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CDO interview: Julia Aymonier, École Hôtelière de Lausanne

As organisations transform digitally, the roles of those leading these IT projects are changing too, says Julia Aymonier, CDO at Switzerland-based hospitality school École Hôtelière de Lausanne

Until recently, Julia Aymonier was CIO at Switzerland-based hospitality school École Hôtelière de Lausanne (EHL), but with the operational IT running smoothly, the organisation’s CEO asked her to become chief digital officer (CDO).

In fact, EHL made the role of CIO defunct. “The operational part of IT is now taken care of by a shared services operation and there is no longer a CIO,” Aymonier tells Computer Weekly. “I now have a mandate to move forward with digital on all campuses as quickly as possible and integrate digital into the EHL experience, be it admissions, learning or living.”

Although her CIO role included digital transformation and innovation, it was “not enough to make significant headway”, says Aymonier.

In the early 1980s, Aymonier gained a BSc (Hons) in computer science at Glasgow University /University of South Wales and embarked on her first IT role as a software engineer in Hewlett Packard’s (HP) research and development lab, then in Pinewood, Berkshire.

After leaving HP, she spent most of her career working for banks and trading companies, or at least the software companies that supplied them.

It was the financial services sector that took Aymonier to Geneva in 1993 to work for JP Morgan (Suisse) on a new private banking system. She stayed in the finance sector until 2012, when the stress of constantly fearing redundancy amid the global financial crisis drove her to transfer her skills to other sectors.

“When the global financial crisis hit, I got tired of being afraid that my badge wouldn’t let me enter my bank, especially after holidays, and that somebody would arrive with a cardboard box full of my things,” she says.  “So I decided to leave banking and finance at the end of 2012 to do something more socially impactful with what I had learned during my career and I joined Hospice Général in Geneva, which deals with all the social welfare and immigration for Geneva.”

“IT needs a leader with vision, the ability to adapt and change quickly, and the potential to direct the team to adopt new agile methodologies”

Julia Aymonier, EHL

But it was concern about her role with the State of Geneva that, not unlike her concerns in banking following the crisis, that made her change direction again. This time it was a reduction in salary that made her seek pastures new.

“After two years working for the State of Geneva, they decided to remove part of the managers’ salaries called the 14th salary,” says Aymonier. “Coming from the banking world, I had already taken a huge decrease in salary and, with two daughters starting university, this last reduction was too much, so I started looking for another opportunity.”

It is this practical and honest approach to life that then landed Aymonier at EHL, where she is now CDO.

“I was contacted by a headhunter who informed me that a renowned Swiss employer was looking for a CIO,” she says. “They specifically wanted a woman who was frank and honest.”

Despite the job involving a 230km round trip to get to work each day, EHL CEO Michel Rochat convinced Aymonier to take it through “his inspiring vision of an innovative educational system at EHL”, she says.

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Today, the main challenge for Aymonier and her digital team is to create a hub for all the school’s campuses. The main IT systems are in place and the organisation is adding a second Swiss campus in Passugg, eastern Switzerland, and there will be a future campus in Singapore.

Her digital team is 29-strong, including developers, business analysts, project managers, audio-visual technicians, systems engineers, and service desk technicians. The team’s goal is to deliver something new each month.

“The new digital team is focusing on several innovative projects at the moment, with project plans extending to the end of 2020, and that is just the start,” says Aymonier.

Rolling out Amelia

One such project, which will underpin a lot of the school’s digital offerings in the future, is to roll out IPsoft’s cognitive agent, known as Amelia. EHL is putting the artificial intelligence (AI) at the core of its operations to provide students and visitors with a Siri-like interface.

“We are continuing with the Amelia roll-out,” says Aymonier. “Amelia answers questions on the website about the bachelor degree and we are extending it to cover all the other programmes we do. The next big project for the software will depend on the students, as we intend to let them choose the subject when term starts in September.”

But there is much more to come from this new approach to digital transformation. 

For example, EHL is tapping into innovation driven by students. It has partnered with a startup created by its own students, as well as some from St Gallen University, who have created a student app. Aymonier’s team will work with them to add secure sign-on, Amelia, augmented reality, and access to the student management and learning management systems. 

“The idea is to create an app designed by students for students and make them, and all EHL students, benefit from the modern technology we are working on,” says Aymonier. The first version of the app will be available for students in September 2019.

Also planned before the end of this year is the implementation of a platform based on Webex and Cisco Teams linked to EHL’s Moodle learning management system. “This will enable us to provide virtual classrooms and e-portfolios for all students,” says Aymonier. “It will give us the possibility to teach remotely between our campuses.”

Predictive data analysis

The digital team is also currently running a proof of concept of predictive data analysis using machine learning. This will determine whether there is enough data to start predicting when a student may be in difficulty, so that EHL can remediate the situation before the student drops out. “If this is successful, we will start a production project on this subject,” says Aymonier.

EHL runs a virtual reality housekeeping course, and because of its success, is now looking to produce other courses using this technology, as well as considering augmented and mixed reality.

Innovation is central to Aymonier’s role, which is typical of how the job of head of IT is changing everywhere.

“As we move away from in-house solutions to more cloud, SaaS [software as a service] and PaaS [platform as a service] solutions, to digitisation, the need for certain roles in IT will change,” she says. “Because of this, the head of IT can no longer just be concerned with the operational part.”

Digital technology needs IT departments that are aware of the change to the business model as the organisation goes with transformation, she says. “IT must become a leader in using platforms and digital models focusing on user and customer experience, which can create more value for the company and be closer to the business.”

When it comes to selecting the right people to drive this change, Aymonier says: “IT needs a leader with vision, the ability to adapt and change quickly, and the potential to direct the team to adopt new agile methodologies, as well as the communication skills to sell all of this change to the rest of the C-suite.”

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