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CIO50 2020 #21 Niranjan Prabhu, Australian Catholic University

  • Name Niranjan Prabhu
  • Title Chief information officer
  • Company Australian Catholic University
  • Commenced role February 2016
  • Reporting Line COO, Deputy Vice Chancellor
  • Member of the Executive Team Yes
  • Technology Function 100 staff, 3 direct reports
  • Students dropping out cost the university sector around $1 billion a year. The reasons for discontinued study are many and varied of course, and until recently there was no real way of predicting when students were about to throw in the towel.

    All that has changed for the Australian Catholic University (ACU).

    Since joining as chief information officer in 2016, Niranjan Prabhu has led a radical digital transformation that raised the bar for universities around Australia. 

    At its core, is an enterprise-wide data lake platform integrated with AI and machine learning (ML) that allows ACU to predict with up to 80 percent accuracy whether a student will ‘attrite’. 

    The Predictive Student Retention Report is the first in the industry to use data lake, AI and machine learning technology to create an early warning system that provides an automated, up-to-date, multi-dimensional view of a student’s wellbeing. Using this, ACU can respond proactively to warning signs that a student may be at risk, rescuing countless student futures and redirecting lost funds. 

    “Using a data lake combined with AI/ML capabilities creates a dynamic platform that can provide tailored information based on faculty or campus as well as student-specific detail,” Prabhu explains.  

    Combining these technologies with natural language processing, Prabhu and the team developed AVA (ACU Virtual Assistant), which puts a face to the technology behind ACU.  

    Currently it acts as ACU’s digital librarian, helping to provide instant, on-demand support to staff, and will soon be able to help students get around campus, uncover opportunities at ACU and answer student queries, any time of day or night. 

    AVA will also be enlisted to better track student engagement, helping academics design better courses. 

    Technology is also being employed to reap big operational efficiencies at ACU, with concerted investments in business process automation (BPA) and robotic process automation (RPA).

    A major drive for adoption of these technologies was funding cuts across the sector. 

    “IT is helping to automate faculty business processes, providing visibility into task status and expected to see over $40,000 in benefits per process,” Prabhu tells CIO Australia

    IT is also assisting ACU to automate repetitive work using unattended bots that free up skilled staff to complete other value-add tasks. 

    Digital Workspace Program 

    What started out as disparate, disconnected projects, it has now been brought together under one uniting program to enable the vision of ‘anywhere, anytime, any device’, the  Digital Workspace Program (DWP). 

    DWP is made up of strategic collaboration and video conferencing tools from Microsoft and other partner technologies, ensuring ACU staff aren’t tethered to their desks, something that is rare in the university sector. In fact, ACU claims it is the first within the university sector to completely untether staff (4000+) from campus and provide a seamless video conference and meeting room experience.  

    “Of course, during COVID-19, when remote work went from an ideal to imperative, the DWP was ready to save the day,” Prabhu says. 

    The next phase will see Teams expanded to actual teaching, engaging with students and encouraging collaboration in their cohort. “Currently in pilot, this program is among the first of its kind and could revolutionise the learning experience,” Prabhu notes. 

    He has received high praise within ACU’s executive team for having transformed how the university views technology and how it interacts with the technology team, having established important ICT governance processes, several steering committees, as well as a Technology Advisory Group with representation across ACU to ensure decisions are made in line with the university’s strategic priorities. 

    In the last four years, IT teams have been the recipients of three Vice-Chancellor Awards (Innovation, Student Experience and Service Excellence categories), which are university-wide recognitions of excellence. 

    “These awards highlight IT’s contribution and importance to the University, and help to underpin the message that IT is much more than a service desk,” Prabhu says. And before he came on board were no such awards bestowed on tech.

    He brings a highly pragmatic, as well as sensitive and compassionate, approach to management, especially of junior team members. 

    Back in 2017, a Campus Support Officer happened to mention to Prabhu she’s in the process of completing a PhD in IT Governance and Cyber Security. 

    He listened with great interest before suggesting whether she might consider making ACU’s-recently ICT governance framework as the basis of her dissertation. Wisely she took Prabhu’s advice. 

    Fast forward a few months, and Prabhu offered the then still ‘campus support officer’ a mentorship with the risk and security manager of a cyber security company supplying services to the university. 

    At the next available opportunity, Prabhu created a new cyber security coordinator role within the Risk and Security team and his recently hired protégé was able to move smoothly into it, jumping two pay grades in the process.

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