At RMIT University in Melbourne, they think a lot about what today’s students need and how to build an organisation that delivers it.
Continuous, lifelong learning is now a big focus in higher education and that calls for more flexible, online learning options. To meet that need, six years ago RMIT established RMIT Online as a centre of excellence for online learning. Its core mission is to help students access the knowledge and skills that will equip them for the evolving workplace.
But RMIT Online has a second, equally important job: to act as an agile disruptor, constantly evolving not only the way the university engages with its students, but how work is done inside the university itself.
Engaging lifelong learners
For RMIT Online, it’s crucial to be able to develop and deliver courses quickly. And it needs to deliver them in a way that works for its students. They tend to be working professionals (25+ years) and need greater flexibility than RMIT’s student body. They’re often logging on at night, after a full day’s work.
“They are what we call a lifelong learner audience,” says Will Calvert, Director of Technology and Enablement at RMIT Online. “So flexibility is key for them in their learning.”
That means being able to fully engage with the university and other students without having to be on campus, and taking short courses that address specific needs.
“Continuous learning doesn’t mean having to take a huge amount of time off to do a master’s or a large course. There are really flexible ways of learning,” says Calvert.
To allow students to get that flexibility and keep them connected, both to the university and each other, RMIT Online uses Slack.
Slack is part of RMIT Online’s students’ experience right from enrolment, when they’re immediately connected to industry mentors and fellow students. As well as communication about coursework, Slack is used for collaboration and mentoring.
For RMIT Online, it’s a vital way to engage with students who might not have the opportunity to meet up as often as a typical undergraduate group. “It allows individuals to learn easily, create connections, create friends and network, and get peer support at 10 o’clock at night when my team’s tucked up in bed,” says Calvert.
Building a more agile university
While students are central to its mission, RMIT Online is also tasked with helping make the wider university a more agile organisation and challenging traditional ways of working.
“When we talk about agile at RMIT Online, it’s not just within our digital or product tech teams,” Calvert explains. At RMIT Online, finance and HR know their way around a Kanban board too, he says.
“We were set up purposefully by the university to be an agile innovator,” says Calvert, saying RMIT Online does a lot of coaching across the wider organisation on agile transformation and ways of working.
Making ways of working a product
Calvert says when you’re establishing and promoting new ways of working, there’s always a balancing act between allowing the autonomy that lets people be responsive, and setting guardrails to keep everyone heading in the same direction.
The way RMIT Online develops those guardrails, or “norms”, as they call them, is worth noting.
Once every quarter, the RMIT Online team comes into the office to work on how they’re working. They call it a Connection Sprint. “That’s our core time for everyone to come into the office and talk about how they want to work together, inside their teams and across teams,” Calvert says.
“We ladder up those norms, whether it be agile ways of working or when we want to connect socially, or whatever it may be, into a high-level set of norms as well.”
Basically, RMIT Online’s way of working is treated as a product that’s continually developed and released. It’s permanently evolving.
A Digital HQ that enables composable teams and innovation
Experimentation and composable teams are two big themes that run through that development cycle.
One of the major trends in delivering business agility, “composable” business architecture uses fluid teams made up of people from around the organisation to tackle a specific task. They are “a big part of how we operate”, Calvert says.
RMIT Online uses Slack as the Digital HQ that enables these teams to come together.
“We need to be able to spin them up very quickly. To do that, we create a channel inside Slack and allows them to come together with a similar kind of playbook, whether they are members of RMIT Online, whether they are people from the university that have never worked with us before, whether it’s partners like Slack or Salesforce that sometimes need to come together.”
“We're always trying out new ways of working, new enterprise skills, as well as new pieces of technology. And the plumbing that we use to enable that is setting up a channel in Slack.”
RMIT Online also uses Slack for work experimentation too. It’s a core part of its innovation mandate.
“So alongside our day jobs, we need to be continuously curious,” Calvert says. “We’re always trying out new ways of working, new enterprise skills, as well as new pieces of technology. And the plumbing that we use to enable that is setting up a channel in Slack, potentially plugging in that new piece of tech, time-boxing the experiment, and then letting people go for it.”
Fixing our way of working
The way RMIT Online treats its ways of working as a continually-evolving product has lessons for other organisations, says Slack technology evangelist Derek Laney.
For example, too many organisations are getting so caught up in meetings that they’ve got no time for doing actual work. Laney says. That’s forcing people to work in their own time to get things done.
“To improve work in the future, we have to improve work itself,” he says. “We can’t just add nice frills around the outside.”
RMIT Online’s Calvert says the fact that Slack integrates with many of the organisation’s other systems helps give him a broad view of what’s happening in it.
But to make sure he’s not overwhelmed, he’s tuned his Slack notifications to focus only on the most important things. “To be honest, I mute probably 80% of the channels in Slack. And I dive in when I need to,” he says. “With some lightweight tuning of Slack and the effort to integrate platforms and those into it, I get that helicopter view,” he says.
And that in turn, is freeing up space in his diary, he says, with fewer meetings required to stay on top of things. “Slack is the fabric that stitches all those teams together,” Calvert says.