers and putting them in the cloud.

"The thing you have to be careful with is that infrastructure people have forever and a day basically got up at 2am to make sure everything's working. They do these things out of goodwill. Suddenly the CIO comes in and says 'we're going to the cloud', that almost invalidates years and years of goodwill. That's the part you need to be upfront about."

Acknowledging that they've done a great job and then explaining the cost, scale and speed benefits, and how this will be managed going forward is part of being upfront, he says.

"Everything we should be doing is about business transformation, technology is just a variable," he concludes.

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