“I wear two hats at AUT,” says Liz Gosling, who is both chief information officer and director of operations for the emergency management team at Auckland University of Technology.
“It is a stretch assignment,” says Gosling, who welcomes the added remit. “Sometimes, technology people get pushed into a box where everybody thinks that’s all they can do,” she explains. “It was encouraging to be recognised as having the capability to be doing something beyond ICT and strategically important for the university.”
She also points out that emergency management work can be quiet for a long time and then you must deal with several emergencies in a row. “They are like buses; there is nothing for ages, then three arrive at once, essentially.”
This is exactly what happened when COVID-19 spread and impacted all sectors. Gosling was seconded as a lead at AUT’s COVID-19 task force. She named one of her direct reports, solutions development director Abby Dowd, as acting CIO.
Speaking to CIO New Zealand via videoconference, Gosling details how her team tackled the challenges brought by the pandemic, as AUT had to deliver learning online and staff had to work from home.
Lockdown scenario at AUT: ‘Mothball’ the university
AUT courses have gone fully online, covering 900 papers, for the current semester. This was an “amazing feat”, says Gosling. “It took five weeks to get every paper in the university completely online. The feedback is really good from the students on the online experience.”
Gosling says the staff was prepared for the mass shift to working from home as the university had already invested in Office 365, Teams and other collaboration platforms.
She notes that the COVID-19 emergency response has enhanced AUT’s rollout plans for digital tools. “The uptake on Teams and chats has just been huge.”
She shares that the data centre at AUT had been moved to Datacom in the North Shore, and the university systems had been set up so everything can be run remotely. “We had all of that ground capability in place.”
“If the organisation did not have that fundamental platform and technical capability, it would have been incredibly hard,” she states.
“From an emergency management perspective, of course everything changed very quickly,” she says.
“The first signs in New Zealand of something coming at us was when Wuhan got locked down,” she says. AUT started to see the impact on the international students who had to self-isolate if they returned from overseas.
Students from certain countries were also not allowed to enter New Zealand. Then, Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters asked Kiwis to come home, and New Zealand shut its borders, allowing only citizens and permanent residents to enter.
Once it became apparent that COVID-19 was in New Zealand, a concern was AUT’s 30,000 people: staff, faculty, and students, she says. “We looked at our business continuity plan, and asked, how well set up are we should we have to close our campuses?”
According to Gosling, AUT has had a pandemic plan since the time of SARS in 2002 and 2003. In early February, they got out their pandemic plan and reviewed it to make sure it was in line with the national pandemic plan.
“We saw what was happening in other countries,” she says of the impending lockdown. “We worked through how we would shut down the whole university,” which they have never done before.
Universities always have some activities going on, she says. “What we are being asked to do is almost mothball the whole thing for four-plus weeks, which is a big exercise actually.”
They had to think about the facilities, security, and the need to lock everybody’s access cards. “We had to guarantee that all our buildings are shut, clean, and secure.”
At the same time, the management team was thinking how they would operate at levels 3 and 4, and what it means for AUT when the country goes to level 2.
“Most of the university already had a practice run of work from home,” says Gosling. In February, the university asked every department to test their work from home capability. This allowed them to see what they need in case of a lockdown, such as additional training, monitors, and faster internet.
When the Vice-Chancellor asked Gosling for key advice just before the lockdown, she replied: “Everybody go home, teach yourself how to use Teams. If you could do that, you will be in a good space.”
Breaking down technological and socio-economic barriers at AUT
“As in all universities, AUT particularly, the digital equity question has always been there,” states Gosling. “We know a number of our students come from more socially deprived areas of Auckland. They do not have broadband in many cases or have a suitable laptop or computer at hand that they can use to study.”
She says Walter Fraser, head of the Office of Pacific Advancement at AUT, worked with the strategy and planning and student services teams to determine the scope of the problem.
During the four-week study break, AUT surveyed the digital needs of students. The survey indicated that 6 per cent of AUT students didn’t have a laptop, tablet, or PC at home that they could use. Moreover, 17 per cent of students didn’t have broadband at home to connect to online learning.
This led the university to buy 1400 laptops from PB Tech and wi-fi broadband modems from Spark. PB Tech and Spark had to courier the devices to students as New Zealand was already on national lockdown.
So, what can they take away from the experience? “It has shown how agile we were as a big organisation, in responding to the challenges of COVID-19,” says Gosling. “The resilience shown by people to adapt to new ways of working has been fantastic. That has served us really well as New Zealand’s university of technology.”
She says the event also highlighted the resilience of the ICT services team. “They have pulled all stops as an organisation. I don’t think AUT will be in the place they are in without the IT team working so hard, particularly in the period of lockdown.”
“The ICT people have really been the unsung heroes in our organisation,” notes Alison Sykora, head of communications at AUT and a member of AUT’s emergency management team. “If IT does not work, none of us can.”
Gosling says the coronavirus pandemic also provided lessons around sustainability. Many people have potentially gotten better work life balance, because they are not spending two hours a day commuting in traffic. In her case, she has been able to help her daughter with her NCEA Level 2 assignments.
“We are not burning through petrol, these are environmental sustainability aspects,” she says. “What will we take forward in different ways of working for us as a country and globally?”
Applying this to her sector, she states: “In a university, we have a great number of courses that have practical elements to them like engineering and health degrees. We need that practical face-to-face on campus element but again, the question is, what can we do online and what needs to be on campus? Where does our organisation want to work in the future?”
She notes how recently the university had 1700 staff listen to a Teams discussion with the vice chancellor and deputy vice chancellor. They were able to answer questions from staff in real-time. “It worked well.”
“We have seen the switching of business models.” she states. “Cafes that never had online ordering are now doing it. All kinds of small New Zealand businesses must flip their business models and think differently. A lot of organisations have to do the same, and having a good, well-reasoned, robust investment in technology actually gives you the platform to do that.”
Gosling goes back to her insights on CIOs taking on assignments beyond ICT. This is around service to the organisation, she says of her work with the emergency management team. “As a senior leader in any organisation, it is really good to think in terms of, what else can I do to contribute especially in times of crisis? What can I bring to the table to help my organisation get through this?”
“The important thing for all CIOs is to give yourself the space to think strategically. It is very easy to get dragged down to the operational stuff the whole time,” she says. “I am very lucky I have an extraordinarily capable team, who largely deal with all the operational things. This has allowed me the space to think more strategically and contribute to the leadership table.”
“Having the ability to contribute to the broad organisational strategy is important,” she states. “We talk about what digital means for organisations. COVID-19 is going to speed up that thinking for everyone. Those that are digitally ready are going to fare a lot better than those that are behind.”