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Flinders University accelerates toward its 2025 goal with Microsoft’s three clouds

Flinders University has a neatly encapsulated mission steering it to 2025; “to make a difference.”

A difference to students, researchers, industries and to Australia.

Flinders’ vice chancellor, Colin Stirling notes that the 2025 Agenda reflects the fact that’ “We live in an era of disruptive change in which the pace of technological innovation is remarkable. Unprecedented access to information is redefining the ways we live, learn and work,” and that consequently, Flinders needs to produce graduates prepared for this new era and research that will propel it.

The four pillars underpinning Flinders’ 2025 agenda are people and culture; research; education; as well as engagement and impact.

A critical role for Flinders’ CIO Kerrie Campbell is aligning the University IT strategy with those pillars, ensuring stakeholders have the data and systems they need to succeed.

Campbell joined the University two years ago, becoming its first CIO. She has a team of 206 people – but doesn’t see herself as head of the IT team, rather the servant of the University – delivering the systems and data that students, researchers, academics and administrators need.

Instead of a classic IT structure of applications team and infrastructure teams Campbell has installed customer-centric teams that are focussed on research, a student and teaching team, a digital business team and a BI team.

Flinders has also stepped back from its previous waterfall approach and embraced Agile. “When I first came, we were delivering about 12 projects a year. Last year we delivered 62 closed projects. We have a cadence now that is quite fast,” says Campbell noting that a key accelerant is the University’s strategy of “Cloud first and buy rather than build.”

Besides Microsoft Azure, which is the platform for Flinders’ new data ecosystem (including data lake and data warehouse), the University is using Microsoft 365 and Dynamics 365.

Campbell says; “I think, we’ve naturally gravitated towards Microsoft and the three-cloud platform because we’re finding it efficient, easy to use and the vendor’s listening to the feedback on their products.”

At the same time transitioning to the cloud has eased the burden of running infrastructure. “Those hygiene factors for IT are being taken care of in the cloud. I don’t want my guys on the tools anymore,” but to instead be freed to work on innovative solutions that support the University’s broader agenda.

She doesn’t believe that the University will ever be 100 per cent cloud based (it’s around 60 per cent currently) but will always look at cloud solutions first.

Flinders’ vice chancellor, Colin Stirling notes that the 2025 Agenda reflects the fact that’ “We live in an era of disruptive change in which the pace of technological innovation is remarkable. Unprecedented access to information is redefining the ways we live, learn and work.”

Data drives decisions

Campbell acknowledges that Flinders’ ambition through to 2025 is not unique in the tertiary education sector – like many other institutions it wants to move up the rankings, boost student numbers, improve research and lift student employability for starts. What is different she says is the business focus the University’s IT group has cultivated.

“I think that’s one of the biggest things we’ve changed; instead of IT teams delivering on IT products, we’re actually talking about the business value that we’re delivering back into the organisation so that they can see what that looks like and the scale of that,” she says. It’s taken a good deal of work on the organisational culture – but it’s starting to bear fruit.

For example, Flinders is transforming the way in which data is collected and how it can be accessed and used. Campbell’s plan has Flinders replacing on premises Oracle data warehouses with a data ecosystem (including a data lake and data warehouse) being built in Azure that can be accessed and analysed using Power BI. The Azure data lake will eventually hold all of the key corporate information assets of the University to ensure a centralised, timely, performant and consumable value proposition.

“We used to say to our business, ‘Yes, you can have that information. It’ll take us 12 months to put it in a warehouse’.” Not anymore. “With some of our services we have now in Azure we are able to make more effective decisions with near real-time data. This is a fantastic step forward and we are looking forward to build this functionality further with Azure over many more services at Flinders.”

Transitioning to a Microsoft 365 A5 licence means that Flinders has the functionality to support broad access to the data. The move to Microsoft 365 A5 will also help elevate the security posture of the University, which was very much on Flinders’ mind following the recent high-profile breaches at other universities.

Neither does Campbell sugar-coat the fact that Flinders University could also be a security target following the opening of the new Jeff Bleich Center, part of the US Alliance in digital technology, security and governance. “That’s really put us up as DEFCON 1 here now. We are looking to utilise that value that’s in Microsoft to harden our services, to keep that openness but also to maintain that control.”

That combination of open-ness and control is also key to promoting greater communication and collaboration across the University. The Teams functionality of Microsoft 365 has gone viral at Flinders.

Campbell describes its growth trajectory; “It initially started with an academic saying that they wanted to use Teams to have it as a collaboration platform. We ended up rolling it out in a soft roll out and not pressuring everyone to use it. Now we’ve got Teams embedded right through the organisation.

“In fact, the VC last week at a meeting said, “Does everyone know about this Teams?” We’re running all of our work through Teams at all levels.” Flinders is running a major HR project with Teams which became its first ‘no paper’ project, the same for governance meetings, and Campbell’s leadership group uses the platform which cut down her email by 70 per cent.

“We very rarely use email now as Teams has that instant communication. It’s that platform for collaboration. I see 50 or 60 sites on Teams here at Flinders right across the university. Academics, students actually using it in some cases for their collaboration. Group work through collaboration in Teams. All of the EAs use it to put the documents and run their meetings through Teams,” she says.

Flinders University

Accurate and timely

The third Microsoft cloud that is being used to support Flinders’ 2025 Agenda is Dynamics 365.

Originally the CRM functions were rolled out in 2016 to support Flinders’ 26,000 students with the entire student lifecycle tracked and supported using the platform – from early approaches about enrolment, through starting a course, to graduation and beyond.

Campbell is looking to extend how Dynamics 365 is used across the University, including as an enrolment and marketing platform for domestic and international students. Flinders is working with KPMG on a roadmap to make that happen. “We’re doing student journey mapping so that we can make sure we’re using the right product for the right part of the student journey.”

Besides KPMG, Flinders is working with Microsoft partners Expose Data and Empired all of which help accelerate the university’s ability to transform. Campbell doesn’t shy from being a trailblazer; “We’re not scared to try new product sets. I’ve implemented a few new-to-Australia products and if we see value in them we’re happy to test them in the market. Universities have the ability to be giant R&D sites if we work with our vendors in a partnership role rather than just a sales role.”

Value and velocity

Being able to streamline and simplify by using Microsoft’s three clouds resonates strongly for Campbell. “I have 400 applications here at the University. The organic nature and the development in universities has led to a large amount of products and services. But if we can rationalise those products we can make savings, because having 400 applications, you’ve got 400 different maintenance cycles, 400 different ways of keeping that working.”

“One of the big surprises was how cost-effective it’s been so far. We expected the opposite. Moving to cloud, it can be sometimes quite cost prohibitive,” but she says that a combination of rationalisation and moving to the integrated clouds has proven cost effective.

Flinders is also exploring how it might make greater use of artificial intelligence. In one recent project it used robotic process automation to sift through 15 systems for information needed to compile the Chancellor’s letters of commendation. A formerly burdensome and manual task, the automation saved 1700 hours.

It’s a signal of what lies ahead – but as Campbell explains; “The robots aren’t coming to take our jobs, they’re actually coming to take these dull parts of our job, right? That’s the sort of way we’re looking at AI – as an ecosystem. Not just chat bots but ways where people make that interaction really seamless and really easy. So for us, AI solutions, NLP, advanced analytics, they’re all part of an ecosystem that we’re looking at and not in isolation.”

Which is bound to make even more of a difference as Flinders advances to 2025