In 2016, Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta embarked on a transformation program to change the way schools operate in a digital world. The transformation is being driven by chief information officer and director, data intelligence Raju Varanasi and the diocese’s executive team, led by executive director of schools, Greg Whitby.
The program is based on two focus points: the first is being transparent and facilitating the way in which teachers, staff and students can access analytics leading to insights; with the second focused on achievement operational excellence to save time and money.
Overseeing 82 schools, 43,000 students and more than 5000 staff, Varanasi initiated an analytics strategy covering school and student performance, teacher development, resourcing and regulatory, community and culture, and family and religion.
What is unique about the educator’s approach is that it has opened up data to all principals and visualised it in way that enables educators to make evidence-based decisions. It also enables schools to make real-time interventions regarding student learning.
“Blending internal captured data (demographics, attendance, socio-economic and student performance) with externally-generated data (teacher certifications, HSC, NAPLAN, community growth, parent perception surveys) provided actionable insights for executives.
“I quickly realised that with so much data available to us, the linear, statistical approach would not have been helpful,” Varanasi tells CIO Australia.
“Instead, I used predictive analytics and expanded to machine learning to enable us to predict which students are academically vulnerable, those who are likely to leave our schools based on distinct parental behaviours and to evaluate the efficacy of learning interventions to identify students who are most likely to benefit.”
Varanasi said that this approach is different from other organisations because he has opened up data through easy-to-use visualisations that are available to every principal, which avoids potentially negative impacts on students.
“The most important beneficiaries of our digital transformation have been the students. We are collecting data to ensure the wellbeing and success of every child. By reducing the burden on our teachers and principles, we are enabling them to move away from administrative tasks, allowing them to spend time on the more important matter of educating our students.
“Our analytics strategy has resulted in better student outcomes and school performance, and importantly, improved the experience of every student.”
Rising in the ranks
For the first two years of Varanasi’s appointment, the CIO role did not report at the board level. However, as he built credibility around projects and initiatives, the role was elevated to director, data intelligence at a board level.
He continues to create a good culture by providing ample ‘elbow’ space to senior managers. He provides a direction that allows teams to steer change and development within their portfolios. This approach has brought more objectivity to decision making and ensures all voices are heard.
“The drive for service excellence has seen our team become one of the most culturally-diverse and gender-balanced in the whole organisation,” says Varanasi.
Finally, Varanasi creates cross-functional opportunities by mobilising teams to work collaboratively and transparently across the business and ensures they have the skill-sets to work dynamically for the best outcomes. His open door policy ensures a culture of trust and accessibility within the system and in schools. He is also keen to hear from stakeholders around what is working and what isn’t working and invites rigorous discussion and feedback to continually improve the work.
Understand customer pain points
Varanasi said the greatest lesson he has learned during his career as a CIO is to construe problems and pain points from the perspective of customers, not through the lens of providers, intermediaries and other agents.
His experience in education covers curriculum, online learning, innovation, technology and business intelligence. He has learned that it is critical to understand the business and therefore, is committed to ensuring every initiative delivers outcomes aligned to the company‘s objectives and mission.
“It’s a great advantage if the CIO comes from the business size and can speak the language of the business not just the language of technology,” he says.
“It is imperative to build a strong bridge with the business and it is the strongest connection any CIO can forge to seed success.”