by Divina Paredes

Lukasz Zawilski: The dawn of digital at NZ Qualifications Authority

Nov 13, 2016
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Lukasz Zawilski lives by this oft-repeated quote by management expert Peter Drucker: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

“It is true,” says Zawilski, CIO of the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA).

“You can have the best plans in the world. But if you can’t mobilise your team and have the right culture and the right attitude, you can’t be successful.”

Zawilski joined NZQA just over two years ago as CIO, having previously worked for two-and-a-half years as manager, strategy and architecture, at the Ministry for Primary Industries. Prior to that he spent time in senior roles in banking, utilities, healthcare and technology start-up in several countries before settling in Wellington.

NZQA is a government department that administers the National Certificates of Educational Achievement (NCEAs) for secondary school students and is responsible for the quality assurance of non-university tertiary training providers.

It is also in the midst of a multi-year programme to ensure NZQA is at the forefront in the area of digital assessment.

Zawilski lays out the four priorities of NZQA heading towards the year 2020: To have all 93 NCEA subjects being assessed online; to have New Zealand qualifications recognised by 50 or more countries; to have 1500 additional Maori and Pasifika students graduating in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects at level 5 and above; and a 50 per cent lift in Maori student achievement in NCEA Level 3 in one or more standards in STEM-related subject areas.

The second goal means New Zealanders or those holding qualifications from local academic institutions, can go to these countries and their qualifications will be recognised. “It makes travelling and using your skills around the world a lot more easy,” he says.

Lukasz Zawilski at a CIO roundtable discussion in Wellington.

For us to stay relevant to them as our customers, we have to effectively become digital natives too.

There is a focus on Maori and Pasifika students, as these two groups are traditionally underrepresented in science and technology.

Zawilski explains getting the culture right is critical, as NZQA ICT embarks on a massive transformational programme.

“We want to equip learners to qualify for the future world. A lot of that is all around digital skills, around STEM.

”And we are looking at how do we rebuild ourselves, to assess the skills employers are wanting in the future?”

NZQA delivers the NCEA to more than 160,000 learners (students) every year.

The current end of year examinations are paper based, he says, of the NCEA tests NZQA delivers to all of the students. “However, many schools teach using digital tools throughout the year – there’s an ever increasing gap.

“It’s often more about information retention, rather than how to apply knowledge and concepts,” he states.

He says there are major things NZQA needs to achieve, to ensure they are aligned with the digital transformation that is going on in the whole education sector itself.

He says there needs to be an information services plan that will guide NZQA through the years, to ensure it is meeting the objective of qualifying students for the future.

“We need a systems strategy to support digital transformation – both at NZQA and [through] all of government,” notes Zawilski.

He is cognisant, however, that NZQA can only embark on this massive transformation change with the support of the team.

“Our culture is the cornerstone of enabling the change we need to make,” he says. “This relates to our people and teams, and how they work with the wider organisation. We need to internalise some shared values and behaviours.”

So at the start of his term, he met the 75 members of the team (now at 78) and asked them to write down their ideas on what they value on the job.

“We have a number of rooms and wall spaces set out as whiteboard space,” he says. “These white boards became the depository of these notes, ideas and opportunities.”

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A summary of the team’s ideas are now ensconced in a 22-page pamphlet, ‘We make the impossible happen often’.

“This is the final product, we completed it in seven weeks, from start to finish,” he says.

The slim volume – or its soft copy – is given to all members of the department, or those wishing to join them. It is also referred to as the Little Book of Culture or the Culture Book.

“Everybody who is with us gets a hard copy of the Culture Book to keep us all aligned,” says Lukasz Zawilski.

The Culture Book captures the culture transformation we have undergone over the past 12 to 18 months, he states.

Zawilski says the Culture Book also informs their staff what they are signing up for.

“It is incredibly frustrating and expensive to hire the wrong person, so we aim to cut that off at the pass,” explains Zawilski. ”We hire for attitude, aptitude and cultural fit – we can teach you specific skills. Everybody who is with us gets a hard copy of the Culture Book to keep us all aligned.”

“When you join us, if you want to join us, here is a book that describes us,” says Zawilski. “We haven’t had anyone come back and say ‘No, this is not for me’.

“It is interesting other divisions are picking it up,” he says.

Recently, one of the heads of a division outside ICT asked him for a copy. “The manager said, can I get your Culture Book? I found someone who was not doing exactly what is right.”

An early section on judgement, for instance, contains these expectations of the team members:

·’You make wise decisions despite ambiguity.’

·’You identify root causes and get beyond treating symptoms.’

·’You think strategically and can articulate what you are trying to do.’

·’You can distinguish between what must be done now and what can be improved later.’

He says the transformation is happening as they run business as usual operations.

They run the existing examination protocol every year, he explains. “We print personalised barcodes for about two million exam books and send them around the country through couriers.”

These get marked, moderated and returned to the candidates. On Tuesday, the second week of January, NZQA publishes the NCEA results.

“That is our busiest morning,” he says. “We see 200,000 unique visitors to the website in three hours. In terms of scale, that is a huge operation.”

He says this is one of the reasons NZQA is interested in cloud technologies.

From running services almost exclusively in-house, it has moved to a hybrid delivery model, mixing in-house capability with partnerships and cloud-based services.

For instance NZQA has recently transitioned to Amazon Web Services to allow schools to submit online material for them to moderate in a collaborative manner.

“In the past, they would put it in post bags and sent it to us. The whole thing used to take 12 months.”

The new system will cut down this process to weeks, so that schools can use that to fine-tune their teaching using the feedback on the moderation material.

He explains the moderation material is used to ensure schools maintain a consistent level nationally.

“Digital turns it around faster,” he adds. “We are starting to use it as a teaching tool too. It is not just about the school, but it will also be about the learners [students].

“We can pinpoint where learners are doing well, or where they can improve. We can target the improvement and intervention opportunities.”

Digital is enabling a cutback on data latency he says.

“It is allowing us to get that data back to schools quicker, so they can actually use it for teaching.

“One of the reasons we went [to the] cloud was we did not want to build anymore legacy [systems].

“We know what the usage patterns are going to be like,” he says.

The current exams and structures are predictable, he says. “You know it is going to be busy at the end of the year. But the moderation [process] could be busy anytime, so we did not want to have to buy significant infrastructure capacity.

“We can buy elastic capacity from Amazon.”

NZQA looked at what their counterparts in Singapore, Australia and in the Scandinavian countries are doing.

“All of them are doing some form of digital assessment. But they are doing it for specific subjects, whereas we want to do it for the whole curriculum of 93 subjects.”

NZQA has also deployed Office 365. “That has really liberated a lot of our people. You know simple things, like it is so easy to provision your own mobile device. In the past, people would have to bring the mobile device and leave it with the service desk for a few hours.

He says NZQA worked closely with the Government CIO, Microsoft and Fujitsu during the transition to Office 365 and it took four months to implement it, together with the security and compliance requirements.

“We have been really happy to offer our learning experiences to any agency that wants it.”

Thus, he has spoken to about a dozen CIOs from other government agencies, who are looking to move down the Office 365 path.

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It is no longer about retaining information, it is going to be about application of knowledge.Lukasz Zawilski, NZQA

Qualifying for the future world

“Because we want to enable the digital agenda for schooling, one of the things we agreed early on ourselves is we need to be digitally enabled.”

The school sector has seen a huge uptake of cloud technologies, he says.

“We are starting to really get to where we can work with them using new tools. For us it was about getting our shop in order and being digital ourselves, to [then] lead digital change in schools for business collaboration and all those things.

“Digital will level the playing field. It will move away from kids being restricted to the subjects schools offer.

“For example, if they want to take robotics and are with a school that does not offer it, with digital assessment we will be able to offer it to them through digital delivery.”

Digital is also a huge equaliser, he says. He links this to an NZQA focus on helping students make more informed decisions about career choices.

“We have got a big push for data and analytics,” he says.

“We released an app last year, an NCEA app, that lets [students] track their own progress [and] look at scenarios, find what else you can study. Kids can go to tertiary education, but we also offer a vocational pathway.

“We want kids to be planning their study about a year or two before they leave school.”

Most kids leave it very late, they make a choice based on what their friends are doing or what seems okay at the time he says.

”What we want to do is offer them an outlook that says, ‘when you leave university, in three years time what is your possible occupation? What is your earning potential?’ They can plan ahead.”

“Our goal is anytime, anywhere assessment,” he says. The idea is when the kids learn something and they are ready to sit their assessment, they can do it whenever they want. At the moment it is the end of year thing.”

This, he says, is around personalised, self-paced learning.

“That is our big goal. That is why we want digital, to really allow the kids to drive their own future and be linked to what jobs they are going to have, and what employers want.

”Part of what we are trying to assess in [preparation for] 2020 is what they call 21st century skills, so it is around collaborative problem solving analytics.”

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, he says, has prepared a paper on 21st century skills.

“It is about working as a team, collaborating, using each other’s strengths. So what we are going to be assessing will change from just retaining facts, to actually [promoting] skills employers in the world want.

“Employers want attitude and aptitude,” he says.

“Specific facts and figures we can always teach you. It is no longer about retaining information, it is going to be about application of knowledge.”

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Our systems team is now moving to a DevOps cloud model. It is about painting the possibilities for them that you no longer manage hardware, but instead you get to manage vendors and service delivery

This perspective is also impacting the ICT team.

Over the decade, he says NZQA IT has been an internal shop.

“Our legacy applications are in paper exams,” he states.

“We are seeing more and more things being offered as a service or packages. We are shifting from software engineering to integration and from running servers to service delivery.

“We are shifting towards adopting a far more customer centric view in everything we do,” he says.

“Whereas in the past we used to build simple things like processes and screens based on internal demands and what the business wanted, now we are consulting far more with learners, parents and teachers on what works for them.
Zawilski says he is fortunate that the education sector “is filled with passionate people”.

“People are in education because they believe it is making a difference, so I think it is about painting a picture of the future and helping them find themselves in it.

“Our systems team is now moving to a DevOps cloud model. It is about painting the possibilities for them that you no longer manage hardware, but instead you get to manage vendors and service delivery.

“We look at it and see it as an opportunity to develop skills that are valuable in the market,” he adds.

Some of their technology is delivered through partners.

“But I am a big believer you cannot outsource accountability, risk or culture, so we worked hard on the culture stuff ourselves.”

One of the ways they do this is through their TGIF or Thank Goodness It’s Friday sessions.

Once a month, they hold a TGIF session where they invite a guest speaker to talk about a range of topics. Their speakers have included Stuart Wakefield, CIO of the Ministry of Education and people from Xero, Vend, TradeMe and other startups.

“The startups in Wellington are sort of a kindred spirits down the road, we often feel like we have more in common with them than other more traditional Wellington organisations.’’

Ministry of Education CIO Stuart Wakefield

“We start at around 4pm, run it for an hour-and-a-half, and we have drinks and pizza,” says Zawilski. “It is just an opportunity for everybody to come together and ‘exhale’, so to speak.”

Part of their culture building is bringing diversity to the ICT teams. Zawilski says they hire graduates and people with different backgrounds and experiences. Nearly 40 per cent of the technical team is female, and staff come from more than 10 countries.

They also welcome staff from other business units to join them. “In the past 12 months we probably had three or four secondments to business analyst and technical roles.”

He also strongly supports providing flexible working for staff. For instance, women who want to come back after maternity leave may want to do less technical roles so they will not be on call.

“So we accommodate that. It allows us to retain the skill and talent by being flexible and making sure their family lives are not affected.”

We also have our annual professional development, he adds. “It is not just lip service, I insist on everybody having a meaningful plan.

“We have developed a quiet reputation for being a good place to work,” he says. “Our attrition rate is almost nothing.”

The changing pace in government

Zawilski says NZQA’s IT development is in line with the changing pace of government.

“It is starting to become more focused on the needs of the citizens,” he says.

An example, he says, is the Ministry of Social Development’s StudyLink. The latter helps students make informed choices about their student finance, how to apply for it and manage it online.

“So I think in pockets, government is definitely changing.”

In the case of NZQA, “we are just lucky enough, and we are big enough and small enough to do it on an organisational scale.”

“Citizen expectations and needs, the way they want to interact with government are changing, especially for us,” says Zawilski. “We have quite a young demographic. They are schoolkids, they are digital natives.

“For us to stay relevant to them as our customers, we have to effectively become digital natives too. Otherwise, we will just become irrelevant if we don’t talk their language, if we don’t live in their world.”

He talks about some of the business technology trends that are impacting the sector.

”What excites us really are those that are relevant to teaching and learning,” he states.

He cites Unitec’s MindLab, which is headed by Frances Valintine.

Divina Paredes/IDG
Frances Valintine of The MindLab

They are teaching robotics, IoT and next generation skills to schoolchildren, says Zawilski. “That stuff excites us because in the end, they are the labour force of the future.”

”We are big fans of cloud and one of the most exciting things through digital delivery is having much richer analytics.

“Paper is a very dumb medium. When kids take exams, we always collect data. What questions did they take the longest on? But also with the richness of data, we can improve assessment and understand what works.”

When we shift to the digital, we will be accumulating all that data, he says. “The amount of data we are going to collect will be huge and it is a feedback loop, because all we want to do is make assessment part of teaching.

“It becomes a teaching tool. It is not just about passing a test, it is about improving learning.”

He says ICT leadership in the public sector is also evolving.

“A lot of it is [around] thinking differently,” he says. “It is quite easy to resign yourself to being in a government agency and accepting how things are.

“We need more people who are willing to push the limits.”

He says the NZQA ICT team is quite good at looking at things from a different angle.

“They see things from a different perspective and different opportunities. I think more of that is required to shift government to that next level.”

From his experience, he says being in government provides a lot of growth and opportunities.

“Nobody has unlimited funding,” he says, on an issue shared by government CIOs.

“But in government it is not that hard to find someone to back you if you have a genuinely good idea.”

He cites a personal experience. Two years ago, they took the end of year statistics they give to schools and thought the schools are probably looking for the same things.

So they decided to create a report for all the principals on how well their students did compared to schools in the region. They also provided a breakdown by age, gender and diversity.

“They love it, because they don’t have to spend days of administrators and principals slaving over Excel trying to figure out all the statistics.

“We just give them the data, but in a report form so they can use it straightaway,” says Zawilski. “That convinced me in government if you have a good idea, there is always a way to get it done.”

With the ICT management team, Zawilski organises an offsite meeting every quarter.

For staff, they have AMA (Ask Me Anything) sessions. These are informal sessions where staff can talk about anything that is topical or front of mind.

There are also daily stand up meetings that are open to anyone.

Towards the end of the Culture Book is this advice for how people can get up to speed, which could well apply to other business units within and outside NZQA:

‘Talk to someone at their desk, in a meeting, in the elevator, in the kitchen … Often the best way to find out is just to talk to someone who might know. Most of us love talking about what we are working on and caffeine unlocks knowledge.’

Lukasz Zawilski, NZQA: “The startups in Wellington are sort of a kindred spirits down the road, we often feel like we have more in common with them than other more traditional Wellington organisations.”

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