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TRANSCRIPT: Tales4Teaching ep. 82 – The human side of tech: a conversation with Peter Auhl

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Welcome to Tales4Teaching, a podcast where we explore stories with purpose for higher education. We’ll share expert insights, engaging interviews, and thought-provoking discussions that will inspire your teaching. On behalf of Deakin University I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the unceded lands and waterways on which you are located. I acknowledge the Wadawurrong people of the Kulin Nation as the Traditional Owners on which this podcast was recorded, and I pay my respects to Elders past, present and future.

Joan: My name is Joan Sutherland and this is Tales4Teaching, brought to you by Deakin Learning Futures. Hello and welcome to Tales4Teaching. Today I’m here with Peter Auhl, our new CIDO here at Deakin, who joined us recently. Hello, Peter. And welcome.

Peter: Hi, Joan. How are you? Lovely to see you today.

Joan: Yeah, it’s great to do this in person, so thank you.

Peter: It’s amazing. After Covid, so many things online. It’s nice to actually see someone in person.

Joan: We have talking about that, haven’t we? We have.

Peter: Yeah for sure.

Joan: I’m really excited to be here today, to get to know you more and share your journey and your story, to actually come here to Deakin today. So, um, can you just to get us started. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background and what brought you here?

Peter: I’m a country boy. I was born in the south east of South Australia, really close to the Victorian border. So I feel a little bit Victorian, so that’s okay. So I was brought up on a on a property just out of border town between Bordertown and Naracoorte, and spent a fair bit of my life there, and I think it taught me a lot. And it’s some of the lessons that I learnt growing up in that environment I’ve sort of taken through my career. Moved to Adelaide when I was in my early teens, started studying I.T. before it was really mainstream. I guess I’m feeling a bit old saying that. And then sort of moved into, um, a technology role when I started with the Stanford chain of hotels. So I was there for a period of time and it was back in the days where there were still mainframes around and things like that. So, um, it makes me feel very, very different. Very different to today’s day and age. But really, at the heart of everything I’ve done as far as working in technology is concerned, as I’ve always been very passionate about serving people. So really working and coming from that, that customer service backgrounds, really focusing in on how we can use technology to enable people has been at the heart of what I’m really passionate about. So I’ve loved working. A lot of my career has been splattered in reform projects and technology change projects, and how we actually apply our technology to enable the business to, to be better. A lot of that has been in state and local government. I’ve led reforms around TAFE SA across South Australia. So I’ve actually worked in the education sector before, 90,000 odd students and quite complex, uh, complex environment. I don’t think I could ever work for, um, an organisation that didn’t have an altruistic view. You know, what they’re trying to achieve. And I think that’s, you know, back to your question. You know, that’s sort of what led me to Deakin. Having a look at my career and what I wanted to do next after, you know, after a bit of a sabbatical through Covid and where I was consulting and, you know, looking through the history of Deakin and its, its connections to regional rural areas, it’s passion to be, you know, fantastic, experience for students and to actually grow and evolve students job prospects and outcomes in their education. It just really aligns really well with my values. So yeah, I’m so proud to be here. It’s it’s a big move. You know moving states. Absolutely. And it’s a big decision to make. But um, I feel very much at home here. Yeah.

Joan: Oh that’s really lovely to hear. You mentioned at the beginning of what you were saying was you learnt a lot of lessons when you’re younger, bringing to your role today. Can you expand on that a little bit more?

Peter: One of the terms that I, that I talk about often and I’ve talked about for for the last sort of 20 or so years in technology is um, it’s simple but powerful. All right. So keeping things simple, you know, I think our Vice-Chancellor’s got a similar saying. It’s really important to actually think about what is it that we’re trying to do and how do we simplify that for the customer. And I think that is coming from, you know, being brought up in that sort of environment where you don’t have everything at your fingertips. Yes. You don’t have a Bunnings next door. You know, I had to catch a bus to school when I was living on a farm between Bordertown and Naracoorte. And I took a over an hour to get to school, you know, just to get to school was a journey. So you need to be adaptable. You need to be nimble. You need to be agile, and you need to think outside of the box. You know, I so I think those are the sorts of lessons I think I’ve applied that sort of came from my childhood, um, you know, into my career and creating that level of agility, you know, creating that level of nimbleness, really, you know, looking outside of the box to solve problems. And I think that’s at the heart of it as well. It’s pointless doing things in our industry if it’s not actually resolving problems. And I think, um, that’s at the heart of a lot of the projects that I’ve done. It’s really a problem solved, not just technology for the sake of it.

Joan: And that’s digital transformation, isn’t it? It’s always solving a problem that’s arisen. And we saw that a lot pre-COVID going into Covid and the digital transformation that happened there. And now we’re in another digital transformation in society and within higher education again aren’t we?

Peter: Absolutely. And I think obviously technology is omnipresent now as well. And people are far more familiar with the benefits of technology, even though there are risks around technology, particularly when you think of things like, you know, cyber resilience and cyber security. And it’s it is a real challenge for organisations and for human beings to actually navigate this environment right now. So I think whilst it’s come with a lot of benefits around connecting people together it comes with a suite of societal risks as well. I think around how do we make sure we still develop those communities that are really at the heart of why we love living in this country, and why we love participating in society? So I think, you know, technology is not the answer to everything. It’s it’s a fantastic way to solve problems sometimes. But I’ve often seen in my career a technologist jumping straight to a solution before they’re actually really identifying what it is they’re trying to do, you know? So I think that exploration process, that curiosity, you know, developing that culture of being curious is really important part of the evolution of technology. Don’t jump straight to the outcome. Give people permission to have a bit of a go. Yes. Let’s see what we can learn from that. How do we you know, if we’re going to fail, how do we fail quickly and cheaply, or how do we nuance and change to ensure that we’re actually getting the best outcome possible?

Joan: And that can be really challenging in today’s day and age when there’s shiny objects on the horizon and everyone wants to be the first one to get that shiny object and show that they’re at the forefront of technology.

Peter: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s fantastic. I think that shows Joan, the the sort of adoption that’s occurred over this period of time. People are very familiar with interacting with technology, whether it’s through their smartphone or through their tablet or their home computer or through their television. There’s all these things that are hyperconnected now. It’s really complex. But, you know, again, we sometimes we jump straight to the shiny thing without really understanding what it is we’re trying to resolve. Often people ask me, where do I buy, you know, when’s the best time to buy a computer? Or, you know, what’s the cheapest computer to buy? I said for your needs, you probably need the one that was from last year. You know you’re not going to use it to its full potential. So, it’s probably not the best sales job for the vendors, but, um, it’s the truth. Sometimes the shiny things are not the answer.

Joan: Absolutely. So touching on a couple of things you mentioned earlier, you mentioned some challenges that we have. What do you think are the most significant challenges facing technology in higher education specifically?

Peter: Yeah, I think there are a number of challenges, and it comes back to those principles I was talking about before. So what can we do to make the experience from a student perspective as simple as possible? So how do we get back to making sure whatever we do, the students are at the heart of that, or our customer base is at the heart of that, whoever that is. And I’m including staff in that as well. You know, so making sure everything that we do is as simple as possible. So I really think that’s, that’s the essence of where technology needs to move now. I think through this technology evolution and revolution over the last period of time we’ve sometimes lost sight of simplicity and I think that’s something that we could really hone in on now as organisations. And that’s not to say not to being innovative, but it’s about purposeful innovation. So innovation that actually resolves issues, no shooting stars, making sure that we’re actually going through a good process to understand what we’re trying to achieve, and putting the customer at the heart of that. I think that’s what it’s going to be really important. So it’s not necessarily a technology story, but it’s more an enablement story.

Joan: I love staff as well. We often talk about students, and students are at the heart of what we do, but staff are as well in keeping that simple for staff. It’s really integral in relation to technology as well.

Peter: Absolutely. And look at customer base. You know, as we’ve got students, we’ve got our researchers, we’ve got academics, we’ve got staff. They all interact in different ways. But at the heart of that, you know, that’s our customer base in my eyes. And back to my, you know, my roots in customer service, in hospitality. You know, that’s the stuff that really makes me get up in the morning and go, well, how can I make a difference, you know, how can technology make a difference for that and ironically, I’m a staff member as well. So, you know, I’m a consumer of my own service, you know, so whatever I can do to make my life simple. So I take that lens to things. I’d like to look through a lens of empathy, you know, so a lens of what would the other person feel? Or, you know, what would they want? What would be a fantastic outcome? And I look through that through my own lens as well and go, what would I need? You know, how do I make my life simpler so I can actually invest more of my time doing the things that are going to be the most important thing for the university? Yeah.

Joan: Now you’ve had a lot of extensive experience leading transformations, which you’ve talked about today. There’s so many rapid technological advancements. And obviously with generative AI at the moment. You’ve talked a lot about also that human connection and that lens of empathy. How do you actually balance the need for that tech advancement, but also fostering that inclusive and adaptable organisation lens and leadership?

Peter: I think that’s a fantastic question, Joan, and I think that is at the heart of a really good process as well. When I talk about coming from a position of empathy, it’s not sitting back in my office thinking about things. It’s actually going out and talking to people. And I think we lose sight of the importance of that. So, you know, when I was at the City of Adelaide and I led major programs across the city of Adelaide, you would see me walking the streets, speaking to businesses, going to community centres, speaking to the elderly who I was told ‘don’t use technology’. So I asked them, you know. So I went and asked them. I said, I’ve heard that you guys don’t use technology. Is that true? And I said, come on Pete, look at this. But what they were using was an iPad, not a laptop. So it helps me think about, well, how can I actually make sure that the things that we do are going to cater for those different cohorts of people? We set up a room once. So I remember this quite distinctly when we were doing our smart city activities. I pay people like, you know, a $50 Myers voucher or something like that to come and participate for a few hours. And I interviewed them and we had a couple of people that were here on vacation, so they were from a different country that didn’t speak English very well. I had someone there that was in a wheelchair, so I could sort of take that position of empathy from what their needs would be. I had a couple of business owners, I had a couple of people that was a transient sort of coming in for work each day and things like that. So a broad group of people, some students, etc., from the local universities, I interviewed them for few hours and talk through. Here are some of the things we’re thinking about. What would that mean for you? So that was a really good approach. But also I was a regular on the Access and Inclusion panel, so really making sure I’m really focussed and honed in on diversity, making sure that we’re catering for all. So this wasn’t about a one shot solution. This was about how do we make sure that we nuance that solution to capture as many people as possible? So that that that’s the way that I’ve dealt with that. Certainly not sitting here reading papers from the internet, going out, speaking to people and I think that’s often lost in our industry, which is a real shame, because people are really clever and they actually are embracing technology, and they’re using it really well, and they’ve got great ideas. Some of the best ideas I’ve ever had have come from the most unusual places.

Joan: And unexpected, I would imagine.

Peter: Unexpected and and not just the most unusual places, also from people that are at the beginning of their careers as well. So people that have not got the lens of the organisation yet. So, you know, fresh eyes, green, eager and wanting to make a difference and, you know, making sure you’re listening to everyone, proper listening, you know, making sure that you’re actually taking that on board and really thinking through it.

Joan: I love how you just said that about listening and acknowledging what people are saying, hearing it and leveraging that as well and going from that point.

Peter: It’s such an important input into strategy. Like, I definitely see myself as a strategic thinker. Yeah, but the application of strategy is really honed in to solving problems and focusing on customers. And I think if you get those three things right, you know you’re on a winner.

Joan: Now, what’s coming through overwhelmingly for me is that you’re a people person. Get out to see the people, to hear the people. So is there anything else that you would say that would describe your leadership style?

Peter: I think I’m a pretty authentic person. So what you see is what you get. I’m very driven. You know, I do want to make a difference. The drive comes from a very altruistic place. I love participating in our community as an Australian. I love, you know, the gift of living in this country. You know, I just want to make a difference. So, I think my leadership style really is about focusing in on what’s the best things that we can do to actually resolve problems. How do I put my best foot forward to make sure that as a leader, I’m showing the way. So establishing really clear vision. What does good look like? What does over the horizon look like, and then how do we take people along for that journey so they can understand, again, from a position of empathy, how do we resolve problems as we’re going through that? So it’s a really interesting question I get often asked about leading in in this field. And it is challenging because it’s ever changing, as you mentioned, Joan, like it’s changing all the time. You need to be current. You need to be across things. So you’re ever learning, you know, your ever changing. And um, you know, you need to really make sure that you focus in on what that good looks like at the end of the tunnel.

Joan: So how do you keep abreast of technology changes and what you need in order to bring people along for that journey, or do you need to?

Peter: Look absolutely. But I think it’s not all about me. You know, I’m the leader. I’m making sure you build a culture where people it’s okay to explore. I see my role very much about, you know, developing people to actually be leaders against the vision that we create, you know, making sure that they, you know, over time, understands, you know, where the organisation’s trying to head. So from a strategic level, the organisation has got aspirations. You know, the university needs to go here over a period of time. And then how can I, in my role as the leader of the technology function in this university, actually, you know, work into that? I do keep abreast of a lot of things as well, obviously very active you know, I’m always trying to get across things. It moves so fast Joan and right now it’s just going crazy with AI and other, you know, technology. So it’s really, really difficult to keep abreast of everything. But again, that sort of leadership style asking questions, getting people’s advice, making sure that people are within their discipline areas being the best they possibly can, allowing them to be curious, you know, make mistakes. All of those things are really critical in learning and you can’t do it all yourself. As a leader, you need to make sure that you create that culture.

Joan: Yeah, and you can’t do it all yourself. So I’m glad you mentioned that. But what I’m hearing is that you lean into people and then empower them to give the information and lead in that spice which contributes to your vision as well.

Peter: 100%. I’ve often used the term, um, you know, have you ever been ten-pin balling and, you know, if if the vision is that sort of pin at the front and, you know, I think my role as a leader is to be the bumper bags on the side of the if you want that, if you want, if you want them and they don’t. So it doesn’t really matter, you know, how do you get the ball down the, down the lane, so long as it hits the pin in the centre of the end? And you know, it’s my job to actually just tap, tap that ball back onto the lane if it’s getting too far off track. So establishing that vision is really, really important but giving people the opportunity to actually succeed themselves. I believe most people want to go home and go, well, I smashed it out of the park today. I did a really good job and I feel really proud of myself. So, you know, that’s at the heart of really good leadership as well I think.

Joan: So looking ahead, which we’ve talked about and the technological advancements I suppose, how do you see the role of technology evolving in higher education? You mentioned AI, but how is that going to change over time? What’s that vision look like?

Peter: Oh look, I think one thing that we can be certain of is it’s always going to change. Okay. So I think it’s about us being adaptable, you know, so rather than us being prescriptive about what’s coming, how do we create that level of agility across our enterprise, across systems, that level of simplicity Joan, that’s a really important part of that. Getting back to the basics and getting simplicity at the heart of what we’re doing so that we can be agile over time is going to be critically important for higher education. We’ve got these really disruptive things like artificial intelligence, for example. Everyone’s still trying to get their hands around exactly what it means in every industry, not just higher education, but from my perspective, it’s that agility for organisations to be able to pivot quickly and respond to customer needs. And that will create a competitive advantage for organisations that look at that in that light, I think.

Joan: Got a massive challenge ahead, but an exciting one.

Peter: I am so excited. You know, I’m, um. I’m a bit of a I’m a bit of a high energy sort of person. I’m quite a passionate person, but it all comes from a really good place. I am just a country boy. You know, my mum passed away when I was quite young. I was only 12, and she was only 37 or 38. I think she was and I’ve said this before on podcasts, but she wanted me to be a wool classer. She thought that would be the pinnacle of my career. And I hope that she’s looking down now, and she’s very proud. But it is ironic that I’ve landed here today at Waterfront Campus in Geelong. It was the old wool stores in Geelong. So someone mentioned to that to me the other day. So the irony of that’s not lost on me either. So maybe I’ve found my home.

Joan: Isn’t that a beautiful segue? Way to my final question for you is I’ve heard a lot about connection. You’ve brought people in and that really shines through. And thank you for sharing that, insight about yourself. That’s a really beautiful thing to say. Um, can you share one final fun fact about yourself that you’d like to share with your audience?

Peter: Yeah, sure. One thing that is something a little bit unusual, that I did in my career is, at a point in time, I just sort of needed a break. And it was in my early 20s that I had a friend who was opal mining. And, he said, why don’t you come up and do some opal mining for, it was about six weeks, you know, come up and do some labouring while they were fixing their tunnelling machine. And I said, why wouldn’t I do that? Like, it seems like such an interesting idea. And I went up as quite a young boy and quite skinny, and I’m not so skinny anymore. And I did some opal mining, and it was supposed to be six weeks, and I think I was there for about 12 months, so I lived undergrounds, we made explosives every morning and we mined at 76ft underground in Cooper Pedy. So my, my commute to work every morning was climbing down a ladder 76ft on the ground, or sitting on this little hoist on the back of a Utes with a piece of timber and some cabling getting lowered down 76ft underground, but I didn’t know anything different, and I would never, ever regret that time. Yeah, and now I say some of those shows like Opal Hunters on the TV and I know some of the people.

Joan: Really. Yeah.

Peter: So it’s it’s ironic. Again it’s sort of reach you back to the basics. All right. So I was making sure that, you know, doing things like that is, is absolutely fascinating and I was so privileged to do something, you know, so unusual. And it’s still sits with me today.

Joan: Well, I think what you’ve highlighted there is it’s all about the journey and it’s about the learning journey, a transformation journey and what you’ve highlighted, what I asked at the beginning was to share insights and a journey, and you’ve shown a lot. You’ve told us a lot about yourself, your insights, your leadership and your journey to get here today. So on that, I would love to thank you for really contributing to this conversation. And as a last thing, is there anything lasting that you would like to say to our audience?

Peter: Yeah, look, Joan thank you so much for this opportunity. Just have a chat to you today. It’s been fantastic. I guess the last thing I’d like to say is, you know, I’ve only been here for a short period of time at the moment, but you will see me out and about speaking to students, you know, speaking to our customer base, you know, about what their needs. So I’m looking forward to that part of the journey as well. So thank you again for today.

Joan: No, you’re more than welcome and thank you for sharing your insights. Really appreciate it.

Peter: You’re welcome Joan.

Joan: Thank you.

3 June 2024

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