Dean Forbes


Professor Dean Forbes

Deputy Vice-Chancellor (International & Communities)

Flinders University

Copland Leadership Program

Committee for the Economic Development of Australia (CEDA)

Flinders University Victoria Square

10 November 2011

I was invited to talk about how I have made use of digital technology in leadership roles. Geoff Anderson [convenor of the Copland Leadership Program] was aware of my enthusiastic, albeit neophyte, interest in digital and social media. He thought my story may interest you.

Both the management and academic sides of my job require me to be highly mobile. I frequently travel interstate and overseas. Mobility underpins my approach to leadership and my decision to incorporate a range of digital technologies into my work. The current references to mobile technologies remind me that frequent travellers by necessity adapt quickly to new technology.

It should be obvious that I am not a digital technology denialist. Nor, though, am I a first adopter. You won’t ever see me in the queue outside an Apple shop waiting for the release of the latest iPhone or iPad. I am a cautious early adopter.

My first computer was a Commodore 64, which I bought in the 1980s. I taught myself to program using BASIC, and wrote simple game programs for my children, cutting and pasting and adding new code. They used the programs, but it was always more important to me than it was to them. They thought it was a cunningly disguised technology-enhanced child-minding, which was true to a point. None of them showed an interest in a career in IT.


What do I do that makes what I say relevant to the Copland Leadership Program? I am part of a senior manager team at Flinders University. My portfolio responsibilities include international students, and international programs and collaborations. The international revenue of Flinders in 2011 is about $38 million.

In addition I have responsibility for the University’s community engagement program. This includes the Southern Knowledge Transfer Partnerships office, Flinders University’s Victoria Square campus, the platform for engaging the community through public events, and the Flinders Art Museum and Flinders City Gallery on North Terrace.

Leadership roles in external organisations also figure. I Chair the Board of Community for Global Communication Inc, I am on the Education Adelaide Board and Chair its Audit and Finance Committee, and I’m the past Chair of both the Universities Australia and IRU group of universities International Committees.

Of my senior management portfolios, digital technology has had the most striking impact on international students and education. To put it in perspective Flinders has just under 4,000 international students out of a total student population of about 21,000. I have made it a priority to keep up with it. I instinctively knew digital technology was going to be important for what we did. And I felt I had some history, both in terms of personal leadership principles, and experience with digital technology, to build on.

Over the last five or six years universities have been coming to terms with the fact that growing numbers of students are digital natives. For a university with our profile, the most effective way of improving marketing and student recruitment was to focus on digital technologies.

The digital centre-piece is the University website. It is currently in the process of a makeover, enabling a more active engagement by prospective students. We are also replacing the sophisticated, but muted, café latte colour scheme with a confronting bright gold. It resonates with bold. Web surfers are advised to wear sunglasses.

The International Office led the push into digital marketing. It started with very polished online prospectuses which were prepared by a London company, i-student. Flinders prospectuses were the first of their kind in Australia, and were used by i-student in their promotions across the globe.

We followed up with Enquiries Management Technology, which is part of a Customer Relations Management system. Next was the move into social media, particularly Facebook and Twitter (but not Second Life). Mobile technologies were embraced with the introduction of an iPhone app in 2010 and an iPad app in 2011, and now an android app. We were shortlisted for the 2011 Telstra Mobile Awards.

Flinders has also commenced accepting online student applications, through a partnership with SATAC. Many Australian universities have this in place already: we have been quite slow.

Critical to our success has been the champions in the International Office. Kate Silkstone provided the technical knowledge and sense of what was possible. The Director of the office, Virginia Pattingale, was willing to nurture and support Kate’s technical abilities.

Not all initiatives worked. University staff often has strong opinions on issues that they like to share in sometimes lengthy emails to the Vice-Chancellor. However, setting up wiki and blog sites to draw input into international education strategies and policies received a poor response.

In retrospect, I have been working my way through three inter-related leadership responsibilities.

First, I made a point of making the increased use of digital technology a university priority from 2008-2010.

Second, I scheduled regular focus and motivational meetings with the managers of the university systems and the International Office people. There were two purposes: to talk through why this was so important; and to help staff overcome tensions and build relationships.

Ensuring there is good collaboration between the major centres that control digital technologies remains a key challenge. From my point of view, the major components are the central student system and the university website.

Third, I felt I needed to keep pace with digital technology trends internationally. This meant attending conference sessions, surfing the web, and talking to people who seemed to know what was happening globally. I also experimented, and I will talk about that later. Keeping up with new technology remains one of our most significant challenges.

A footnote. I was also very aware of the importance of Education Adelaide and its Study Adelaide activities making greater use of digital technology in its destination and place marketing. The result was a significantly expanded on-line presence for Education Adelaide from around 2008/9. This fitted neatly with changes at Flinders at the time, and with the on-line activities of the other two South Australian universities.


In addition to my DVC IC role I have leadership responsibilities as a senior academic in the University. Not all University senior managers take this role seriously, but I do.

There is a substantial overlap between the two threads of my work. A large proportion of our international students and international collaborations centre on the main cities across Asia. My academic work runs parallel, having always focused on the social and economic dimensions of cities along the Pacific seaboard of Asia. I started my career in Papua New Guinea, with my interests moving on to Indonesia, Vietnam and, since the late 1990s, China.

As a young academic I travelled Southeast Asia with a typewriter and a transistor radio so I could listen to Radio Australia and the BBC World Service.  When mobile battery driven typewriters became available I shifted over. Then laptops and mobile phones became the thing.

I acquired my first laptop when I started at Flinders in 1992. It was a huge advance on the portable electronic typewriter that was my travelling companion. It had a 6x1.5 cm screen that displayed a maximum of two or three words at a time. My first laptop (a Toshiba) accompanied me on every journey from 1992 onwards. The first book I wrote on the Toshiba was Asian Metropolis, which came out in 1996. Much of it was written in low-budget hotels in Jakarta and other parts of Indonesia.

I took an active role in the introduction of online teaching and learning in the late 1990s. At the time Flinders was trying to write its own on-line teaching software. I submitted my core notes to be loaded into the software being developed at the beginning of 1997, but by the end of year nothing had happened.

In parallel, Flinders was one of the two universities that led the establishment of an International Network of Universities (the INU). One of the ambitious aims of the fledgling INU was to share a handful of university subjects across the network. A staff member of William and Mary College gave a demonstration of the on-line software they were using, and Flinders immediately dropped its plans and adopted the software (Blackboard, from memory, though we opted for WebCT) that William and Mary was using. The lesson I learned: always check out what is happening in overseas hotspots before committing to the development of new technology.

I was one of the first group of academics to build a site in WebCT for my major teaching subject. I experimented with new styles of presentation and teaching, and ultimately re-cast my whole approach to education, replacing lectures and tutorials with interactive seminars and web fora.

It freed me to travel abroad occasionally during teaching weeks. I created a home video of my seminars for the week, and guided students through any issues that needed discussion through WebCT.

Since 2008 I have made increasing use of digital technologies, including social media, to enhance my academic and management responsibilities and bring them together around three themes: cities, knowledge economies and universities. The key instruments are:

•    A website to publish all my papers and commentary

•    A Twitter account focused on professional issues

•    A Hootsuite account to feed tweets through to a Facebook Page and a Linked-in page

I have also tried to streamline and integrate my hardware and software by using Apple products. I know the risks of being integrated in this way but I will deal with any future problems when they arise.

I have found it very useful to be able to communicate between my desktop, laptop, iPad and iPhone almost seamlessly. Dropbox is useful for ensuring I always have access to documents.

My iPad has a particular importance. It enables me to carry with me university agendas and papers, and my current professional library. Flinders hesitated to adopt the iPad on first release, but made a move following the introduction of iPad2.

I am not a rock star. My audience is relatively small. I have a professional network of over 100 ‘followers’ (and growing steadily) on Twitter, about 130 on Linked-in, and 40-60 hits per month on the website.

But this complex of activities enables me to keep up with what is happening in North America and Europe in international education, the development of global knowledge economies, and urban development. It gives me the opportunity to raise the profile of Flinders University with people who are shaping opinions, and to make my views known to my peers and to key journalists across Australia, the UK and the US.


There are four.

First, leaders need to understand the digital technology that is available and how it impacts on their areas of expertise. I still come across people who are in denial. Flowing on from this, leaders need to be able to imagine what impact digital technology may have in the future, and how to be tuned in sufficiently to recognize when the future has arrived.

Second, it is an imperative to be able work productively with the people who have good skills in digital technology and social media, and adapt management styles to maximize the use of these skills and ensure they are directed towards achieving major goals.

The third lesson is to come to terms with, and manage, the way in which digital technology changes the structure of you and your co-workers working day, and how you need to prepare for that.  I have been fortunate: the impact on work style is less than in many professions, because it has always been an irregular kind of activity brought about by high levels of mobility.

The final challenge is perhaps the most difficult of all. Bringing the organization you work for along on the ride. That means some substantial shifts in the internal culture of the organization. Not all leaders want to take the risks associated with adopting particular aspects of digital technology and social media. It is clear that organisations across the spectrum from media giants to booksellers to IT firms themselves have stumbled when confronted with decisions about which new technology to adopt.


Geoffrey More Anderson passed away on the 15th of October 2011, just five days after Chairing the final session in the 2011 Copland Program. He is greatly missed by all who knew him. I know the Flinders University community was shocked and saddened by the loss of a highly regarded colleague.