University of Newcastle (UON) CIO Anthony Molinia is spearheading a culture of innovation in support of an ‘anytime, anywhere, any device’ vision for the delivery of student learning.
Passionate about the transformative power of technology to generate real-world advantage, Molinia is willing to push the envelope and empower his team to achieve genuine outcomes for the university.
He’ll tell you the university is on a journey to enable tomorrow’s university through digital transformation.
“There are a number of global forces impacting the university sector such as the changing world of work, industry competition, evolving digital behaviours and the rise of continuous learning which are disrupting the higher education sector. university’s must respond to this disruption in the sector in order to stay relevant,” Molinia said.
As such, he said the team has delivered some wins that seemed almost inconceivable two years ago – from video conferencing to a mobile app providing a channel to deliver content for students and staff direct to phones, to managed services and the cloud.
Three examples of innovation which have paved the way for future opportunities to be realised are: the adoption of a cloud-first approach, automation of UON’s research grants process and development of virtual anaesthesia to aid oral health students.
So how did the innovations come about? Under Molinia’s direction, the IT services department at UON is leveraging emerging technologies to improve the student experience and simplify and streamline back end processes. A number of other technologies are also being piloted, such as blockchain to facilitate a marketplace for credentials.
“Although cost reduction is sought wherever possible, and cost management is essential, the primary driver for innovation at UON is disrupting the traditional Higher Education teaching and research model to set new industry standards,” he said.
According to Molinia, there are some big advantages to taking a cloud-first approach, which means using cloud technology by default wherever it is possible and feasible to do so.
For example, 25 per cent of UON’s applications and data is currently stored in the cloud and a cloud migration project is currently underway to identify and migrate all applications in its on-site data centre by June 2020.
“Whilst utilising cloud services may not be innovative industry wide, it is a significant achievement in higher education,” he said.
The university is also implementing Robotic Process Automation (RPA). “The automation of UON’s Research Grants Process (a key source of funding for UON research) using RPA has converted an entirely manual process to an automated one requiring manual intervention only for exceptions.
“At peak times, the grants team were spending up to 10 hours per day on manual repetitive tasks. The RPA solution converted an average 6.5 minutes of manual effort for each account to a manual effort of one minute in total (to action exceptions) meaning the team can devote their time to value adding support to UON’s Research community.
“Errors caused by manual processing have been eliminated and the transfer of grant information to the appropriate people is almost instantaneous,” he said.
Additionally, Virtual Anaesthesia is another important project, he noted.
“The use of Virtual Reality (VR) to create simulated scenarios to practice dental anaesthesia injections has enabled students to obtain more practice (and more realistic practice) better preparing them to enter the workforce; reduces the need to practice on real people; and enabled learning to be undertaken in any environment, not just in expensive, labs only available at specific times.
“Virtual Anaesthesia also provides haptic force feedback and visual feedback so that students can refine their technique as they practice and without the presence of a lecturer/professional.
A literature review supported suggested that it was the first-of-its-kind in the world.”
But there were some challenges along the way, Molinia said, explaining a few changes needed to occur in order to reap the benefits – particularly on the skills side.
“The department has required a greater focus on client-centricity and co-designing solutions with stakeholders rather than operational service provision. To achieve this the team structure and skill set has needed to evolve. This was aided by the expansion of the business engagement team in order to increase the focus on our clients and culminated this year in an operating model redesign to achieve closer collaboration and alignment with strategic objectives,” he said.
“Moving from a traditional to an IT operational service provision model has also been a change for UON stakeholders. Education, collaboration and a focus on client-centricity has been at the centre of this transition for UON.
“Successfully co-designing these solutions with key stakeholders has increased trust, resulted in the cultivation of closer, more transparent ‘peer-to-peer’ relationships and opened up dialogue about future opportunities, not just in this area but across the board. An additional, and slightly unexpected benefit, has been the emotional commitment and attachment by some stakeholders to the production and delivery of the end solutions. Enhancing agility and flexibility has been an essential feature. Key learnings have been derived from each project and help to inform other projects, planning and working practices,” he says.
Meanwhile, on the cultural front, Molinia has initiated a number of changes during his tenure to ensure there’s a culture of learning, inclusion and diversity within IT services.
As an example, he said the IT department operating model is currently being re-designed, moving from an operational service provider model to a strategic partnership model.
“This extends to the relationships the IT department has with its internal stakeholders (customers) but also its vendor partnerships. Repetitive, operational functions moved to specialist vendors so that UON IT staff can spend more time with customers co-creating innovative solutions, enabling them to grow and diversify their skill set.”
Essentially, ITS is focusing on three keys areas across the capability and operating model: wellness, operating model and culture/staff engagement survey feedback and ensuring a broad engagement across the team.
“Over 25 per cent of staff have been involved in either working groups or leading initiatives in these areas over the last 12 months.”
Asked his biggest lesson learned in his career as CIO, Molinia said it’s balance and perspective.
“That is balance and perspective across everything, whether it be attention to innovation versus commodity; work versus fun; asking for permission versus asking for forgiveness; picking your battles versus fighting every one; or taking time to reflect and think versus trying to go too fast.
“It has provided me with empathy and self-awareness that I believe is critical to be a good leader, motivator and mobiliser or innovation. However, over the last 12 months, in particular, the business’s ability to accept change is a constant reminder that change management and early engagement with stakeholders is critical to success.”