Uplifting Digital Capabilities of Senior Leaders at the University of Auckland
How do we meet the learning experience expectations of university students born after the millennium? It's possible when you empower leaders who champion digital transformation.
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Case Study Summary

Waipapa Taumata Rau University of Auckland embarked on a three-year journey to uplift the digital capabilities & mindset of over 300 leaders across their academic and professional workforce. Delivered in partnership with Rapid Circle, the University of Auckland’s Digital Capability and Culture program guided leaders across the 140-year-old institution to leap ahead in the way they teach and work by embracing more digital practices.

With over 40,000 students and 7,000 staff at the University, the program had the potential to be transformational. The key to success was the stewardship of the Chief People Officer the Chief Digital Officer, and their teams. The secret? Their joint belief is that digital transformation is more than just deploying modern technology.

The result? Digitally aware leaders using technology to amplify the impact of their teams on the development of the next generation of university educated kiwis.

The University of Auckland’s Digital Capability and Culture program has been recognised both on a local, and global stage:

  • The New Zealand HR Awards recognising The University of Auckland for building strong Learning and Development capability in the digital space.
  • Microsoft’s Worldwide Partner awards recognising Rapid Circle for its role in empowering the University of Auckland to deliver a more digitally minded Employee Experience.
  • Let’s delve into the challenges faced, the positive outcomes achieved, and the outlook for academia in the digital era.

Challenges Faced

The Education sector is at a critical juncture. The challenge of the competitive environment between universities for research income, for the best students, and to attract high calibre staff is further worsened by constrained government funding and increasing student expectations. The disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic only added fuel to this fire.

The University of Auckland recognised the pressing need to embrace new teaching methodologies and innovative ways of working to meet the demands of a rapidly evolving educational landscape. However, varying levels of digital competence among senior leaders became a significant challenge, impeding effective collaboration within teams and hindering the realisation of Taumata Teitei – the University’s Vision for 2030, and Strategic Plan for 2025. When interpreted from te reo Māori: “pursuing excellence, despite uncertainty”.

Overcoming this hurdle required a concerted effort to boost leaders’ confidence and capabilities in leveraging technology for impactful remote engagement and seamless teamwork.

“The University understands that the changing aspirations of our students, stakeholders, alumni and communities require digital capabilities that promote opportunities to engage with the University using multiple different channels.”

Andrew Phipps, Director Human Resources

“For us, it is about new modes of teaching, new pedagogies, and new ways of working.

This required us to really think about the digital capabilities required to be able to deliver on that.”

Renetta Alexander, Practice Lead Strategic Capabilities

“Additionally, the disruptive nature of technology in research and teaching was a key consideration. The university sought to rapidly adapt, only to be met with the unforeseen arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. This unprecedented global crisis further accelerated the demand for remote connectivity and heightened the importance of addressing digital challenges proactively.
“What has hampered this in the past has been the plethora of platforms in use and the wide variation in digital literacy across the academic and professional staff body.”

Professor John Hosking, Dean of Science

In this context, the Digital Capability and Culture program was set up to support the University’s desire to enable people and culture and to develop a future ready workforce.

The program had three key focuses:

  1. Measure digital skills and capability gaps, and design effective learning experiences to address them
  2. Foster a climate of individual digital fluency
  3. Prepare staff for the future of work

Specifically, the University looked to increase confident and competent use of digital technologies, developing future-ready capability across digital facilitation, collaboration, information management, creativity, critical analysis, and adaptive thinking.

The University approached Rapid Circle for guidance and expertise in delivering key components of the program. Rapid Circle’s experience in the higher education sector, and specifically engaging with executives and leaders in university environments was appreciated, as well as Rapid Circle’s contemporary approach to thinking about digital capability uplift.

The program itself was designed to be multi-layered, approaching the challenge of digital literacy and fluency from multiple angles, and based on evidence from both the academic literature, and practical experience of universities and other organisations trying to build strong digital leadership capability. The diverse approaches were experienced by participants in groups as their cohort progressed through the different activities.

The Method:

  • Early reflective practice using the JISC Digital Capability Discovery Tool, and the University of Auckland Digital Leader Profile, developed as part of the Digital Capabilities and Culture program, helped individuals to understand their existing strengths and opportunities for improvement across key digital leadership qualities.
  • Digital Foundations workshops provided participants with the key baseline knowledge of common communication and collaboration tools across the University – including Microsoft Teams, SharePoint, and OneDrive – improving their confidence in day-to-day work and in higher pressure meeting or collaborative scenarios.
  • The Applied Digital Leadership workshops help participants amplify their already strong leadership skills by embracing more digital mindsets for decision making, , and engagement.
  • Group coaching sessions guided participants towards shared understanding of solutions to key issues faced by many when engaging in cross disciplinary collaboration – for example facilitating hybrid meetings, information management practices, building strong online stakeholder communities, and designing great collaborative spaces in Microsoft Teams (using Rapid Circle’s 10Ps of Microsoft Teams Design framework)
  • 1:1 coaching to help overcome specific challenges or roadblocks faced by leaders as they embrace more digital ways of working, and to guide reflection on their practice.

Positive Outcomes and Impact on Academics:

Through this transformative project, the University achieved outcomes that positively impacted academics and the institution. By aligning the digital capability uplift initiative with its strategic goals, the University gained traction towards their Taumata Teitei vision. This strategic focus enabled successful partnerships with key stakeholders in traditionally non-digital roles, fostering collaboration between the executive team and leaders across the organisation.

“The uplift in digital capabilities had a profound impact on leaders within the university. They developed a deeper understanding of the importance of digital literacy and its direct influence on their roles and performance.
“We can see that the utilisation of the productivity suite of tools had an accelerated uplift through the initial change program, with a continuing trend upwards. We are also seeing growing utilisation across other domains of the University which also strongly indicates the growth in digital capability.”

Jason Mangan, Chief Digital Officer

Furthermore, the project instilled a culture of continuous learning among participants, empowering them to adapt swiftly to evolving technologies and changing priorities.

Future Outlook:

Looking ahead, the university envisions a future where digital capability and digital leadership are deeply embedded in its DNA. Recognising the diverse nature of the institution and its role in society, the University of Auckland understands that digital expression will vary across disciplines, departments, and areas of expertise. This is balanced with the challenges of digital access and equity that many students and staff grapple with outside of the traditional campus environment.

The University of Auckland stays committed to continuous improvement, anticipating the ever-evolving digital landscape. As technologies advance and new digital challenges arise, the university aims to stay ahead of the curve, ensuring it delivers innovative education and groundbreaking research that prepares students and faculty for success in a digitally driven world.

For other Universities or large organisations looking to develop their digital leadership capability, Renetta Alexander (Practice Lead Strategic Capabilities) provides this advice:
“Situate everything inside your strategic objectives. I think having a clear vision for how your digital capability program supports those objectives is critically important. That helps to inform. Using this, as you engage your leadership teams, gives the compelling reason you need to be intentional about this work. Then it’s about giving them space and the right support to be able to boost their own confidence as digitally minded leaders.”


This case study exemplifies the transformative power of uplifting digital capabilities within the higher education landscape. By addressing challenges head-on, the University of Auckland successfully empowered leaders across the professional and academic workforces to thrive in the digital era.

With a clear vision, strategic alignment, and a commitment to continuous improvement, the institution is poised to lead the way in shaping the future of education through technology-empowered innovation. By uplifting digital capabilities, the university not only enhances the academic experience but also prepares students and faculty to navigate the digital landscape with confidence, adaptability, and a profound understanding of the potential that technology holds for their continued success.

“I’m sold on this approach and would encourage others to emulate it.”

Professor John Hosking, Dean of Science

“What I really liked about working with Rapid Circle was that this needed to be a design we could flex along the way as the University understood the challenge more deeply. This was done effectively and allowed us to bring compassion and understanding to our work.”

Renetta Alexander, Practice Lead Strategic Capabilities

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