Lockdown diary: Adrian van Eeden, Gordon Institute of Business Science

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Adrian van Eeden, CIO of Gordon Institute of Business Science.
Adrian van Eeden, CIO of Gordon Institute of Business Science.

The Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS), an affiliate of the University of Pretoria, has relied heavily on technology during SA’s extended national lockdown.

Adrian van Eeden, chief information officer at GIBS, says the institution has for the past few years been working on a digital ecosystem strategy which is not limited to a few platforms.

The education institution’s over 7 000 students have been utilising multiple e-learning platforms, including Blackboard Learn and Collaborate, OpenEdX, Microsoft Office 365 tools, Google G Suite, Microsoft Teams and Zoom.

ITWeb: Describe briefly how you have organised your operations during the lockdown.

Van Eeden: Education is still, and will always be a very social and community-based process. Despite all the calls for digitisation, education still mostly happens in groups and our operations align to this.

GIBS has been developing digital education strategies for years, and lockdown accelerated the implementation of emergency responses which called on these plans.

GIBS started scenario planning in January and February, when we saw the virus spilling out of China into areas like Italy. But the speed which it arrived, and that counteractions were implemented, was unprecedented.

IT services, and all related functions such as digital learning and projects, are centralised at GIBS. This had proven to be the right strategy for the time, as it meant I was able to adapt the team dynamic very quickly to cope with the change.

Our digital education team, called Digital Learning Solutions, is a small consultation group, but they have been dragged into the front-line and are now involved in many of the strategic product discussions at the school.

ITWeb: What technical considerations did you have to get right?

Van Eeden: We have had a mobile-first strategy for many years. As many of our faculty are not full-time, bring-your-own-device and the security implications of this have been entrenched for some time.

Our IT department had most of our systems on the cloud by the time the coronavirus arrived, so the hardware required to shift was negligible. We have effectively extended our IT service right into the business, and coordination and collaboration are the order of the day.

In the last month, the game has been Zoom and Teams, with the conversion of day-long classroom education being transformed into online groups.

Data costs have been the most difficult challenge. Despite thenetwork operators offering zero-rated data, getting access to this has been incredibly difficult and we have been very lucky to have the support of the University of Pretoria campus, whose IT team pulled off miracles to get their campus and us into a broader, lower cost solution.

ITWeb: What human resource (HR)-related issues did you have to consider?

Van Eeden: We did an interesting analysis of staff activity using Microsoft Teams data, accepting that not all staff use Teams. What we found was a fascinating view of the diversity of work styles. Some people were very one-on-one, while others did more group work. Some were typing types, and others were visual or vocal. There is no common pattern.

My internal HR experiences have been interesting – I was in the middle of recruiting key positions when the walls came down. Whilst GIBS had to freeze the recruitment of many roles, we considered the technical roles to be pivotal for the crisis, and our human capital team put extra effort into working with us to find the right people.

Remote recruitment and performance management have been a whole new ballgame and the human capital team, their partners, such as psychometric testers, and my team have had to learn on the run.

ITWeb: Which platform and tools have been most helpful? Which have disappointed?

Van Eeden: Video-conferencing tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams have been invaluable. We stuck with Zoom because we figured that a company with a $1 billion market cap was not going to sit by and ignore the security issues, they would be resolved.

Both the Microsoft Office 365 and Google cloud productivity suites have proven amazing for admin and faculty. We have ‘hacked’ so many new ways of teaching and engaging students using platforms like Forms, YouTube, Teams, and even PowerPoint delivery has taken on a completely new format.

For back-office operations, we use enterprise resource planning, but our customer relationship management platform has proven invaluable in terms of managing contacts, and linking it into channel platforms like SMS gateways to cater for people with less access to technology.

ITWeb: How have your students, faculty members and partners adapted to the new normal?

Van Eeden: It has been difficult, and I think some have adapted better than others. What has amazed me is that the people who have adapted are often the ones you least expect, and the ones who vanish into the shadows have been the previously outspoken.

The staff and faculty were understandably stressed. But many people within the business, including my team, have rallied around the fearful.

ITWeb: What have you learned since the lockdown began?

Van Eeden: I have been at GIBS for 10 years now, which is almost half of my career. GIBS ‘pivoted’ their entire business model twice in as many weeks, and although I’m sure our students have felt the bumps along the way, I cannot tell you how many of them have reached out in support and have hung in there.

The biggest challenge, to me, is going to be sustaining this, commercially, emotionally, and in a way which continues to enable our economy.

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