Paul Newman, Head of IT at the Royal College of Nursing, tells Martin Cooper MBCS, about the processes and the philosophy that underpinned the RCN’s website redesign project.

‘Coming from the rank and file gives me a much better understanding of the customer and that’s really at the heart of everything that I do,’ says Newman, Head of IT with the Royal College of Nursing. ‘We don’t do this for technology. We do this for customers. If what you make isn’t what customers want, then there’s no value in it. And then you’re seen as a cost... you’re seen as burden. That’s really important.’

Today, Newman oversees IT for the RCN - the largest nursing union in the world. It has approximately 440,000 members spread across 17 sites around England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Being Head of IT, he says, boils down to making sure what’s created, procured and rolled-out fits with the organisation’s strategy and that everything delivers value to customers. He doesn’t limit the idea of customers to people who pay for goods and services. Rather, he views anybody who uses or consumes technology that originated under his watch as a customer.

Value not technology first 

Prior to the RCN, Newman worked in IT for S4C, the ambulance service, NHS Direct and in education.

The seeds of his ‘deliver business value’ philosophy can, he says, be traced back to the very earliest days of his IT career.

‘I started out as an IT technician,’ he recalls. ‘I worked on the service desk and progressed my career through fixing printers to fixing servers and networks, to building IT infrastructure. That’s how I got here today.’

Doing that job, he believes, allowed him to see, to understand and to appreciate how technology is used by real people in real business settings. A solution or product might be new and highly specified but, if it doesn’t answer a business problem clearly and effectively, it’s not delivering value. Indeed, it might even be doing just the opposite.

For Newman, delivering value through your work and through your solutions isn’t enough.

Share your knowledge and your successes

‘I instil in my team the idea that you have to show you’re adding value,’ he says. ‘It’s survival. If there’s no value in what you do, then why does the business need you? It sounds blunt... but we work hard at that, particularly within my team.’

There’s a problem, or at least a difficulty, here though. If a piece of technology works as it should, it’s largely invisible and it’s taken for granted. When was the last time you turned a light on in the office and thought: ‘Wow! There’s some clever engineering going on there.’

‘If everything is going right,’ Newman says, ‘people shouldn’t see technology. When it goes wrong it becomes apparent. So, how do you make sure that you maintain visibility to your customers? In maintaining that visibility you’re maintaining that value addition to the organisation.’

For this reason, Newman and his IT team invest a great deal of time and effort into their collective public relations. ‘We send lots of newsletters. We get out there and meet the customer,’ he explains. ‘We did a service desk tour, for example... we took our service desk to every single one of our seventeen sites and physically went and met the customer. And when we were there, we actually ran the service desk from their site. We celebrate SysAdmin Day with vintage computer games and cakes.’ SysAdmin Day is the last Friday in July if you want to do the same.

Breaking down silos 

It’s not all self-promotion though. Teams within the RCN do a lot of cross-department shadowing, all with the aim of breaking down silos and encouraging ideas to flow freely across the business. ‘We’ll invite people to come and work with us for a period of time,’ he says. ‘They come and do one of our jobs. And we do the same... One of my developers went and sat in the communications department. He wanted to understand more about developing content and to understand our campaigns. So, we’ll go and sit in other people’s environments. That gives us a deep understanding of the organisation, our customer base and the environment that we work in.’

This experience was invaluable. Newman says: ‘To actually get out there and live in the customer environment - I think it gave us massive appreciation for what we’re dealing with and it gave the customer a massive appreciation for who we are and what we do. It worked wonders for us. It really connected us with our user base.’

A transformation project

Like many organisations, the RCN has been through a process of transformation - specifically relating to its web platform. Talking about the old website and its associated infrastructure, Newman says: ‘The existing experience was very difficult, very clunky. The information was out of date, it was very difficult to maintain and it was being maintained by multiple sources - not necessarily the correct source.

‘This meant that content on the website was sometimes out of date. And sometimes people were creating and uploading the wrong content - content that was not what the customer wanted or needed. It’s easy, when you’re making content, to think ‘inside out’ - what do we, as a business, need to say? The problem with that approach is, you’ll sometimes create content and user journeys that just don’t align with what your customers need to know or what they want to achieve. The smart organisation thinks ‘outside in’.

Making rich pages right

‘Getting these kinds of details right is incredibly important,’ Newman says. ‘I’ve always said that a website is the window into the organisation. It’s the shop window that we look into.’

Websites can - with enough CSS, WebGL, JavaScript, vector graphics and responsiveness - look amazing. But looking good isn’t enough. There needs to be content and, Newman says, that content needs, above all, to be relevant. The way to make sure that content is relevant is to ensure that it’s user driven - not driven by internal business needs and certainly not steered by all the above fancy technologies

When to involve the customer

When it came to redesigning the RCN website, Newman and his team placed a great deal of emphasis on understanding the user and their needs. For this reason, users were involved in the design project from the get-go.

‘We took a focus group of around about 2,000 members,‘ he says. ‘We asked if they would participate and continue that participation through that digital journey. We used them as focus groups. We developed the website initially as a proof of concept. We launched a preview version of the site and we launched that to those 2,000 members. We were communicating via email continually... issuing them particular scenarios that we wanted them to test.’

At every turn the team did its best to test and communicate with customers - in this case its member users. ‘We did a lot of ‘show and tells’, which I think is really important. When you’re designing something and you’re showing it, you get that immediate feedback. And that was really useful. It helped us to keep refining. So, all the way, we were actually delivering usable products rather than just theoretical stuff.’

Showing and accessing what’s been made on an interactive basis also helps when it comes to managing external suppliers. ‘There’s nothing better, in my opinion, than actually delivering usable products, rather than being vague and saying, “Well, you know, we’re on this kind of transitional journey and we can’t quite show you it yet because it’s not ready.”’

Instead, the RCN team progressed in lockstep with its supplier. ‘We worked in two-weekly cycles and every two weeks we were showing something that was actually really good,’ Newman explains. ‘We could see it, we could refine it, we could design it further.’

The redesign and remake process

Along with assessing and rewriting key pieces of content, the RCN team also looked at the existing content creation process. In all, the organisation had around 200 content managers - people who create and curate content on the site. ‘That’s just completely unmanageable,’ Newman recalls. ‘Now, no content is put onto our website unless it has a justified and signed-off user-story. That’s really important. As a nurse, I may want to find information on diabetes so that I can inform my working day. That’s a user story base and every piece of content has a user story and a justification. And if it doesn’t, it doesn’t go on the website.’

And what’s feedback been like? ‘The biggest thing for us is that the journey is significantly easier,’ Newman says, assessing today’s site. ‘So, for example, the joining process was really clunky and very, very lengthy. We asked for all sorts of information for reasons we didn’t fully understand. We refined that member journey process and saw that some of the stats that came through... [around] 83% of people were now joining online or utilising that join online process, compared to a similar timeframe from the previous year.’