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EXCLUSIVE – Enabling strategy through ICT at La Trobe University

EXCLUSIVE Enabling strategy through ICT at La Trobe University

OpenGov speaks to Peter Nikoletatos, Executive Director and Chief Information Officer (CIO) at La Trobe University.  He has been in the role since October 2014, driving digital transformation initiatives.  Mr.  Nikoletatos has 25 years of experience in the ICT industry in Australia and overseas.  Over the years, he has held several senior appointments including the inaugural CIO role at the Australian National University and CIO posts at Curtin University, and the University of Newcastle. 

Established in 1967, La Trobe University celebrates its 50th Anniversary next year; it is an Australian multi-campus public teaching and research University with its flagship campus located in the northern Melbourne suburb of Bundoora.   It prides itself on a strong regional presence with campuses in Bendigo, Mildura, Shepparton and Albury/Wodonga.

What are your current areas of focus?

Under the University's ‘Future Ready’ Strategic Plan, there are four key pillars: Brilliant basics, Student experience, Student employability and Research Excellence. 

ICT services operates in a bi modal way to support these four pillars. Firstly, it is to ensure that our business-as-usual (BAU) service delivery is at a high level and we continue to incrementally improve on that, measured by end-user feedback. 

In a bimodal way, we look at projects and initiatives that will accelerate transformation and disrupt business processes in a positive way.

In the past 12 months for example, we moved our Finance, HR and Business Intelligence applications to the cloud.  In October, we are going to move our student management system there as well. These projects have been either global first and/or sector first implementations.

         In principle, we have a cloud-first focus.  This is what brilliant basics is all about.  It is about automation, de-duplication, digitalisation, simplification and administrative efficiencies to support academics, our students and streamline business operations.  All this is aimed to achieve several outcomes.

For example, enhancing the student experience.  That means that students who come to La Trobe will experience a streamlined process that is intuitive and efficient.

We want to ensure that the students receive a great experience from their use of ICT, because ultimately we want the focus on their academic program, which is crucial for graduates’ employability.

La Trobe is ranked in the Top 50 universities under 50 years old in the Times Higher Education rankings.  It also features in the top 100 global universities in over a third of subjects according to QS World University Rankings. Our international ranking continues to improve significantly; providing evidence of the Strategic Plan working.

ICT has delivered about 45 key transformative initiatives this year; underpinning the ‘Future-Ready’ strategy.  We are rolling out new platforms, so that we have everything aligned for a digital experience that is efficient as possible.  Ultimately, the objective is to attract students to La Trobe because of the unique experience we offer. 

Can you give us some examples of enhancing student experience?

If you think about the lifecycle of a student, you lead with focused marketing to attract students to your University.  We work very closely with the marketing department and support them with their marketing campaigns.  We help pull together various data sets from enquiries as prospects to social media information and online information from our system, for example, which sections the prospective students visit online, which courses they check. We refer to this as timely market automation.

Once you have attracted the students, the next step is to convert them.  By conversion, they accept an offer from La Trobe University to study.

In the conversion space, we have piloted a mobile-first engagement tool aimed at making the University experience during the first few weeks as welcoming, intuitive and integrated as possible.  Each intake is about 8,000.  They have largely come out of high school and landed in a very different world.   For some new students, this new experience will be overwhelming.

Following conversion, the goal shifts to retention.  In Australia, we have census periods.  Before the census period is completed, students can leave without incurring any financial or academic penalty.   

That is why it is important to manage students through this critical period.   You want the right students, enrolled and focused in the right program to ensure a successful start to their academic experience.

So, retention is critical, and not just for the census period.   It has to be with a focus on completing their overall program successfully.

         That’s why, a lot of our work is engagement-driven.  If we can engage the students, retention will be significantly higher.  If a student has accepted an offer from you, but during the first few weeks, not attended a class, been on the campus, registered in the library, connected to Wi-Fi on campus, you get very clear indicators that the student may be at risk. 

You need to identify that as early as possible to respond appropriately and ideally your intervention strategies will be successful.  At other times, the student may not be ready and will need additional time. It is important to manage individual needs here.

The University’s reputation is also based on how successful its graduates are at getting jobs ideally in their discipline.  Ensuring our students are given every opportunity to have a competitive advantage in the market place is critical. 

La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science at La Trobe University (Photo by Bridietmckenzie / CC BY-SA 4.0)

What role does ICT play in enhancing employability?

ICT plays a key supporting role, for example, we build the platform environment, and we work very closely with marketing, teaching and learning, and our employability people to understand what types of information we want to make available to students.  Then we design the end-to-end business data workflow to ensure that the experience is as efficient as possible.

In terms of Research support, ICT focuses on a number of key areas.  The La Trobe Institute of Molecular Science is a world class facility.  Other areas of strength include public health and agriculture, where (in partnership) we run one of the southern hemisphere’s largest facilities around agriculture and food safety.  We also have a Wildlife Sanctuary on campus to study how native fauna interact with changes from an ecological perspective.  We also have a significant capability in sports science, where we aim on being the number one university in this area.  These are some examples of the focused Research that La Trobe undertakes.

How does that play out for ICT?

When I started here two years ago, there was no dedicated ICT support for researchers.  With support from Library and Research Services, we have established an e-research digital support team.  Five of my staff have moved full time into supporting researchers, predominantly in the data analytics space.  We have also negotiated HPC operations for our researchers to meet their computational requirements.  We are a member of Intersect, and currently use around 4.5 million hours annually of HPC use.

         Our focus is about providing academic support, trying to make it easier on our academics to operate with our systems and processes with minimal administrative burden.   

You talked about being ‘future-ready’ earlier? What do you think the ‘future’ looks like?

First and foremost, social inclusion is a fundamental part of the future we envision.  Many of our students are first in family.  Making sure that our University is available for people that would not normally have gone to University is a critical part of our future ready strategy, and fundamentally part of our DNA.

         In practice, that means strong community engagement and targeted programs to ensure students have opportunities to study at La Trobe.  We have great community engagement through the work we do with the northern suburbs and with surrounding businesses and local councils.

Our second largest campus in Bendigo, where La Trobe is one of the largest employers so, there’s naturally a strong engagement with the local community.  For example, we have established mutually beneficial partnerships with Bendigo Bank, Bendigo Health and Bendigo Council.  The same community engagement occurs at our Albury-Wodonga, Mildura and Shepparton campuses.  It also extends where there are pathway programs through strong TAFE partnerships. 

The future is also about ensuring that our operating model allows us to have enough funding to continue to take the business going forward.  We look for areas where there is duplication and focus on streamline.  Because every dollar we save can be redirected towards the four pillars. 

In your view, what will be the key technologies in higher education going forward?

In the short term, it’s the ERP tools.  For us, that means that HR, Finance and Student Management Systems, Business intelligence, and the research management system seamlessly integrated.   Our immediate focus is on making sure they work as efficiently as possible and ideally, cloud based.   That allows ICT to shift its thinking from the implementation of IT to the application of IT. 

Going forward it is CRM (Customer Relationship Management).  Because we will leverage a cloud solution, the future investment will be around exo-structuremiddleware that pulls together all these cloud-based data sets and ensures the information is presented in a useful and timely way.

We are going to manage big data and something sitting on top of that and that handles end-to-end student experience and deals with the verticals of industry partnership, government relations, employability, innovation and alumni is important , and that’s where CRM comes into it. 

We also need to also shift our Business Intelligence, (effectively hindsight reporting) to Predictive Analytics to support timely decision marking.      

Have you encountered issues with legacy architecture?                                          

We must also continue to challenge the assumption that our current business processes and look for opportunities to optimise.  In the past, we tended to solve this by developing bespoke, purpose-built, standalone point-based solutions.  That model is now changing and the shift to Software as a Service is imminent.  More importantly the focus will ultimately shift to Business Process as a Service.

What are the primary challenges you have faced in digital transformation?

Change is disruptive.  If you continuously upgrade and change environments, systems, workflows and processes, then you actually don’t stop long enough to consolidate, and measure how successful your change was in terms of benefits realisation. 

Considering the complexity of universities, it can take up to two-three years to bring about real transformation.  Then you need a year of consolidation to make sure that the transformation has been successfully embedded and business benefits realised.  This process can then be repeated and hopefully your BAU watermark moved successful upwards in terms of staff and student experience.

Getting the pace of change absolutely right is critical to overall success.

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