Learning Curve:
What Being a University
CIO has Taught Me

Kerrie Campbell
CIO of Flinders University in Australia

Learning Curve:
What Being a University CIO has Taught Me

Kerrie Campbell
CIO of Flinders University in Australia

Kerrie Campbell has made a habit of jumping in at the deep end.

Whether it was taking up a computer operator’s job without ever having used a computer—with the exception of playing Pong on a Commodore-64, of course. Or being the only woman on the IT floor with 60 men, pushing her way through to learn everything from scratch.

“As a woman in IT back in the day, you had to know 10 times as much to get half as much respect. I learnt—from the ground up—to work with mainframes that were the size of houses,” says Campbell, CIO, Flinders University.

For someone who has always been a learner, being the CIO of a University sounds like a perfect fit. But Campbell is every bit an unconventional CIO. For starters, she owns a coding robot, she’s active on social media, and she calls herself an ‘odd CIO’!

Thirty-five years ago, I used to be the only woman on the floor with 60 guys. As a woman in IT, you had to know 10 times as much to get half as much respect. So I’ve literally worked my way up from the ground.

What’s also atypical is her approach to new technology and how she tackles business priorities. With over 30 years of experience behind her—and four years in the education sector—Campbell has crossed many a milestone. And each milestone on her journey has taught her valuable lessons. Lessons about being a first-mover, focusing on customers, and delivering business results.

Lesson 1: How to Make Tomorrow’s Tech Relevant Today
You know how serious a CIO is about adopting new technology when you know her three-year-old son is learning to code from a coding robot!

That shouldn’t come as a surprise from someone who’s already thinking about leveraging a technology as nascent as blockchain to help students access online courses.

“Blockchain could actually unbundle education. For instance, if you’re doing an MBA, you could do business from Harvard, technology from MIT, innovation from Stanford, and build your own MBA. You could authenticate that through blockchain. That could be a really big disruptor for our industry,” she says.

Another technology that Campbell believes is revolutionizing the education sector—in terms of research–is high-performance computing (HPC). That’s something she realized at Adelaide University. It would take considerable time for researchers in the University to complete their research because they had to sift through mines of data from various sources.

Today, thanks to HPC’s ability to enable data visualisation and quickly make sense of big data, what used to take four years now takes about four months. “We’re talking about Yottabytes and Brontobytes of data. The scale of this stuff is just phenomenal,” she says.
Just like HPC has revolutionized research, Campbell expects robotics to do to education what it did to manufacturing: Automate processes and reduce effort. “I’m looking at doing a robotic process automation for simple processes, which is really just business rules engines. Some universities are also using chatbots with natural language processing and AI to answer customer queries,” she says.

That, says Campbell, helps universities get rid of everyday, mundane, and repeated queries and focus on what’s really important: Imparting quality education.

The prospect of trying out new technologies isn’t something that she frets over. That’s because being a first-mover comes naturally to her. Take for instance how her team implemented an Canvas LMS (Learning Management System) at Adelaide University, making it the first university in Australia to do so. “We were also the first university to move to the active learning platform Echo-360—a video-based learning platform,” Campbell says.

There’s a lot of scope for new technologies to revolutionize the education sector, Campbell says. Those possibilities are egging her on to dig deeper. At the same time, a fraction of the enthusiasm to chase emerging technologies also comes from the FOMO effect—the fear of missing out.

“We’re on the edge and no one knows what to do. We don’t want to be in a Kodak moment, where you’ve missed the boat.”

Lesson 2: The Underrated Importance of Being Customer-centric
Whether you are a corporate CIO or a University CIO you’d know that being customer-centric has never been more pronounced than it is today.

But the fact is IT has always been accused of being inward-looking and Campbell comes from that rare breed of CIOs who admit it. “We tend to be very insular. I think today there’s pressure on IT to actually work with the customer. And having a customer-centric vision is a big mind-shift for IT,” she says.

In order to realize that vision, every organization needs to be nimble both in their business thinking, in the way they deliver IT, and in the way they deal with customers. “Having customer centricity, means that you’re understanding the customer, you’re understanding their needs, their wants, and desires. We need to react quickly to that, both in a business and IT sense,” Campbell says.

For a university, customers come in all shapes and sizes and at different levels of IT-readiness. There are students who are digital natives and then there are researchers who are digital immigrants, Campbell says. And to be able to cater to their diverse needs, Campbell needs to get everyone on board.

“How you service all those different customer bases makes your job really interesting. It’s like having five different companies under one banner. You need to have the skills and the acumen to actually get people to buy-in to your ideas,” she says.

That’s why Campbell is no longer leaning on creating and defining an IT roadmap as a benchmark to measure success.

“We don’t define an IT roadmap anymore. We’re working on our customer’s roadmap. So for us, success is defined by our customer,” she says.

Lesson 3: Always Ask Business What’s NOT a Priority
It’s no secret that business and IT have always had a bitter-sweet, love-hate relationship.
A few years ago, Campbell says, the value of IT across sectors was considerably low, partially because IT was a support function carrying out business’ orders. But that’s changed over the years. Today, IT is a business partner.

“The success of IT in the future will depend on how we deliver constant value to the business. You become a valued and trusted partner. Rather than some “IT” that’s done to them, we’re doing it WITH them,” she says.

Campbell should know because she’s made it a point to bridge the yawning gap between business and IT by winning their trust. That’s why implementing two critical projects—the LMS and video-learning platform–at Adelaide University wasn’t a long, tedious, journey of convincing business stakeholders.

“We had built so much trust with the organization by implementing AGILE and taking them on that journey that we were actually able to implement two massive change projects—which are the heart and lungs of the university–at the same time. That’s unheard of,” she says.

The success of IT in the future will depend on how we deliver constant value to the customer. You become a valued and trusted partner. Rather than some “IT” that’s done to them, we’re doing it WITH them.

Winning business’ trust is one thing, but what do you do when business throws a bunch of demands and everything is a priority? That’s a challenge IT is constantly battling. Campbell says that’s when CIOs need to take a tough call. “Ask them: What DON’T you want us to work on? It’s a very, very, powerful question,” she says.

To be able to get there, Campbell says, CIOs need to truly believe IT is a business partner. “It’s important to get out of the dead-day servant, order-taker mentality, and work as a partner,” she says.

Like any relationship, working with business as a partner calls for trust. And that trust is built on a foundation of innovation—innovation that doesn’t take shape only within the four walls of IT.

“I’m a very odd CIO who says I want to disintermediate IT from IT so that we can do that sort of crazy thinking and that really out-of-the-way thinking. That’s where the value lies.”
Jumping in at the deep end doesn’t sound like such a bad idea anymore, does it?

Kerrie Campbell
CIO of Flinders University in Australia

Kerrie Campbell is the CIO of Flinders University in Australia. Prior to her current role, she was the Deputy CIO of The University of Adelaide, where she also pursued her MBA in 2012. Campbell has worked in the IT industry for more than 35 years and across numerous sectors such as Banking, Utilities, Government and Higher Education.