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Microsoft Azure modernises Victoria University’s systems - others come looking

By Contributor
Wed 13 Jul 2022

For 125 years, Victoria University of Wellington (VUW) has been a leader in high-quality research and advanced education, ranking in the top 2% of the world's 18,000 universities.

But delivering a seamless experience to staff and students is just as key – and not easy when the university's digital interfaces weren't all on the same page. After more than a century of evolving technology, from fountain pen to touch-screen tablet, VUW needed to bring its staff directory platform into the modern era. 

Its legacy IT system was not up to the mark. It was ageing and made up of single-purpose platforms that did not speak to each other, holding personal student data, academic records, student timetables and everything else in separate siloes, so VUW had no single view of its information.

An inability to connect new and legacy systems and a lack of internal knowledge or integration resources limited VUW's ability to transform and integrate with modern cloud and SaaS platforms that could improve experiences across the board. The university had a huge backlog of projects it simply wasn't able to deliver with its existing technology.

In a highly competitive international education (and recruitment) environment, this risked VUW falling behind others with newer, slicker systems that provided seamless services and experiences. It couldn't be allowed to continue. Victoria University needed the right platform and partner to transform its services while delivering equally outstanding education.

That's where Microsoft's partners Adaptiv and Fusion5 came in.

The journey to find the right solution

A key first step to creating the student portal was integrating all the data from VUW's existing databases. Integration specialist Adaptiv held a series of information workshops called adaptiv.educate to help VUW's teams understand what integration is and how it works on the Microsoft platform and uncover the best options. The team at Adaptiv then used these workshops to draw insights into the university's needs to develop a roadmap for implementation.

Adaptiv principal architect Nikolai Blackie says the workshop process is crucial to how the company develops solutions.

"The workshops provide an opportunity to bring the key people together and really hone in on what we're looking to achieve, and develop a comprehensive blueprint for success," he says.

Everyone from VUW's project team came along to get an in-depth vision of the different platforms under consideration. In the end, it was Microsoft Azure that came out on top in terms of capabilities, cost and functionality. VUW project manager Micky Heath says the adaptiv.educate workshop not only took everyone through Microsoft's roadmap and future plans, but also deep-dived into the technical aspects of the Azure solution.

"It was a good balance of everything we needed to know. By the end of the day, we were confident that Azure was going to do the job we needed," he says.

Next came the adaptiv.assess workshop, where Adaptiv took VUW through a co-design process that established the university's digital maturity, who would be responsible for project governance, what the overall integration strategy would be and how the solution would be designed. The next stage of the process was to deliver a proof of concept to validate VUW's technology decision and project approach with an on-site workshop.

"Adaptiv listened closely to our requirements over the four-day adaptiv.verify workshop," says Heath. 

"They quickly got a range of components up and running, showing us that Azure Integration would successfully work for us, and perform to our expectations."

The final phase of Adaptiv's five-step process – adaptiv.deliver – meant working closely alongside VUW's teams to create an integrated platform through Azure's AIS technology. While it sounds complex, the solution was quite simple. Adaptiv developed a staff directory app that could be accessed via the VUW website, pulling data from five separate sources into one centralised space under Azure.

Mapping the road to success

The next step was making all that data easily accessible through a single CRM platform.

Fusion5 country manager Kristy Brown says it was important for the university to find local partners with proven experience in the New Zealand tertiary education sector, to ensure they had a real understanding of what was needed.

That's exactly what Fusion5 provided. It has honed education excellence through previous work with tertiary educators up and down the country. The Fusion5 team worked alongside VUW to update its CRM strategy and create a five-year roadmap for future success, identifying the key streams of work that would help the university achieve its goals.

"We really approached things with a strategic lens, identifying which things would be the most relevant and impactful to the university's needs, then working to deliver quick success," says Brown.

Fusion5 also recommended Microsoft's Power Platform, enabling the university's IT teams to make their own innovations without relying on third parties.

Advanced collaboration studies

But Kristy says what really blew her away wasn't the technical elements – it was the depth of collaboration on the project. 

As part of the original blueprint, the partners recommended consulting students on what features they wanted most to ensure the system was truly designed to meet their needs. VUW listened – interviewing around 500 students!

"I think that's a really good lesson to others who are looking to go on this journey, that you should never just assume you know what your staff and students want. This showed me what a close relationship with its students means for a university," says Brown.

Students wanted answers to common questions and a searchable list of services such as accommodation, or access to payment tools in one central place. Once existing data and student feedback were brought together, everything was then integrated into a central Azure SQL database in the Dynamics 365 platform. Dynamics specialists Fusion5 created a customised Power Apps Portal to enable staff and students to access and use it in the ways they'd asked for, overseen by Microsoft's own FastTrack team.

Through past experience, Fusion5 knew that having a Microsoft enterprise agreement would open up enormous benefits for VUW, enabling its teams to leverage the whole Microsoft suite and access expert support from Microsoft itself. VUW's Microsoft enterprise agreement came to the fore during the design of the new platform, with the FastTrack experts providing quality assurance for Fusion5's designs that ensured they were truly futureproofed.

Adaptiv then helped automate VUW's ERP finance functions, from managing exchange rates to receipting, scholarship payments and setting up new suppliers, to reduce manual admin and data entry errors and free up staff for more strategic tasks. Alongside this, Adaptiv worked to train up VUW's in-house IT team to manage the new system independently, with minimal external support.

Finally, Fusion5 trialled the new Dynamics 365 portal – named Pūaha, or 'mouth of the river' – with four pilot releases of around 500 students each to identify any issues before the mainstream go-live in May, ensuring a smooth deployment.

UX with Honours

The result is a landmark digital transformation.

VUW is now the first university in New Zealand with a centralised "single pane of glass" platform for staff and students. It now has the technology to deliver on its 125-year mission to offer the best educational experiences – and digital ones as well, providing faster and easier ways to connect and collaborate with colleagues around work or pastoral care and enabling students to see exam results all in one place. More than 11,000 students interacted with the portal in its first month to prove its robustness.

VUW associate director of applications Andrew Matthew says the work was a true and successful collaboration between the university, Adaptiv and Fusion5. 

"The integration elements pulled together the rich functionality delivered by Fusion5 using Microsoft Dynamics 365, Microsoft Power Platform and Azure. This has ensured that the university has delivered a truly transformational experience to both the students and staff at Te Herenga Waka, Victoria University of Wellington," he says.

Some of the features the new platform includes are the ability for students to see their class schedules, apply for accommodation, apply for study support and scholarships or withdraw from courses in one place. At the same time, VUW staff can now easily access all the relevant documents and records from one database. It's also paved the way for replacing legacy HR systems with modern platforms integrated with the rest of the organisation. That wasn't possible pre-Azure.

"Not only has the adoption of Azure enabled us to digitise manual processes, realise efficiencies and cost benefits, and bring on board a raft of new and improved applications with little to no fuss, it's really given us an edge over those other universities still hamstrung by aging tech," says Heath.

But the most important sign of success is the user experience, which staff say has improved ten-fold. Both academic and administrative staff are much more positive about using the university's simplified systems.

"I get comments every day about how our integration to the cloud and centralised app have completely transformed the mindset of our staff about using technology, which is testament to the success of this project," says Heath.

"We even have graduates joining us at Fusion5 who see this platform and their jaws drop. They're quite sad they didn't have this while they were studying!" adds Brown.

It's also empowered the VUW team to take the ball and run with it, developing new applications independently thanks to their Microsoft licence and access to the Power Platform. This has allowed VUW to optimise its use of resources and reduce costs, all while improving its systems. 

And it's not just the university who's benefiting.

Postgrad studies in excellence

Adaptiv general manager Phil Cullen says the beauty of this solution is it's repeatable and can be used by others in the education sector.

"It demonstrates integrated systems can be affordable and approachable, and that they provide a backbone for digital transformation across your entire organisation," he says.

The next step for Fusion5 is an enrolments and admissions function, allowing students to browse courses, enrol online and connect to internal systems on the same platform. By making it much easier for students to engage with the university, it's hoped there will be increased local and overseas enrolments and fewer students withdrawing from courses - a huge mark of success for any educational institution. 

Marketing functions are also in the pipeline.

The blueprint Fusion5 and Adaptiv created for VUW has already sparked enquiries from several other educational institutes, such as the University of Waikato and the University of Canterbury, to explore how they too can enhance user experiences with an integrated D365 system.

Microsoft NZ partner director Matt Bostwick says scalability and flexibility are key factors that encourage people to choose Azure, and he is thrilled the work by Fusion5 and Adaptiv has already attracted other educational institutes to follow suit.

"Employers around Aotearoa are crying out for the next generation of skilled people with the right skills and thinking to drive excellence in the future, and this kind of innovation that engages students better with learning and training and attracts more talent to our country is absolutely vital to our success," he says.

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