Case study

ABRSM: Transforming a 130+ year-old organisation into a 21st century operation

Woman listening to music


How a world-renowned music charity and education organisation digitised its decades-old processes.


Client: ABRSM
Our Role: Supporting ABRSM to transform its processes and create exceptional digital experiences for customers, through implementing the right technology.
Industry: Education
Powered by: Microsoft Dynamics 365



For over 130 years, ABRSM has been focused on one thing: inspiring the next generation of musicians.

The London-based music examination board is one of a handful of organisations that can issue awards and diplomas to musicians as they develop their capabilities. It provides examinations for approximately 600,000 people per year from all over the world.

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Helping ABRSM see beyond change

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With a proud heritage, the world of music examinations has changed little over the years which means ABRSM had been conducting its examinations in the same way for decades – on paper and in person. Examiners had to fly around the globe carrying a suitcase full of notes, musical scores, exam mark forms and curriculum documents to every destination. The examination schedules themselves were either done by hand or on spreadsheets.

All of this manual work was time-intensive, expensive to undertake and could be subject to human error. “It was a hugely complex manual process that involved a lot of people, and a lot of things, to work out.” says Dominic Knight, a director with PwC.

In 2018, ABRSM decided that it was time to transform its processes. Its customers were demanding more digital experiences, its online-focused competition was eating into its market share and it wanted to become a more efficient, productive and customer-focused organisation.

The goal was to put the customer at the heart of everything, truly understanding what their audience wanted – and their people needed – to deliver sustained success and long-term growth.

ABRSM ultimately implemented Microsoft Dynamics 365 Customer Engagement and iOS apps to streamline the customer and examiner experience. The result? Online tests, happier clients and increased revenues. Most importantly, its digitisation has put ABRSM in a position for decades of more success.

The challenge: modernising a centuries-old organisation

ABRSM had to digitise – and fast. In a world transformed by digital innovation, musicians, teachers and learners were asking for a better user experience. They wanted more digital options with ABRSM; and wanted faster test results. Its exam entries were declining by 2.5% on average every year over five years in the UK; and twice that rate internationally. Its closest UK competitor had rolled out a digital self-service offer to more than 40 exam centres. The volume of exams in two key international markets, China and India, was growing rapidly, which meant servicing these markets in the old paper-based way was becoming increasingly difficult.

While it was clear that the organisation needed to become more digital, transforming a centuries-old institution is easier said than done. Its staff, while having a wealth of experience in music and assessment, didn’t have experience of digital transformation, and weren’t familiar with agile ways of working; while its executive board were concerned about such a significant change. There were some operational challenges too: ABRSM operates in more than 93 territories, has 700 freelance examiners all based in the UK and has about 500 product offerings. It’s not easy to roll out a one-size-fits-all solution in those conditions.

The approach: change cultures through digital offerings

The company enlisted PwC to help oversee its modernisation. It needed someone to not just install new digital capabilities, but also rethink its business. To be successful, it had to come up with new ways to administer exams, issue marks, handle its growing global workload and more. ABRSM also wanted to reaffirm its status as a global leader in music education and improve internal productivity and process efficiency, all of which could only be done through a larger business transformation.

The first step was for PwC and ABRSM’s executives and key stakeholders to meet, to better understand the business and its needs. It identified four strategic themes that the organisation needed to tackle during its transformation. That included enhancing its competitive advantage by offering a more digital exam experience, developing more innovative music products and services, reducing costs by increasing organisational efficiency and becoming a more forward-thinking operation.

At the same time, it wanted to stay connected to its roots. “Vocation is in their heart, not in their heads,” says Knight. “Many of them were scared that if they digitised they would lose their identity as an organisation. We had to make them more diverse, but also show them that they were still an arts-based organisation. It was about building capability and confidence.”

PwC and ABRSM decided to use Microsoft Dynamics 365 Customer Engagement, in part because they were already using a number of Microsoft products. The customer relationship management application, hosted on Microsoft Azure Cloud, could house all of a client’s data in one place, rather than on various spreadsheets and papers, making it much easier for ABRSM to keep track of bookings and exams.

ABRSM leveraged Microsoft Dynamics to create a digital booking platform. Customers could easily choose when and where they wanted to take an exam, while examiners could use an iOS app for faster and more efficient marking. “PwC supported us in establishing and leveraging a new CRM, giving us an unprecedented opportunity to have a single view of our customer base,” says Chris Cobb, ABRSM’s chief executive. “With the ability to capture data on our candidates, applicants, examiners and reps in one place, we can now create more targeted communications and engage with all our key stakeholders more easily.”

As part of the business change process, PwC brought ABRSM’s examiners together and spent three days teaching them about the new software, explaining the reasons behind the transformation, sharing knowledge around how the way they worked had to change and more. They also held global events – in North America, Asia and Europe – to train ABRSM’s non-UK teams.

As the implementation date moved closer, PwC engaged “super users” to sit with people across the business and teach them how to better use the platform and evolve their business processes. “They became the trainers,” says Knight. “We trained them to train their parts of the business on how to use the product – there was a whole learning environment to support this.”

The impact: an organisation built for the future

ABRSM’s transformation couldn’t have come at a better time. Just six weeks after launch, COVID-19 forced the company to essentially close down. Even with its new digital solution, it didn’t have the tools in place to conduct remote exams, which meant it couldn’t generate revenue. Fortunately, working with the team at ABRSM, PwC was able to enhance their systems to allow for video examinations – a phase which launched in September 2020. “Thanks to the underlying work that had been done for more than three years, working with ABRSM, we were able to do this quickly and they could relaunch their business,” says Knight.

Despite the pandemic, the transformation has delivered impressive results. In the first three months from launch ABRSM had hoped its transformation would drive £1.2 million worth of revenue, in reality it generated £5.6 million, a level that has been continued in the following periods. Its new remote assessment platform also engaged five times more people than originally expected, with more than 90% of customers saying it was ‘quite or very likely’ that they would take a remote exam again. It’s a solution that has not only improved customer experience and choice, but has also delivered improved engagement, stronger customer relationships and valuable insight - through data - that will provide ABRSM more opportunity for innovation and greater opportunity to meet future needs.

Most importantly, though, this business and technological transformation sets ABRSM up for long-term success – there’s now no reason it can’t be a world leader for another 100 years. “Our digital transformation with PwC represents the single largest investment and most significant operational achievement in the 130 year history of our organisation,” says Cobb. “The solution has fundamentally changed our business model. Together with PwC, we have been able to digitally transform a paper-based system and deliver new innovative learning products and services.”

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Stewart  Wilson

Stewart Wilson

UK Microsoft Leader and Government Cloud & Data Transformation Lead, PwC United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)7841 567089