Royal College of Art (RCA) in London was founded in 1837 - then called the Government School of Design - and is widely regarded as the world’s most influential postgraduate institution of art and design. Its approach is somewhat unique in that it aims to bring together a number of disciplines - most notably art, design and technology - in the hope that students will be able to help solve some of the world’s most pressing problems.
Its 2022-2027 strategic plan cites how RCA’s focus is on research and the value of new knowledge to address diverse global challenges; ranging from mobility and urbanism, the circular economy, the climate crisis and de-carbonization, to aging populations and inclusivity.
However, whilst the university is focused on using art and technology to solve the world’s biggest problems, in recent years it has neglected its own technology and processes, leaving staff and students underwhelmed with the experience of interacting with the institution. RCA is currently undergoing the implementation of the ServiceNow platform for more efficient case management, allowing it to make better use of its data and redesign its processes.
diginomica spoke with Jacqui Lipinksi, Chief Information Officer at Royal College of Arts, who spoke about the role the RCA plays in industry and the significance of its approach. She said:
RCA’s goal is to try and solve world problems. And the way you do that is by joining STEM research with art and design together, so you get the human element brought in.
People think it's an art institution that does fine art, but the whole aspect of joining design with technology is inventing things that are really transforming society.
You get those creative minds coming together to come up with how to make a change to the world. People wouldn't normally think about a textile student working with a robotics student, but that's where magic happens, right?
A new strategy
As noted above, RCA is in the midst of a new strategic vision, running through to 2027. Part of this is introducing a new flexible academic model. Previously students would have to sign up to a two year masters programme, costing tens of thousands of pounds each year. Each academic year would involve 36 weeks of work, which is pretty standard for the sector. However, to improve accessibility and access to RCA’s programmes, the university has redesigned its model so that students can study over just one year - doing 45 weeks of work - and pay one year of fees, instead of two. Lipinski said:
That's not shrinking two years into one, it is completely redesigning the programme so that every programme works in 45 weeks. That means you're only paying one year worth of fees. It's to do with accessibility, because there are amazing people around the world and amazing minds that don't have the opportunity.
We also do a lot around scholarship funding as well to help students, because you want people with those creative minds to come, to bring that thinking, to work with our amazing researchers and our amazing academic staff.
This change will also mean that RCA is drastically increasing its student numbers, which has meant that the university has had to reassess how it operates. Lipinski said:
We couldn’t keep operating the way we were operating. So we’ve had to fundamentally change the way we’re running our organization.
Lipinski is the CIO and Director of Digital and Technical Services, which means that she looks after the technology estate and teams, but also all the technical services teams, which are the staff that work in the labs - this could include anyone that’s a glassblower to a robotics engineer. A diverse group of users that needed a holistic experience, which is why RCA wanted to adopt a platform approach - where the UX would be consistent, no matter where the technology was deployed.
Serendipitously, at this time of change RCA was also approached by Bloomberg’s philanthropy digital accelerator programme, which invests in projects that it perceives to have value to making broader change. You can’t approach them, they approach you. And Bloomberg, according to Lipinski, recognizes that art and design institutions need to invest in digital for the future. She said:
They asked us if we’d like to put in a bid. Up until then they’d only really done core CRM, website development stuff, enabling art and design to do more in terms of getting funding. And I thought no, I want a case management system.
And really it’s about service, how do we improve our service to our students? What we were using this email, which is a bit dead really, but still that is the tool that's being used. So when I look at: how does someone in the student services team provide services to the student who's applying or even onboarding? it's via email. And they don't email one person or one team, it goes to everyone in the organization. If I looked at the top 10 shared email boxes, there's 4 million emails in them.
It is completely unstructured data. You've got no analytics, you don't know how many queries you have of what kind of thing. The service that the staff can provide is quite poor, because they don't have the tools or the information. We have great people, really good people, but you're not enabling them to improve the service.
With case management firmly in her sights, Lipinski was clear that she didn’t want a point solution with one tool, but rather a platform that could expand further across the organization with a roadmap over time. She said:
You've got to go on a journey and it's bumpy - without a doubt it is bumpy. We put in the bid and we got the funding from Bloomberg. I can’t disclose the amount, but it was not small. It’s the first time they've invested in this type of solution. It was a new thing for them. It wasn't enough to cover the size of the project, we had to invest as well, so I had to get business case approval from the organization.
I selected ServiceNow. What I wanted to do is make sure I had a platform that we could expand out beyond ITSM - pure case management to go into other areas of the business. I implemented it within five months - that was round one. And the return on investment was within two years, which is phenomenal. I did ITSM and CSM at the same time. And with CSM I put in student services, registry and HR.
These areas have been live since June 2023 and Lipinski said that it is the first time the organization is able to get information, analytics and insights into how services are being used - and that data goes directly to the departments themselves. She added:
They can see it, so you're empowering people providing the service. To me the key is getting self service. So self service for students to go and do stuff themselves. And self service for staff to do stuff themselves.
Next, RCA will be implementing the NOW Platform across all administrations in all of the schools and in finance, which will shortly be followed by estate and facilities management. She added:
If you've got one platform with one user experience, then you're enabling users to transform the organization. I always talk about having skin in the game. I didn't work with implementation partners, I worked directly with ServiceNow. We had a great team from ServiceNow, a great team from RCA, and we delivered it really quickly.
However, despite the successes, Lipinski is honest about the fact that there have been challenges and that the journey has been “bumpy” at times. Part of that is down to moving to a system now that captures all the data and is pulling it out of email, meaning that problems that weren’t clear previously are now being exposed. The key, she adds, is to keep moving forward whilst rectifying those issues in your rear view mirror. Lipinski explained:
You're talking about core data within an organization, so whether that's people data, staff data, student data - what you realize looking at those underlying systems is that the data within those is probably rubbish. So part of when I look at what my strategy is around technology, it is about getting the basics right. Clean up your staff data, clean up student data. Get your infrastructure sorted, make sure your cyber is solid - all the basics you have to do technology. We're still on a journey with those things.
But you don't want to stop where you're going to, so you have to sort of take those things into account as you're transforming. Because that's the future. If you wait to get all that right, you'll never do this. So you have to sort of live with some broken bits. But also, by implementing this, you see the broken bits, you can see where the data is not right, you have visibility, you have information where you can see the volumes, you can see where the services are working, and enable the staff to make improvements. So we are still on that journey, on the adoption journey, and that's really critical.
Equally, RCA is oftentimes, now, thinking about its processes for the first time - in that it is actually designing them so that they are fit for purpose. This can bring challenges too, but Lipinski said that this should feed into a culture of continuous development - but that customizations should be kept to a minimum. She added:
To me, the lessons to learn are around when you're designing new processes for the first time, you've got to reimagine how they can be designed. And that's quite a challenge when you're dealing with an organization that’s done the same thing for so long.
And also standard, standard, standard processes - no customization. Any customization comes to me. Just configure it. You can do so much with configuration. When you design a process, you may not get it right the first time because you're not used to thinking that way as an organization.
So you have to go back and re-educate and relearn and keep evolving and developing. So that continuous learning, continuous evolution is part of the culture change today.