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Conrad MacKenzie on leading transformational change at UNSW

Conrad MacKenzie on leading transformational change at UNSW

How the university's CDO aims to deliver a "stellar" experience for students

Four months into his role as chief digital officer at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), Conrad MacKenzie is emboldened to deliver the university’s ‘2025 Strategy’ by driving transformational change in the areas of teaching and learning, research, and operations.

“I have seen a few strategic pronouncements in my day, but this one is definitely bold and it is actually an expansionist plan, it is a growth plan for the university,” he says, explaining the university aims to be a global leader in discovery, innovation, impact, education and thought leadership.

“It is going to have to do this if the university is going to survive what I think is going to be severe disruption in higher education.”

He says the bold strategy, which aims to deliver stellar customer experience through business and IT transformation and innovation, recognises disruption is key, particularly on the teaching and learning front, which requires a number of tools and technologies to support a host of IT projects, both big and small.

Along with his team, and key stakeholders, MacKenzie says he is on a mission to develop and champion the digital campus; provide vision and leadership of the ICT and digital strategy and architecture; and identify opportunities for the creation of differentiating digital capabilities and solutions. He is also aiming to ensure the secure, effective and continuous operation of university systems and ICT infrastructure; and establish a culture of innovation and exploration in both the business and IT.

“This about fundamentally leading the charge on moving into the digital world, and meeting students where they want to be met,” he tells CIO Australia. “Students in this day and age can mix and match courses in a way that has never been offered before, and this is only increasing.

“They want more and more flexibility in their studies. They may not want to always come onto campus, and only come for specific reasons. So what we’re aiming for with the teaching and learning space, is to create a very vibrant, fully immersive on-digital and on campus experience. And that’s quite challenging because we have to invent this hybrid model.”

The operations side is less complex, he adds. “What we have to do strategically is get focused on the bottom line. Think of it as a commercial business. Take on the best people we can find in the commercial sector on your standard HR, finance, IT operational functions. Put in place new and improved governance, and run it as tightly as possible.”

Meanwhile, research is a growth play, he says, explaining while students come to the university for education, they rank universities on its research capabilities.

"We have an enormous growth program on the research area. We are hiring about 600 leading global researchers in their teams over the next 10 years. And that is an enormous growth - there is no other university doing this in Australia,” he says.

The future of research is very big computing and very big complex scientific instruments that are producing enormous quantities of data that need to be analysed, stored and shared, he says.

"Research people need a lot of IT support. Things I am doing for them is helping them with high performance compute. We have created a high performance computing (HPC) capability to dial up a machine of any size in the cloud. They need to be collaborate at scale. They need to be able to work with 10 to 100 researchers collectively on a research project and collaborate on the documentation.”

IT projects on the boil

MacKenzie, who was formerly head of customer technology experience at NAB, says there are a host of IT projects at play at the university - and he is drawing on his former experience to deliver them.

In the learning area, he said it is fundamentally about improving learning outcomes. “How we teach people to be master learners is really the objective, so they can have self-directed learning and exercise what is called evaluative judgement - and delivering a fantastic customer experience is part of that.”

“I see customers starting in Years 9 and 10 in school and then going through into the enrolment phase, going right through the on-campus or virtual first degree, then following them as customers through their departure into the wide world. Helping them go into that direction into industry, and then keeping touch with them over their entire lives," he says.

“When they change careers, or when they change roles, I would like to be able to connect with them and offer them courses. I would like to connect with them on their entire working career through a philanthropic basis - really crowd-sourcing stuff. As people get older in their careers, they begin to think of not just their immediate career, but learning for leisure and interest.”

On the digital technology front, he says, the first step is to implement a mobile strategy across the university network.

“Everything we will do will be fundamentally mobile. At the moment, almost all of the teaching and learning - almost everything at the university - almost all of the IT systems that we have are desktop-based or not accessible to mobile. So mobility has already happened, we just need to get everything there," he says.

“And then as we go to mobile, as I think of what digital is doing, is it is putting access to all of the transactions you want to execute in a single framework into your pocket and really cutting out the middle office or back office, and giving you the opportunity to self-serve.”

Going digital means building the concept of being digital, he notes, as in building it “right into the core" of the teaching and learning methods as a principle. "That is about making sure all of our courseware can be serialised - like a TV program - and can be mixed and matched.”

An exciting project MacKenzie is working on is the development of the full curriculum management solution, which will allow the university to create courses to a curriculum that is certain to deliver a degree.

“It has the full digital asset management supporting that, so all of our courseware becomes digital assets," he says, explaining it will allow student queries.

"Students can look through these courses and develop their own map for their course that they are tailoring to suit themselves. As they do those courses, all of them are going to have a mix of physical and electronic delivery.”

Going digital on campus, he says, means being able to do wayfinding very easily.

“Campuses are notoriously hard to navigate. So being able to manage preferences for your university life digitally, being able to book resources digitally, being able to access any resource on the campus on your phone, is critical,” he says, saying it will appear to his ‘customer cohorts’ including students, staff and researchers.

“Being digital means that the vice-chancellor should be able to have his dashboard beamed to his tablet and updated constantly. I would love to work with our data analytics crew and make sure they are getting the appropriate data feeds so that all of those dashboards are in real-time - just in the same way that the airlines run a big board where all of the aircraft are in state of operations.”

IoT and gamification

While still under review, the use of Internet of Things (IoT) is a very real possibility. “We are in conversations with a couple of industry players on IoT. Given I spent the last six to seven years working with PWC and state and federal government, I am very keen to include the federal government in some of those IoT conversations, especially around smart cities," he says.

"We have a very big program here on smart cities and that’s not just UNSW IT - as in my team - but it is fundamentally about bringing researchers together from engineering and faculty of environment, design, economics - in terms of public policy - and putting them into the conversation - so we can start to work out, ‘Where can we add value? What are the things we could do with an industry partner?’”

There are IoT opportunities not only in schools, but in healthcare, policing and justice, as well as transport. “But one of the challenges with IoT with government is it runs into some fairly substantial privacy issues - and there’s a lot of tension there - and that’s not something that is going to be addressed quickly.”

Meanwhile, gamification is a major focus area for UNSW - and MacKenzie thinks IoT is possibly a little less interesting than what the other fronts have to offer.

"The university is a leader in the area of gamification of courses. If you come in and do economics, your first economics 101 course - the whole term is just a game. And in fact, all of the research shows that people that do the game, get better results. So in IT what we’re looking to do is set up a production layer, help academics deliver games and gamify their courseware really quickly and deploy that onto a mobile phone or tablet.”

To date, the university has a medical game, a few economics games, and a maths game that is being developed.

“There is real activity out there and it is an area that we could explore quite easily and readily. We at UNSW can activate and tap into small enterprise market for our development, and encourage local software development activity,” he says.

Asked if cloud is a big focus, he says the university doesn’t want to rush into it.

“You need a very sober, careful plan to go there. As we get a little bit more exposure to cloud, as a community, it can be cheaper in the right places, but not always. And it incurs new costs and requires some new skills to operate, so you have to go into that with your eyes open.”

Fostering an innovative culture and mindset in the IT function can be difficult, he acknowledges, but it is a worthy pursuit that he is championing.

“I’m trying to foster a culture of agility and speed. I am trying to inject energy. I want complete client-centricity. I want to always look at problems from a client perspective. I am looking for transparency. We as IT will be publishing all of our operational metrics so the university can see them. I am looking for a common degree of cross collaboration so we can deliver amazing things to our clients very quickly.”


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