NDP Blog
Kat Elliott

Digital products, services and transformation for Royal Colleges and Membership Organisations

A few years ago our long heritage working with charities and not-for-profits saw us beginning to work in a slightly different - but related - sector: membership organisations and Royal Colleges.

Since then we’ve developed a solid portfolio of work with these organisations - particularly Royal Colleges. Recently we’ve been looking back on the good things we’ve learned about Royal Colleges and similar organisations, so why not capture those in a blog post? Why not indeed.

Membership audiences are different

They have a captive and a challenging audience for digital - their members. Members are often professional people, motivated by professional standards, and strongly opinionated about the activities of their organisation.

They are a high value audience - lots of organisations and businesses would kill for a similarly engaged bunch - but and this adds demand and pressure for organisations to perform, create value and be transparent.

Member engagement in digital can be a new thing for the College

It follows that in this environment, digital is an important contact point between Royal Colleges and their members. But Colleges can be really bad at talking with members about what they want out of digital. What if members raise issues and problems? What if a minority of members skew the debate? What if we rock the boat?

So the College will make assumptions: “we know our members!”. And with assumptions come digital services that don’t deliver the goods. Royal Colleges need agencies to help them connect with their members in order to design good digital services.

Once we’ve established a rolling scheme of member engagement around digital, we’ve seen organisations refocus their digital planning and transformation programmes to genuinely help their members. Added bonus: in a multi-stakeholder project this can provide a valuable evidence base to inform decision making and shut down red-herring conversations.

Some essential preparation is needed to make this work. UX teams working directly with members need to represent the College fluently and professionally. Good organisation is needed - members are busy people, and they want to see their feedback incorporated. We’ve designed engagement programmes that challenge existing assumptions and mindsets and help Colleges interpret the outputs of member engagement into valuable, practical outcomes.

Project governance matters

Royal Colleges tend to be highly structured organisations and as an agency we understand and work with this. Structured governance can actually be a very positive thing for a project - ensuring that both project-level and senior stakeholder-level input is taken. Properly managed and informed, senior stakeholders can play an essential part in ensuring that digital is working strategically for the College.

We’ve found that a multi-touchpoint governance process works really well.

  • Project teams talk day-to-day through normal stand-ups, project meetings and reporting points.

  • Project boards, with a wider stakeholder group meet monthly, with more senior-level input from the agency.

  • And the most senior stakeholders - often Commercial Directors or CEOs - meet with the agency SMT on an ad-hoc basis, roughly every 6-8 weeks.

Do the senior touchpoints bring up difficult questions sometimes? Yes. Do they introduce new strategic emphasis occasionally? Yes. Do they mean everyone know what’s going on? Yep.  Everyone is invested in the final product and the agency has a deep and knowledgeable relationship with the whole client organisation.

And detail really matters

Allied to the point above is a requirement for excellent practices around the detail of digital delivery: Things like project reporting, data protection practices, test planning and automation, roles and remits.

Royal Colleges are hot on policy. Medical Royal Colleges, for example, may have service agreements with the NHS that require them to demonstrate the highest standards of data protection that extends to their suppliers. They take it seriously.

Working with Royal Colleges as we have been means that we’ve had to continuously improve the detail of the way that we work, hit new standards and better evidence our processes. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this has benefited every part of NDP’s project delivery and development, including the quality management processes that oversee our continuous improvement.

Two speed tech is a thing

Two-speed tech is an acknowledgement that in an enterprise IT context you will have critical business systems which are big, monolithic, expensive, slow-to-change (like your CRM database) and systems which need to be fast and adaptable (like your website). The two need to talk to each other. Historically we’ve seen digital service delivery - for example College website creation - hamstrung or driven by the requirements of the corporate CRM.

There really isn’t any reason why this should be the case. Big CRM isn’t going anywhere, and good digital agencies can create smart, malleable integrations and middleware to manage the connection between the fast and the slow, giving you a speedy and user-centred set of digital services on the front-end, which respect the orderly fashion of the CRM that drives your business intelligence in the back office.

We’ve specialised in this kind of development in recent years and my colleague Simon will expand on the technical side of this in his own blog on Rapid Application Development in the near future.

There is significant opportunity for digital products, services and new revenue streams for customers, not just members

Colleges aren’t immune from everyday commercial pressures. We’re increasingly supporting Colleges and membership organisation clients to identify, create and optimise revenue streams in digital, often looking to generate new value from existing assets. The things that Colleges can offer have a natural suitability for digital delivery: event and exam booking, CPD and training, eLearning, personalised information and resource provision, community discussion.

Some of these things are also desirable products and suitable for monetisation for members or for broader groups of users. As one simple example, the professional content (guidelines, best practices) generated by Colleges can be syndicated into advisory platforms for external organisations to use, with attractive options for commercialisation for the College.

Modern content management systems like Drupal make it easy to control access to this content on a subscription basis at an individual or institutional level and to feed web and native apps and voice technology / home assistant. We are even looking at using College content to drive smart tools and advisory platforms used by complementary organisations (citizens advice, teaching institutes, policy and news organisations) - again, all on a commercial basis.

To summarise...

For us at NDP, Royal Colleges and other membership organisations are an interesting sector with a set of quite specific challenges and expectations for digital. Many are only just beginning on a digital transformation path which leads to real opportunities for both members and their own commercial performance. To deliver on this opportunity, Colleges and other membership organisations should partner with user-centred, progressive agencies and consultants, who also have an understanding of the unique responsibilities of Royal Colleges and similar organisations.