Catholic Education Western Australia takes proactive steps to accelerate digital transformation

Ancient brick walled building

Catholic Education Western Australia (CEWA) is utilising Microsoft Unified Support to help deliver its digital transformation program and adopt a more agile way of working in the cloud. As a result, the organisation can better protect its most critical data and proactively head off performance issues before they begin.

Catholic Education Western Australia is the governing body for 163 schools and colleges across the state that are attended by more than 78,000 students. With 12,000 staff members on its books, it is also one of Western Australia’s largest employers.

When CEWA embarked on its digital transformation program in 2017, the organisation needed to ensure it had the right level of technical support in place.

CEWA was moving from an on-premises environment to the cloud, where it could connect and support each school in a central ecosystem. This involved a complete revamp of its technology stack, including the development of a collaboration and identity management suite in Microsoft 365, and a first-of-its-kind administration of schools (AoS) system in Microsoft Dynamics 365 and Microsoft Azure.

“What we could see is that Unified Support was built for Microsoft’s cloud environments. It was built for a more iterative and agile way of working, and was going to support our way of thinking,” says Mike Kovacevic, Chief Technology Officer at CEWA.

“We’ve been absolutely blown away with how relevant Unified Support proactive services are to our strategic objectives. If you invest the time to plan and then consume the proactive component smartly, there is less need for Unified Support’s reactive component, which is world-class, but we always prefer not to have to put out a fire in the first place.

How we’ve ranked and scored against best-practice implementation benchmarks was way past my expectations. I think we’re in the 90th percentile across most parameters, and I can attribute that purely to how we engage with Unified Support.

Thanks to Unified Support’s Customer Success Account Manager (CSAM), Kovacevic says CEWA was “well ahead of curve” by the time it launched projects as part of its digital transformation program.

Rather than passively waiting to be asked for help or recommendations, the CSAM got to know our digital strategy and CEWA’s general strategy. Based on that, they would come prepared with suggestions to all of our workshops and meetings, and they were on the money every time.

Compliant in the cloud

A key focus of CEWA’s digital transformation program is to improve its data protection and classification capabilities. The organisation began its Information Stewardship project using various aspects of Microsoft’s Information Protection and related offerings, including sensitivity labelling, data loss prevention and information barriers. These capabilities work together to help ensure that sensitive data, particularly students’ personal information, cannot be leaked or shared with inappropriate audiences.

“Basically, what we want to do is better protect our data and inform ourselves about the type of information we have as an organisation,” says Lee Swift, Chief Information Security Officer at CEWA.

Swift concedes that CEWA struggled to get the project off the ground in 2019, mainly because it lacked a proper strategy. However, after engaging with a Unified Support customer engineer, the organisation began “working from the top down, rather than in the weeds up”.

“When I sat down to lay everything on the table for Microsoft’s customer engineer, the way they engaged wasn’t, ‘Here’s a problem and here’s a solution’. It was, ‘Great. I can see what you’re trying to do. Let’s work together and strategise’.

That approach has enabled us to successfully roll it out now, and we couldn’t have done it without them.

CEWA’s information stewardship project was initially piloted across 10 schools, and Swift says the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

“What we have found is there is a group of people in schools – the admin staff, usually – that kind of do this unofficially already. The feedback from them was, ‘We want more of it. Can we go deeper?’,” he explains.

“After working with the customer engineer, we worked out how to separate those people within a school, and how to make a sub-group to apply different targets to. We’re up to the point now where we have four different types that each school can roll out.”

CEWA plans to roll out the information stewardship project to all remaining schools in 2022.

Proactive support provides performance boost

Another major project within CEWA’s digital transformation was its world-first AoS platform. Built using Microsoft Dynamics 365, the platform is designed to bring each school’s core administrative capabilities together into a single, user-friendly ecosystem that is constantly maintained.

Having completed the roll-out of the AoS platform to primary schools in mid-2020, CEWA then engaged Microsoft’s Designated Support Engineering (DSE) team to help migrate the larger, more complicated senior schools.

Yiwen Li, who was the project’s Technical Lead, says the secondary schools tend to have more students and caregivers than primary schools, which means they potentially require more functionality from the platform.

“They also have other features and integrations that are much more complicated than in primary schools,” Li explains. “And on the finance side, the secondary school chart of accounts is much more complicated than the primary school chart of accounts.

“In the end, more data makes it more complicated, which can cause problems for the platform’s performance. So that’s the main reason why we engaged Microsoft DSE – to resolve performance issues when we had that massive growth in data when we rolled out the AoS platform to secondary schools.”

Microsoft’s designated engineer was able to review custom code for CEWA’s Dynamics 365 Finance and Operations solution to see how well it conforms to recommended best practices. The engineer could also identify and alleviate bottlenecks causing poor performance, and ready the system for future increases in users.

One of the issues we faced during the roll-out to secondary schools was a slowdown in the system’s response time. After engaging Microsoft DSE, the system is now 30 per cent faster.

Alongside proactive assessments, Microsoft DSE conducted training sessions to improve the ability of CEWA to proactively monitor and troubleshoot the AoS platform. Further, a designated engineer from Microsoft Global Support monitored all reactive cases raised by CEWA to ensure fast and efficient responses to incidents.

CEWA finished rolling out the AoS platform to secondary schools in December 2021.

Preparing for organisational change

CEWA is also trying to reduce the administrative burden for schools in its community, and enable all students and staff to collaborate safely and securely in a single consolidated cloud system.

The organisation commenced its Azure for School program in 2021. It aims to provide all 163 schools with a solid cloud infrastructure and to deliver an Azure onboarding process that is repeatable, scalable and easy to manage. Through this centralised cloud infrastructure model, CEWA also aims to provide a consistent level of security, compliance, reliability and availability across all schools.

To deliver these outcomes, CEWA needs to optimise its existing Azure infrastructure for the additional school systems, and ensure that the program orchestration leverages Microsoft’s Cloud Adoption Framework best practices.

Dale Naughton, Senior Project Manager of CEWA’s Core Technology Transformation Program, says the team at Microsoft Unified Support have been instrumental in helping the organisation achieve these objectives.

“They’re helping us rationalise our support model,” he says. “They’re providing guidance and stopgaps to ensure that, for the organisational change that we’re going to face, we’ve got processes in place and a framework that’s embedded in the cloud migration journey.

“And with so much going on across different projects, they’ve kept me accountable for not losing momentum on this roll-out. We’re continuing to plan for change and getting our ducks in a row.”

According to Naughton, Microsoft’s designated engineer has helped CEWA better understand the people who are using its cloud platform so that the organisation can manage each person’s journey to a cloud-first future accordingly.

“Having them hold our hands and guide us along the organisational change aspects has definitely been a huge factor in our success,” he says.

This level of support is enabling us to really get the controls in place and build those bridges that we need to, early on. We’re doing it the right way, and it’s predominantly thanks to Microsoft.