#La Trobe

Peter Powell on leading digital innovation amidst COVID-19

Peter Powell, Chief Information Officer (CIO) at La Trobe University on creating a university of the future amidst COVID-19

Peter Powell
La Trobe University

Chief Information Officer (CIO) at La Trobe University

Peter Powell, Chief Information Officer (CIO) at La Trobe University joined the team over two years ago bringing with him 18 years’ experience in the healthcare sector. During his time at Bupa, Powell watched the business grow from having no presence in Oceania to its ANZ group accounting for almost half of the global company’s revenue. “That helped me see how a business could scale and flourish in quite a challenging environment.” Powell says.

With La Trobe setting its sights on major growth in the next few years, his prior experience at Bupa has been invaluable. Its Melbourne campus occupies 267 hectares, making it the largest metropolitan campus in Australia, however according to Powell, only 20% of the land is built on. “Our long-term view is creating a University City of the Future,” Powell explains. The La Trobe is in the top 1% of universities globally, with a mission statement to advance “knowledge and learning to shape the future of our students and communities.” To develop its University City of the Future, the university is growing its physical and digital infrastructures to support the needs of contemporary students and create more than 20,000 jobs over the next decade. “We want to build a number of precincts that would bring together students, partners, start-up’s, the community, and research capabilities. As we build it out, we want to create an environment that is interconnected, secure and sustainable.” Powell explains. “That’s the business ambition. What we’re working on now is figuring out what that means for our digital environment.”

An important aspect in La Trobe’s growth, scalability is core to the strategy. “Building a city on our campus is about balancing between building physical infrastructure and investing in digital infrastructure.” Powell says “to get both we have to effectively manage the resources we have. There are a lot of parallel activities going on. We use partners to help us predict what’s coming over the horizon,” explains Powell. “With the rate of change of technology these days, you can only predict so far in advance, but as we build out the physical infrastructure, we need to place a few bets on the technology that enables innovation.”

The necessity for digital transformation at the University has been further emphasised by the impact of COVID-19. After initial considerations relating to accommodating students that could not travel, made complicated by social distancing rules, La Trobe made a decision early to move to online teaching, with only essential staff remaining on campus. “A significant technology challenge to deliver in one week,” states Powell. “Under normal circumstances, we have 25,000 students taught face-to-face and around 5,000 staff attending one of the Universities' five campuses every day. It never ceases to surprise me how well individuals and teams really come together when you have a fixed timeline.” Five days after the announcement, all students were receiving tuition online, with only 100 essential staff left on campus. However, “VPN could only handle 500 concurrent users, so a new solution was built and tested in four days with existing equipment. Microsoft Teams was rolled out for collaboration, over 2,000 staff were trained virtually and a brand-new virtual desktop solution was implemented for Campus Lab capabilities. Finally, hardware was deployed and services were developed, enabling 5,000 staff to work from home. This was, and still is, transformation at a pace which has created new capabilities for go-to market strategies.”

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Building a city on our campus is about balancing between building physical infrastructure and investing in digital infrastructure.

Peter Powell | La Trobe University

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