Melbourne’s Swinburne University decided in early 2017 to redevelop its business model, resulting in the launch of Strategy 2025, which highlighted three main pillars: Future-ready learners, research with impact, and innovative enterprise.

Speaking with TechRepublic, Patrick Ramsden, who joined Swinburne in the capacity of CIO at around the same time the strategy was launched, said digital transformation was recognised as core to ensuring the university was an innovative enterprise.

“We needed to become more digital as an organisation, particularly as a university of technology, we need to be embracing digital, but we also need to be innovative in the way we apply digital to run our organisation,” he explained.

SEE: Digital transformation: A guide for CXOs (Tech Pro Research)

The university then kicked off what Ramsden called a significant transformation of IT, moving from under an IT services banner and rebranding as Swinburne IT, which he said was crucial to invoke the change Swinburne wanted to achieve.

“We are actually part of the fabric of the university, which is what we need to be as IT and the business draw closer together, so that we can actually make digital happen,” he continued. “Some of those barriers and those silos have to break down … we kind of repositioned where IT fits inside the organisation from that perspective.”

It is Ramsden’s role to explain to the rest of the university’s executives how technology can enable their transformation goals, but it’s also about bringing business objectives back to his team so they can work out the best way to tackle certain problems. Redefining where IT sits allows the staff to see what the revenue and cost drivers are, and how that affects, and is affected by, the decisions IT makes.

The first part of the university to undergo a digital transformation was HR.

Swinburne found itself in a situation where it had a relatively ageing HR platform, in addition to issues with payroll. Ramsden said the university was faced with the decision to either replace the technology with a more updated version, or take the opportunity to rethink the way the university managed people in a digital world.

Swinburne opted for the latter and selected HR software provider Workday.

“We went to market looking for a product that would not just allow us to take a digital leave, but how would it actually make us change the way we manage leave from a digital perspective, for example,” he explained.

The university went to market towards the end of 2017, and by February it had moved through to the final selection and negotiation processes with Workday and work had began.

“That was after six-eight months of developing the strategy and prioritising what are the areas to work on, and out of that, HR was one of the ones that kind of bubbled to the top,” Ramsden told TechRepublic.

Discussing why it’s important to have a plan and choose a partner such as Workday, Ramsden said it’s crucial to have the conversation with all involved.

“My worry is always that people will put in technology for the sake of technology and it won’t actually move the needle, it won’t actually change the way things are done,” he said.

“For me, for the technology to be effective, it actually has to be transformational and for it to be that, you’ve really got to start a conversation inside the organisation about what they’re trying to achieve, what is the strategy in that particular area, and technology then is almost the last step for that–it’s just the enabler to help that happen.”

SEE: Digital transformation: A CXO’s guide (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)

In addition to HR, Swinburne has a handful of other transformation programs underway, including for its learning management system.

“As part of our Future Ready Learners, the other pillar of our strategy, we’ve got the concept of transforming learning, and a big part of that was to say we need a better platform for transforming learning,” he explained.

“Again, technology is the not the driver of this, it’s the learning experience, but we had the view that we needed to get a better platform to be able to support what the outcomes were we wanted from a teaching and learning perspective.

“And this year we’re actually transitioning all of the units across, and from semester one next year we’ll basically be teaching all our courses on the Canvas platform.”

Swinburne now has a cloud-first approach as standard, adopting software-as-a-service or implementing software onto an infrastructure-as-a-service platform.

However, one case where that isn’t appropriate is with its supercomputer, which Ramsden touted as the fastest supercomputer in a university in Australia.

SEE: Swinburne reaches for the sky with AU$4m astronomical supercomputer (ZDNet)

Having joined the university from the retail sector, Ramsden said he’s seeing the education sector catch up to others. There is also a very different type of stakeholder pool to please within a university.

“Digital is a big disruptor, and it’s starting to have the same impact on education as it had on the other sectors,” he said.

“Students will expect a certain type of education, delivered in a certain way; we’re also here to attract the highest quality researchers to work at the university, and they will expect certain resources available to conduct their research.”

He said there’s the potential to become increasingly less relevant by not going digital, as that results in the university no longer attracting the students and researchers.

When it comes to pleading a business case to those responsible for handing out the money, Ramsden said in many ways it’s a lot easier now than it was 3-5 years ago to get the board onside with digital transformation initiatives.

“When you do talk about digital transformation now, the ground has been prepared ahead of you–they’re ready to listen–but you still need to put forward a compelling business case,” he added.

“The reality is these things do cost money, and it is going to be disruptive as we go through the transformation. You need to take them on that journey, but they’re absolutely prepared to go on that journey today.”