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Digital technologies: unlocking collective knowledge and expertise in health and care

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Digital technologies can change how health and care organisations are structured and how they work. They can have an impact on who leaders or staff can reach and hear from: staff can be engaged over longer periods of time and across wider groups of colleagues, and leaders can quantify perceptions of services and reduce their dependency on anecdotal information.

Remote working tools like Teams, Zoom, Slack, Miro as well as many others have become more embedded and normalised within the health and care system. Over the past three years, the various functions of these digital tools have become much more commonly used and experienced by staff in health, social care and partner organisations, for polls, surveys, voting, online whiteboards, chat and word clouds. And so, there are now a variety of ways of communicating, understanding sentiment, preference and priority, and drawing consensus. But it’s clear to see we’re only scratching the surface of the potential of these tools to enable people to be digitally connected and collaborating. These kinds of tools could and should be used to bring integrated care boards, organisational leaders and the wider health and care workforce closer together and draw upon their cumulative knowledge and expertise.

However, assumptions that are no longer correct persist. With digital tools there’s no longer a physical room capacity or limited space around the table. This means the long-standing approach of relying on a small number of individuals to represent a broad and mixed group of professions, people or organisations is no longer necessary. Similarly it is not necessary to restrict discussions to a fixed meeting duration, useful ideas can occur hours later in the shower or while walking the dog. Popping these on a note on a virtual whiteboard can be as useful a contribution as rushing to attend the short meeting that overlaps with a lunch break.

Staff are intimately familiar with their particular work challenges and the needs of patients they see. However, senior staff and managers may not be aware of every challenge, the extent of the challenges and which are most common or pressing. While they may have more expertise or different responsibilities it brings an alternative perspective and weight to the challenges, this will be different to the majority of staff. Technologies already in place can help to bridge this gap. If well used they can improve how communications flow both ways so staff in all positions, not just by seniority or selection, are able to contribute to and be involved in decision-making. This can range from helping to understand pressures, challenges and priorities to, devising solutions and helping develop strategy.

While digital technologies have removed previous limitations such as room capacity, workshop size and number of people on a board, it can be hard to change behaviours and cultures to have wider and more inclusive conversations.. There is room for everyone in the virtual room and people can observe or participate in real time or afterwards through live streaming, recording and collaborative tools. But this means having the time and the culture that encourages this different way of working.

These type of tools have a broad range of functionality but in essence have the potential to change how people communicate and work together. They can also unlock different ways of leading teams and communicating but to do so won’t be easy. The technology is a catalyst and so changes what’s possible but making it a reality means facing hard changes to culture and leadership. This means exploring multiple unanswered questions on current use, culture change and leadership skills to involve all staff.

Recommendations of who should be represented on boards is not uncommon. But it’s time to recognise that good ideas are not dependent upon seniority, and staff are not homogenous by profession or organisation. There are a range of opinions, knowledge, experience and ideas across staff. Unleashing and then harnessing these voices to improve services and evolve culture in the health and care system is possible with digital tools but the potential remains untapped. We are stuck replicating physical meetings and limiting seats at the table with many questions yet to be answered on technology tools, culture and leadership that are needed to unlock the group wisdom that is just out of reach.

We would like to hear from organisations using technology to create more open and dynamic cultures where everyone is able to engage and contribute.

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