“Our business model is changing,” says Lukasz Zawilski, CIO at NZ Qualifications Authority.
“We are moving from a ‘publication’ based model – based around some key events/dates throughout the year – to being an ‘online’ business where our digital products and services are used by people on a daily basis”.
“This has meant we’ve had to change our systems, processes and platforms to adapt. We are also focussed on capturing the opportunities provided by new and emerging technologies given the relatively small size of our organisation.”
Zawilski stresses this necessary change extends to the wider education sector.
The sector is undergoing a digital transformation with teach and learning happening more online/digitally, he says.
“We need to modernise the assessment portion to ensure it keeps up with this digital transformation so that learners aren’t using digital tools during the year and then having to go back to paper for assessment.”
“The move to digital assessment also opens up opportunities to introduce new forms of assessment and link it up with teaching and learning,” he says. An example would be using assessment data to inform future teaching and assessment activities.
He says this environment provides NZQA with opportunities to make it simpler for their customers to engage with them.
“We work with roughly 160,000 learners each year, so we need to streamline their interactions with us as we are only a small agency,” he states.
His team built the foundation that will allow the agency to tap digital and other tools for these interactions.
A cloud-first present and future
They did this by introducing the use of cloud and ‘as a service’ solutions – where appropriate, based on an agreed evaluation criteria.
NZQA is one of the first government agencies to adopt cloud-based and SaaS technologies.
“We have successfully achieved this on a number of projects,” he states.
“By ‘lifting the horizon’, we freed our people to focus on higher value activities which matter more to our business stakeholders.”
For example, the adoption of Office365 and Amazon Web Services has allowed NZQA staff to spend less time running infrastructure and applications and more time on developing and enhancing business applications and solutions.
Zawilski says this meant staff had to re-train in skills which are more sought after or marketable. This, he says, benefits both NZQA and the staff.
By upskilling both IS staff and the wider organisation, we are driving a culture of digital literacy, he says.
“We have implemented an information security and privacy education programme which has helped everyone in the organisation be more security aware and savvy and has driven the usage of digital tools significantly. We have moved from meetings where most people carried paper to ones where most people carry mobile devices and work collaboratively,” he points out.
NZQA migrated legacy solutions to modern cloud-based solutions such as serverless technologies and dramatically reduced the cost and complexity of running those solutions.
Zawilski says the Record of Achievement (ROA) application is fully serverless and runs for a fraction of the cost of running a legacy, on-premise model.
“We have evaluated several self-service technologies – including a chatbot and AI – to streamline and improve the experience our customers have with us,” he adds.
The agency has also piloted the use of blockchain technologies for the digital verification of qualifications.
We are modernising our legacy applications – utilising container technologies, microservices, modularisation and modern platforms – to ensure they are fit for purpose and can integrate with new digital assessment tools we are introducing, he says.
“This is a significant, multi-year piece of work involving both in-house and vendor capabilities and resources and is at the heart of our digital transformation.”
Recently, NZQA completed the VMWare on AWS pilot, one of the first pilots of this kind in the region. “We demonstrated we could get all the scaling and functional benefits of a hybrid cloud whilst realising efficiencies and simplifying our operations,” he says. “We will be moving forward with the adoption of that this year.”
Big bang deployment
Zawilski says NZQA has just completed phase 1 of their modernisation programme.
“This included refreshing 11-plus million lines of decade old Java code into a branched code repository that allows us to modularise our monolithic core business application moving us towards a DevOps pipeline-based operating model,” says Zawilski.
He says the move has also allowed them to innovate on top of their legacy. An example is being able to deploy the chatbot to drive more self-service.
“It’s all part of moving towards being an online, always on business”.
He says phase 1 of the programme was delivered with minimal disruption. “This is a significant achievement and the external advisor on our governance group, a seasoned executive across government, commented on how he’s been involved in many large-scale projects and had never seen one go so smoothly before.”
“I believe this proves that big bang change isn’t required and you can capitalise on years of investment in your legacy applications by modularising and modernising applications, it’s about approaching digital transformation differently and knowing what works for your organisation – not following a ‘paint by numbers’ recipe.”
At the same time, NZQA has just selected partners to help them deliver digital assessment (exams) and digital exam marking which will progressively replace the paper-based NCEA exams.
“The use of federated digital identity, APIs, microservices and other cloud technologies is allowing us to more easily integrate these new services with our existing core applications,” says Zawilski.
No holding back on change
Zawilski discusses the non-technology component of their transformation programme.
“The lesson I’d impact on anyone is to understand the people impact of any change first, long before they consider any technology,” he says.
Over the past two to three years, we have focused a lot on culture – building sustaining the kind of culture we need to support the team, and the wider organisation, through the digital transformation, he states.
“We set out a vision of where we wanted to be and worked with the team – and then in turn with individual staff – to figure out what that means for them.”
“We engaged early about the ‘human impact’ of digital transformation and ensured we had strong buy-in from all IS staff. We want to ensure we didn’t have any internal resistant to change holding us back,” he states.
“We ensured we made change ‘safe’ by debunking myths like people being made redundant through the adoption of cloud or SaaS.”
“We’ve invested in digital literacy across the organisation and implemented an information security and privacy toolset to equip people to become more digitally savvy and mobile.
“There is a strong focus on ensuring people are using the technology to its fullest potential,” he says. “We want to have buy in from everyone, not just the IT folks.”
“We have consistently achieved 100 Net Promoter Scores over the past 12 months from our users and customers,” he adds. “We are very focused on doing the basics well which gets your license into the wider, more strategic conversations. It’s hard to talk strategy with your executive team colleagues when the basics aren’t working.”
He says NZQA has also established a modernisation programme to create structure – and allocate resources – for their innovation and change initiative, a multi-year programme.
He says NZQA is fortunate to have a very diverse workforce and they made sure all perspectives and experiences are used to inform conversations and decisions.
Every month, the IS team holds a ‘Thank Goodness it’s Friday’ (TGIF) sessions and guest speakers are invited.
“We host external speakers and subject matters experts on a regular basis to inform and challenge our thinking,” says Zawilski.
Zawilski is a member of the Future State Governance Group which oversees the NZQA’s digital transformation.
“I work with key stakeholders to understand their goals and needs and ensure they understand our IS strategic plan and direction of travel.”
“I play a consultancy and advisory role for anything digital or technology related as part of our wider organisational transformation, looking beyond just what enabling technology we need to be thinking about.”
For their modernisation programme, the technology team produced a series of videos and audio content about what they are doing and how they are going about it.
“We regularly run ‘gallery events’ where we utilise a physical space to engage with business units,” says Zawilski.
“Most recently we used the ‘gallery’ approach in the co-production of our updated Information Systems Strategic Plan,” he adds.
“All management teams spent some time in the gallery reviewing existing strategic plans and materials and building on those until we had, in effect, crowdsourced our ISSP.”