Business Management

Inside NZQA's digital transformation: Getting culture right, challenging the norm

Digital transformation is a buzzword of the moment, declares Lukasz Zawilski, chief information officer at New Zealand's Qualifications Authority.

“Everyone seems to be doing it, from every government agency, to the corner dairy. They are in various stages of  transformation.”

Most people’s definition of the term, though, is slightly different, says Zawilski, who spoke at a recent CIO and Computerworld forum in Wellington on NZQA’s experiences in this space and how they might be relevant to other organisations.

NZQA is the government agency that administers the National Certificates of Educational Achievement (NCEAs) for secondary school students and is responsible for the quality assurance of non-university tertiary training providers.

He says one way to describe digital transformation is “positive organisation change”.

At the heart of it, he says, is delivering better new products and services.

It is about supporting those products and services in a safe and secure but courageous manner, he says.

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For NZQA, this involves systems modernisation and taking all those pieces and make them fit for purpose for the digital era, he states.

These changes, however, require another area of change for the organisation - culture.

“We are building a fit for future culture.”

As he puts it, the past four years “has been an incredible journey of culture change” as the organisations transforms itself for the digital era.

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Great expectations

Zawilski further reveals a business driver for the change.

The consumer expectations of the Facebook generation forced us to think of adopting more of that startup mindset and the culture of being able to respond rapidly and being able to deliver it, he explains.

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“There was no way we could move to a future delivery model and then tell kids that we will fix the next release in six weeks.”

He describes the context of the change programme that involves working with organisations in the education sector. According to Zawilski, the education sector is large and full of stakeholders.

“It is a sector that would be fair to say is quite complex.”

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He then describes key components of the change. The goal is to “put the learner at the centre of everything we do,” he says.

A major catalyst for digital transformation in education is the move to become more learner centred and more personalised.

“The learner does not want to deal with disparate agencies and organisations,” like dealing with the Ministry of Social Development for funding their learning, then dealing with the education provider for enrolling, and NZQA for their certification.

“They would like a joined up experience,” says Zawilski. “That is turning the structure of the sector on its head. It is transforming the sector, and that is what is creating the opportunity for us to become more joined up.”

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One of our goals is to deliver the NZQA examination online and available for delivery by 2020, says Zawilski.

He says they have 160,000 people sitting those examinations in three and a half weeks.

At no point in time, are we allowed to undermine the quality of the assessment system, he adds. “My job is in trouble if it doesn’t work.”

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Zawilski explains NZQA is shifting away from paper-based to digital exam delivery.

The work entails working collaboratively across sectors and with partners. “We have to embrace different ways of working.”

He further expounds that the IS team at NZQA has been progressively integrating agile (culture) thinking into both operational and project activities across the organisation. They are also embedding agile methodology and framework across NZQA.

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“We are moving away from the traditional walled garden where we do everything ourselves,” he states.

Three years ago, he shares, NZQA started to migrate away from the pure in-house delivery model to incorporating partners into the delivery of their projects.

This means selecting and managing partners and vendors and shifting the focus from development to integrating.

“Partnering for delivery is a new set of skills and capabilities we have to bring,” he says.

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“It has really changed our culture and made us think very differently about how we deliver services and what are the skills needed, he discloses.

“One of our major objectives and it still remains, is to ensure our skilled and experienced people will work on things that are of the highest value to the business, while the commodity type services will just work.”

Zawilski states that, “These are things that take time. We had to support people in terms of skills and capabilities and help them understand the role of what the future is going to be. When we say we will move towards the cloud, the staff will think, ‘I am going to lose my job’.

He further says, “We tackle that head on, and we talk freely and frankly about the change ahead.

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“And then, we let them realise this is not about anyone’s role or position, but augmenting the capability to deliver on the business strategy and move forward.”

He shares that some of their vendors are not based in New Zealand, and the education assessment space is quite specific. 

“All of these things we have to figure out. We have to support our people and how to help them find their place in this partner-enabled world.”

In the development area, he says they moved a lot of the work from cutting codes to actually managing and integration products and services with others.

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“In a lot of ways, this is lifting the horizon of our teams, so our infrastructure teams have stopped worrying about whirly fans and lights and switches, and more about service delivery.

“It forces us to step our game up in a couple of levels.”

Zawilski says part of their transformation programme is moving towards cloud technologies.

Their work with cloud technologies such as AWS and Office 365 allowed the teams to shift their focus to high value activities and get away from low value BAU (business as usual) stuff that uses a large chunk of IT time, he states.

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Their ongoing quest is this: “How do we join up cross organisations and move beyond traditional organisational roles and responsibilities?”

He explains that talent management is important, because these changes can not be possible without understanding where the organisation stands in digital capabilities and capacities, and the ability to deliver.

Inside the twilight zone

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A major portion of his presentation highlights the role of culture in successful business transformation programmes.

“The hypothesis is that technologists are good at change, right? We’ve changed hardware and firmware for a living, we’ve upgraded software – although that last one didn’t always go as planned,” he says, smiling.

“But when it comes to changing how we think and behave, things quickly deteriorate into the unknown,” he states.

For most people it feels like they have just been dropped inside the twilight zone; and yet everyone keeps saying that digital transformation is hinged on culture and people change, so how do we make sense of it all?”

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Zawilski says early on, his team NZQA realised that they had to change their culture; that is, the way they think, behave and operate.

“Whether you like it or not, you have a de facto culture,” he states. “It is good to recognise that it may not be the culture you want, but it is the culture you have.”

The reason that’s important is that evaluating and understanding your current culture is a good place to start on your transformation journey, he states.

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“Culture is something that shared by everyone in your team – both directly and indirectly,”  he explains further.

“Everyone has a role to play in defining and living the culture, regardless of their position on or off the organisational chart.

“For us, that was a crucial point – no one but ourselves could change our culture to be more like what we wanted it to be.”

This, he says, why they involved everyone in defining and shaping the culture they needed for the changes ahead.

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“Ensuring that whatever you do is inclusive and people have a chance to participate is essential,” he says, on pointers for other organisations.

“We wanted to take the ‘temperature of the team’ early on to ensure we understood what was working well and what could be improved on.”

He says the team organised town hall sessions, created a suggestion box mechanism, and a series of ‘Ask Me Anything/Talk About Anything sessions’.

“From that we compiled an action plan of things we wanted to work on and actively reported on the progress we were making against that plan on a regular basis. 

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“Things to work on ranged from process changes to our physical environment. One weekend we had a group of people come in and set up plants in our workspace to make it more welcoming and pleasant to work in.”

He says they followed this up by hosting a series of workshops on values and behaviours, on how they wanted to conduct themselves and expected others to conduct themselves.

One weekend we had a group of people come in and set up plants in our workspace to make it more welcoming and pleasant to work in

“We set up a ‘gallery’ space where we could put up post-it notes, ideas, clippings and comments – everyone was welcome to come through the space and make their contribution. We went through several iteration cycles related to values and behaviours,” he says.

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What worked well in their case was the diversity of the team.

“When we started on this culture journey more than two years ago, we knew that having a range of experiences and perspectives was going to be crucial to our success, says Zawilski.

“We focused a lot on making sure that everyone had a voice and was included in our culture conversations and that we included inputs from other organisations and parties we worked with in the mix. We didn’t set ourselves any specific targets other than we all knew that we wanted diversity in the mix to shape our culture.”

The discussions brought about ideas and new approaches they can take, he says.

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He adds  the old adage of ‘you get what you measure’ applies to culture.

“We wanted to have some way to assess and celebrate our progress.”

He says from the outset, they measure feedback from both internal and external customers.

One step they took is to understand what works and what can be improved on. They created different mechanisms such as workshops for people to participate in this dialogue.

From a customer perspective, this meant implementing survey tools and a Net Promoter Score measurement tool.

“For our teams this involved doing a maturity assessment of our capabilities across a range of dimensions that make up our team. We recently re-ran the maturity assessment and have seen a marked improvement in almost all areas over the past 18 months. The measurements also allows us to target specific areas that might require additional focus or that we feel warrant spending extra time on. These measures were coupled with other measure such as our organisational staff engagement survey to give us a total picture of the state of play.”

'We don't roll back'

A focus for the NZQA, he says, is to create a shared ownership of the organisational culture.

“Everyone has a role to play in defining and living the culture, regardless of the organisational chart.”

“We realised unless you have been part of it (the organisational change) and been through the journey, it wasn’t something easily conveyed.”

They compiled all of their experiences and ideas in A Little Book of Culture.

“We use the book to communicate who we are,” he says. “It was a long and fascinating journey, so we captured it and continued to build on it.”  ‘It is yours to pilfer, plagiarise, and do all sorts of wonderful things with it,’ says Lukasz Zawilski

They give a copy of the book to people who make it to the shortlist of their recruitment process, to vendors who approach them for an RFP, to other NZQA staff, and even those outside the organisation.

“We use it to communicate who we are and what we’re about, and to keep ourselves ‘honest’,” he states. “We use it with partners and vendors to build the right kinds of partnership.”

The Culture Book succinctly explains the focus and drivers of his team:

“We work in a sector of increasing — and accelerating — change so we need to be more agile in how we work. The traditional — industrial age based — mindset and toolkit will no longer cut it. We often talk about being agile with a little ‘a’ and agile with a capital ‘A’ — one being about culture and the other being about processes. We need to adopt both.

We also use every opportunity to learn and improve — whenever things don’t go as planned we conduct retrospectives & reviews to better understand what we can improve or do better next time around. It’s part of our safe culture and drive for continuous improvement & learning.”

“We have done all the hard work for you,” he declares, smiling.

He has released the book under Creative Commons, so it is available for free online.

“It is yours to pilfer, plagiarise, and do all sorts of wonderful things with it,” he says.  

Zawilski adds that their digital transformation journey is ongoing.

“We are still very much on this incredible journey,” he states.

“We don’t roll back, we always roll forward.”

At the CIO and Computerworld ‘digital now and digital savvy’ forum in Welllington: Lukasz Zawilski of NZQA, Wayne Loke of Stats NZ, Vince Warnock of Cigna and Raj Sabhlok of Zoho.

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