The board has a collective responsibility for championing the digital agenda and will drive adoption of digital ways of working in your organisation and system.

Digital is much more than technology and IT. Digital means applying the culture, processes, business models and technologies of the internet era to respond to people's raised expectations.

This means that digital transformation relies on all of a trust's leaders, not just its IT and digital leaders. In practice, trusts need to demonstrate collective responsibility for digital transformation at board level for transformation to take place.

All board members need to be confident talking about digital and curious about its implications. Board leaders don't need technical expertise to make good decisions regarding digital transformation, but they do need to be confident in what digital means and why it impacts more than just your technology teams. In the same way as everyone is expected to contribute to the leadership of quality and finance, digital can't be left to one
person or team.

Successful organisations really understand their users' needs. Ultimately, digital transformation is founded in deeply understanding the needs, behaviours and experiences of the people who use your services – both patients and staff. That means that leaders must centre the user experience when they are making decisions about how services are delivered.

Digital innovation is not invention. You can strengthen your leadership of digital transformation tremendously by sharing what you're doing, and learning from what others are doing or have done. This is even more important at system level where collaboration and building from the successes of others are crucial to progress. Equally – it's about being able to stop doing things. Both early on, in response to what your service users need, and later, in being able to switch things off that you no longer need. This is often incredibly hard for organisations to do.

Digital leadership is nothing without digital teams. And vice versa. Leaders need to build and enable empowered, multidisciplinary teams who use digital ways of working to achieve transformation in their organisations and services. In the system context, this is also likely to mean teams made up of people across different organisations. Read more about building digital teams here.

Why confident digital leadership at board level is important

The introduction of new digital services can deliver multiple benefits; improved clinical outcomes, better patient and staff experiences, increased insight from better access to real time data right through to financial savings.

Boards play a crucial role in enabling and empowering teams to work well and deliver good services to patients and staff. Those services will all depend on some form of digital enabler – whether that is good user experience design, data, software or technology.

When boards collectively lead, prioritise and engage with the digital agenda, it can support real improvements in patient outcomes and staff experiences. On the other hand, poorly designed digital systems and services frustrate users, who then create workarounds in order to get the job done.

Hear from a trust leader

Watch the video below for reflections on digital leadership from Joe Harrison, chief executive at Milton Keynes University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust. 

Understanding the role of the board as digital leaders at Milton Keynes University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust 

Common pitfalls

  • Appointing a chief digital information officer (CDIO) and assuming that means that the rest of the board can step back. It is the board's collective responsibility to lead on digital.
  • Parking digital to one side given limitations on funding and workforce. Digital ways
    of working can alleviate these pressures and improve both wellbeing and productivity.
  • Learned helplessness. It can be easy to lose sight of a clear mission or outcomes when endless strategies, data and policies are requested, reviewed and submitted.
  • Boards should not lose focus on why they are undertaking change and a test, learn and iterate approach can be helpful.

Questions to ask

When you come together as a board to discuss and debate digital transformation in your
organisation, these key questions can help you assure your progress and decision-making:

  • Do you have a shared understanding of what digital means beyond IT?
  • How are you ensuring there is a collective responsibility for digital? Are senior leaders taking the same responsibility for the digital agenda as they do for quality and finance?
  •  How would you know what the barriers your staff and patients face every day are in using the trust's current digital services?
  • How can you ensure that all business is seen through a digital lens rather than as a siloed agenda item on separate digital projects?
  • Does your trust have a shared commitment and vision for digitally enabled health and care across its ICS? How is your trust supporting this? What are the opportunities to better align digital investment across the system?

To learn more, read our longer guide on a new era of digital leadership – in it you will find more about key success factors for digital transformation and lessons from other sectors.

Three more things you could read on this subject